I vigorously prepped for last year’s bird season by running stairs; when I say running stairs, I mean I ran thirty minutes straight of stairs, four days a week, for the two months leading up to opener. I was prepared. I was ready for whatever was going to come my way. And I was… but just barely.
This year I am not that well off. And when I say not that well off, I mean I’ve done zero cardio over the past two months. So, here’s to hoping the birds have also had a lazy year. Or that they flush AT me, loftily floating in the sky, instead of darting around like the crazy little things that they are.
Fitness is crucial for bird hunting, at least for the type of bird hunting we do. Before hunting chukar, I’ve never even thought it was possible to chase something that has taken flight, let alone decide to try to track, follow, and run down birds.
Last year, we headed out into the desert the night before opener. It was a beautiful Friday night spent sleeping on our cots under the stars in the middle of nothing. There was no point bringing much gear since we weren’t going to sleep much anyway. Excitement was high and our minds were racing, plotting out our courses for the next day and imagining the coveys we might find.
The early morning hours were filled with deafening silence, the only signs of life being the far off songs of coyotes. Morning came quickly and after a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we got our gear ready and walked towards the first location we wanted to hunt.
The areas we hunt for chukar and quail are barren and steep; there is very little visible life except the occasional jackrabbit bounding along a rocky mountain side. There is sand, rough rock, and tough shrubs. Last year on opener, it was 95 degrees and sweltering out there along with whipping winds throwing dirt into our eyes.
One of the difficult things about hunting these birds in the wind, besides the obvious dust and sand being blown into your face, is that they don’t like to fly a lot in the wind. This is good in the sense that you can sometimes cover a lot of ground and nearly catch up to them; however, once you do, they fly with the wind and dive into valleys as soon as they get the chance. These birds are smart; they do their best to have an escape path with the wind, so you need to try to cut them off, which sometimes is impossible to do based on the landscape and direction of the wind. You also don’t see many birds, the dogs have a hard time picking up a scent in the dry wind, and it’s hard to hear birds calling, so once we found a small covey we felt we had to stick with them.
Our course started with a hillside we’d watched before that looked hopeful; we covered a lot of ground, but we didn’t spot any birds and the dogs didn’t find a scent. We then headed to an area we saw chukar earlier in the year while scouting and started calling to them, trying to locate a covey. Within minutes we got a response back and spotted a few birds scurrying up a large rockface a few hundred yards away. We backed up so as to not draw attention to ourselves, and started sprinting up the side of the mountain to the left so we could circle around the butte to head them off, all the while trying desperately to keep them in sight so we wouldn’t lose them.
After about 15 minutes of running up the hillside as quietly as possible and keeping low to the ground, we paused just before where we last saw the birds. We signaled the dogs and sent them out to search, and they were on them! Gaia, Scott’s red lab, busted a couple birds, and we were able to take one down. The rest of the birds in the group jetted off the rockface and down the other side deep into the valley. We didn’t flush all the birds we had eyes on originally, so we backed off and circled around another couple hundred yards ahead and hit the same area from another direction, busting a few more chukar and successfully taking another down.
As for the birds that flew down into the valley, they were busy running up the other mountain face before we even peeked over the ledge. So we devised our next plan of action and headed off running down the rocky cliff to the bottom of the valley, trying to be as careful and sure-footed as possible while trying to maintain speed. Running down the valley is hard because all the while you are staring directly across to the other mountain, knowing I need to be back at the top. It’s not only physically exhausting, but mentally numbing to do this ten plus times in a day. There are so many moments where you think “I just can’t go any further” as you stand, bent over and spitting, about to hurl, but you take a deep breath, look for that top of the mountain, and start running again.
We proceeded to repeat this the rest of the day, sprinting up and down the sides of the valley like lunatics, giving it our all. Our quest was successful, and ended up with eight birds at the end of the day and over 13 miles of running up and down rocky cliffs. We then repeated this same thing the next day but didn’t get any birds, for a total of over 21 miles and up and down an roughly-estimated 5,500 total feet of elevation in the two days.
There is a tremendous satisfaction and pride that comes with realizing that not only were you able to do these things, but that you were willing to. You decided to do something, you put in the months of work preparing your body for it, and you went out and did it. You wanted to quit 824107247231538967 times, but you never gave up, never stopped moving.
In my experience, it doesn’t seem that too many people put forth that kind of effort into anything, let alone for a wicked wind-chap, sore legs, and a couple of dinners.
Looking back on last year’s adventure sure has me hoping we are successful this upcoming season–although based on my fitness preparedness this year, all I can say right now is “God help me.”