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Huck couldn’t meet that first day so I set out alone, the wind bending the sage along the highway, trash flapping like prayer flags from the barbed-wire fences. The analogy struck me as apt. The chukar has a native range from Nepal and the Himalayas, across India and on to Afghanistan. Early British adventurers shot the species for sport on its home turf. American game offices planted the bird here in the 1930s, establishing a hard-flying quarry in the rock canyons of the West.
South out of Belfry the country turned to desert, rough-and-tumble BLM ground dedicated to well pads and scorched-earth grazing. A ribbon of creek wound through a canal along the roadway—otherwise the land rose out of the basin in boulders and reefs and stone palisades.
I popped the door and a gust wrenched it to its hinges. I looked across the flattened sage at the brittle quivering salt cedar along the wash and actually had second thoughts. But the dogs whimpered in their crates; I’d brought them a long way. I pulled my vest and gun out of the truck.
I’d left my old veteran bird dog, Gus, back home in order to work two very young dogs, French Brittany brothers named Chief and Hubert (the latter, after the patron saint of hunting, rhymes with au pair). I wanted to give these rookies one last crack in their inaugural year.
We worked through the salt cedar along the creek, a no-man’s-land of scratch and scrape and prod, then back up into the wind’s slap to an endless view of limestone jumbles and sand. The terrain was all violent pitch and broken contour.
After three hours the gale blew all three of us back to the pickup. I hadn’t seen a sign of game birds and I owed the dogs at least some chance. I trucked back toward Bridger to public ground with the unmistakable look of pheasant habitat.
Here the wind blew in fits and starts. The bank along the river showed signs of habitat restoration, scores of Russian olives bulldozed into mountains of slash, green fruit strewn across the ground. In the dust was also the unmistakable dinosaur-stamp of pheasant prints. The dogs got a blast of scent and began to work like veteran chasseurs.
We worked the trees along the water. With the dogs birdy I tried to ready myself, and as always was only partly successful, only partly collected when a rooster blasted not from ground cover but out of a tree, sailing for safety across the river.
The gun bucked. The bird came down in the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. I watched it drift and bemoaned the absence of Gus, an old hand at water retrieves. As it was, three minutes of goading the pups into a winter swim got me nowhere. Finally I tore at bootlaces and socks and, ignoring thoughts of broken glass and fishhooks, started wading.
The water stabbed at my legs like an icepick. I tried both to balance and to keep my Carhartts above my knees and quickly jettisoned the latter goal, wincing ahead across the cobble.
Hubert powered by me with the easy glide of a muskrat. He flinched to encounter the pheasant. “Fetch,” I wheezed, and beat feet for shore the second he seized the prize. Saint Hubert was evidently on my side.
My pants dried in the wind within an hour. The boys put up a second rooster, which I shot and knocked askew over a cattail slough, shot again and marked down near a cluster of downy heads.