Hunting Huns on Purpose
To hunt chukars in Idaho, you head for steep hills covered with lava rock and cheat grass. Pheasants are reliably found in the weeds, cornfields, and cattail stands of agricultural valleys. Quail mostly frequent thick stands of willows and ravine thornbrush, and when not there, found often on the sunny hillsides above the ravine picking at seeds, gravel, and making dustbowls. But exactly where would you go if you specifically wanted to shoot a few Hungarian partridges?
by Richard North
Wheat stubble? Sure, that’s virtually a Hun’s natural habitat, and North America’s largest Hun populations currently dwell in the prairie wheatfields of plains states and provinces. How about rolling hills bare of any cover taller than cheat grass? Yes, Huns can be found there too. What about wild, super-steep canyons dense with sagebrush, or the bare lava slopes above them? Why not. You’ll hear the chirp of local Hun flocks as they mingle happily with gawking chukars. Gulley-bottom quail cover? Move over you little top-knotted devils, here come the Huns! Lonely sage grouse flats? Huns are there too.
Shall we conclude then, that Hungarian partridge are to be found almost everywhere in Idaho? If you rule out high, dense forest, that’s not far from the truth. Trouble is, Huns ("gray partridge" in game department brochures) aren’t particularly thick in each of the above types of terrain. Even if you think you know where several coveys may be lurking, it’s also hard to pinpoint just where they’ll be on a given day. In a word, Idaho’s Huns, more than any other upland bird, are targets of opportunity. If you bump into a bunch during a quail or chukar hunt, great. If not, so what – nobody knows how to hunt Huns on purpose anyway, do they?
Well, yes, there are a few Hun behavior patterns by which a hunter might increase the weight of his game bag. But both my own experience and that of several experts I consulted indicate Hun-hunting rules are both scarce and inexact. In spite of our best efforts, Huns will probably remain Idaho’s most unpredictable upland target.
Native to Hungary and other central European countries, Huns first came to North America in significant numbers in the very early 1900s. It’s unclear whether Idaho’s present sizable populations originated mostly with transplants introduced by Oregon and Washington or from fast-spreading Hun numbers in central plains states and provinces. In either case, Huns are evidently here to stay.
Kicking Up Trouble : Upland Bird Hunting in the West
by John Holt
Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho : Upland Birds and Waterfowl
by Ken Retallic, Rocky Barker
This year they are more abundant than ever now that the drought is over. I see Hun populations where I haven’t seen them for 30 years. At present, Idaho has three to four month seasons on Huns in every county in the state. (See page 16 of Idaho 1998 and 1999 Upland Game Seasons Rules and Regulations, available at sporting goods stores and all Fish & Game Offices.) Daily limits are 8 Huns per hunter and possession limits of 16.
Male and female Huns are essentially identical in appearance, except for some black markings on the male’s breast. They pair up as early as February for breeding and produce sizable hatches – 18 to 20 chicks are typical. With exact breeding time dependent on spring weather, early-season birds may vary greatly in size and maturity. When fully grown, Huns weigh about ¾ of a pound, which falls somewhere between quail and chukars in heft. More than any other covey bird in Idaho (except maybe bobwhite quail*), Huns explode on the flush in near-total unison.
* (Bobwhite quail are legal to hunt in Idaho, if you can find any. They were introduced to Idaho in the 1880s and still exist in small, scattered populations in agricultural areas of the Boise Valley. All quail hunting is closed in Area 1. See page 13 of the Idaho 1998-99 Upland Game Seasons Rules & Regulations.)
This simultaneous flush of 6 to 18 birds can be very unnerving to a shotgunner, whether or not he has been prepared for it by a locked-up pointing dog. A story I read somewhere perfectly captured the experience in telling of a World War I soldier crawling from his foxhole at night somewhere in central Europe. Scouting "no man’s land" between the two entrenched armies, he was terrified of hidden land mines as he bellied along. It didn’t help his pulse rate much when he placed a hand smack in the middle of a dozen roosting Huns! Land-mine explosion indeed.
As indicated earlier, a big part of Hun hunting on purpose is locating coveys by design. If necessary, Huns will fly considerable distances to both food and water. But in the warm weather of early season (especially before they’ve been stirred up by gunning pressure), they’re apt to be within mere yards of creeks and spring seeps.
If the weather is particularly hot and dry, look for them right down in brushy ravines. They seem to like shade in semi-drought conditions. Under dry, over-grazed range conditions, ravine bottoms may also provide the only available cover in early fall.
If reasonable ground cover surrounds a likely watering hole, however, you’re apt to find birds there rather than down in the brush. Prairie birds at heart, they like an open sky overhead for flushing.
Later in the season, a covey’s daily location will change somewhat. As autumn rain and snow set in, they abandon water holes and hang out in grassy basin heads, sparse sage patches, weedy strips bordering grain fields, and of course in the grain fields themselves. When winter arrives, they'll be found on sunny south slopes, particularly where the sun has melted off snow cover to reveal grain, weed seeds, and tender greenery for forage. Under cold-weather wind conditions, you’re likely to find Huns in little weed pockets on the leeward side of hills, dense brush strips, and even old farm out-buildings – anywhere they can escape the breeze while still hiding in modest ground cover from overhead predators.
Even if you manage to locate several Hun coveys, they can still be tough birds to hunt. They’re notorious for flushing wild, especially when ground cover is limited or they see you coming for some distance. Wild flushes are more characteristic of hard-hunted birds, but even unmolested early-season coveys are more jittery than most other upland birds. With sparse ground cover, the only way you’ll approach Hun coveys is by using trees, rocks, and irregular terrain for concealment until you’re within range. It’s also important to remain as quiet as possible – no talking or whistling at dogs either during initial canvass of an area or while actually approaching a covey’s known usual location.
If ground cover is reasonably thick, or if you manage to surprise a covey by appearing suddenly from behind a rock or tree, Huns can stick extremely tight. (I’ve discussed the birds’ likely whereabouts for five minutes with hunting partners, then promptly stepped in the middle of a bunch hiding 20 feet away!) More often, though, Huns tend to flush right at the edge of smoothbore range, so fast gun handling is necessary. I’ve collected quite a few doubles on Hun coveys’ simultaneous flush, but I’ve yet to bag a triple since they’re simply out of range by the time a third shell is jacked into my pump.
Not only do Huns flush as a unit they also stick together like glue during flights ranging up to about 400 yards. If the birds land on the near side of al hill, don’t pursue them right away unless you can first drop out of sight. Otherwise, they’re apt to spot you and flush again long before you’re in range. Instead, wait a few minutes for them to mosey on over the hill, then take up pursuit. You may surprise the flock again just beyond the hillcrest, especially if you and a partner come in from opposite sides. Since Huns are fairly territorial, watch for a series of flushes that begins to form a circle towards their original flush point – you may be able to ambush them in that area again later in the day. Some skilled Hun hunters pinpoint general home ranges of multiple coveys and hunt the same birds repeatedly, taking care that they don’t overshoot bird numbers below a healthy reproductive minimum.
In my experience, Huns tend to flush either wild or very close, which means the hunter without a dog is rather handicapped. In typically big, spaced-out Hun country a dogless hunter isn’t likely to find many birds by walking about at random. If he lucks into close range of a covey or two, they may then stick so tight he’ll walk right by them. A dog, of course, changes all this – mostly for the better, though sometimes for the worse.
In the balance, a wide-ranging pointing breed is probably best for Huns. Pointers will sweep the hills in a hurry, but if they crowd Huns too close the birds will flush far beyond shotgun range. Some hunters keep dogs in close, even at heel, just to pick up tight-sticking coveys. If you do get a nice point some distance away, run, don’t walk, over there as fast as possible. Hunkering Huns don’t always hang around for your leisurely arrival, particularly if the covey is a big one. Single Huns, however, (if you can break up a big covey) may stick exceedingly tight.
When snow covers the ground, Hun hunting changes dramatically. If the snow is hard glazed, don’t even bother going out unless you know where some bare-ground grassy basins are. If the snow is fresh and soft, however, you may find absolutely superb shooting. This is because Huns use the snow itself as ground cover. Particularly if it’s a fresh-fallen night snow, birds won’t have traveled far by morning and will explode out of the white with no warning of any kind. Later in the day, you may pick up a covey’s furrowing, interlaced tracks and follow them many yards – only find their abrupt end indicating the covey got tired of walking and took to the air instead. In iced-up conditions, you may find the whole covey has died, trapped beneath the glaze. A rancher-
neighbor specifically keeps an eye out for signs of an iced-over covey and tries to break through and release the birds before it’s too late.
After a midnight snowstorm one year, I took my Brittany for a brisk daybreak hunt. He shortly arched his back and crouched forward in a beautiful, slithering point. Looking ahead of his quivering brown nose, I could see not a single bird nor the slightest lick of cover – just a plain white wasteland of 10-inch deep fluff. Evidently we had caught a winter covey still in their beds, because a dozen birds suddenly blew up in a spray of ice crystals. I scratched out a clean double with three shots, but couldn’t find the downed birds even though I had marked their fall on the all-white flat. Only when the dog circled back to use his ever-reliable nose did we uncover the brace under the snow.
Hunting in dense fog can put you in good range of otherwise unapproachable Huns. You’ll need to keep your dog close for this, or all you’ll get will be the sound of escaping coveys up ahead and an occasional visual flash of your mutt asking why the heck don’t you come to his perfect points.
When the wind is really howling, Huns seem to hear less well, but they readily spot an open approach.
Any shotgun 20 gauge or larger throwing a full ounce of 7 1/2s is about right for Huns. Lighter gauges will produce too many cripples on these sizable wild-flushing birds. Particularly at longer ranges, some hunters prefer size 6 shot. A modified choke is probably the best all-around bore constriction, though I enjoy progressively tightening my ancient Poly-Choke as I approach ever-nearer to a dog frozen on point in good Hun country.