I wasn't hoping for much as I stepped off the airplane in Idaho. Granted, we were headed to North America's deepest canyon, Hells Canyon, on the ultimate upland adventure, but it was the phone call I'd taken two days before that had me a bit worried. My buddy had called to tell me he had several friends out scouting the area we'd be hunting pheasants and huns and they hadn't seen a single bird....Not a single bird. My stomach dropped. Four months of planning and my Hells Canyon adventure was about to completely bomb.
First evening in Idaho, photjournalist Aaron Achtenberg and I drove to Lewiston and hooked up with local contact and Fish and Game worker Jim "JJ" Teare. We snuck out of town to get a few sunset shots and gameplan our first day of hunting. JJ had us set up on a ranch just east of town. I fell asleep that first night dreaming we'd at least see a couple of birds....
I was up before the sun and a bit birdy as we gulped down hot mugs of coffee and chowed on lumberjack-sized breakfasts. JJ made sure his wirehair had eggs too!
We hooked up with a few others in our hunting party and geared up to hunt. We snuck up a few coulees and draws and darn if the pointers didn't lock up in the first twenty minutes. A second later, I recognized that all-familiar cackle as two hens and a rooster flushed from the thick cover.
All day long, we had slow but steady action and ended up seeing forty or fifty birds, including a couple coveys of huns. But really, I was more focused on the coming days. We were headed to Hells Canyon to chase chukars high in the mountains and maybe hook a steelhead in the river.
Hells Canyon is North America's deepest canyon. I always thought that title went to the Grand Canyon, which is about a mile deep. Turns out Hell's Canyon is about 8,000 feet deep.
We zipped upriver through rapids in JJ's jet boat and pulled up on a sandy beach where the dogs hopped out and we geared up to hike to elevation and hopefully find a few wild mountain chukars. The first five-hundred feet were a piece of cake. Slow and go as we moved up a brushy draw. That's when I hit the star thistle. Waist-high plants with giant thorns on top. I trudged through wide spreads of the stuff, cursing the stars and thorns poked me on every step. Within the hour, we made it up to roughly 1,300 feet above the river and started walking steep, brushy haunts, listening for the the cackle of chukars. Every once in awhile, you'd be hanging from a pile of shale rock on a steep mountain side and a cover of birds would suddenly blast off. It was downright tough to get a shot off without falling 500 feet! That's the lure of chukars. Tough birds that live in tough places.
As we came off Craig Mountain, I was happy to have gravity dragging me down the mountain. Our legs were all pretty rubbery after seven hours up there. The highlight was to dunk our hot, burning feet in the Snake River's cold, healing waters. Looks like that mountain shale did a piece of work on my tired legs!
By evening, we had a handfull of birds and settled into the fish and game guest house along the river. Tomorrow, we'd be fishing steelhead in the Snake River's fast runs. This trip was suddenly turning into the adventure I had dreamed up...
Fall morning's in Hells Canyon tend to get a bit chilly. As we zipped up the river in moring haze to one of JJ's favorite steelie runs, the bite of the cold air pinched at our cheeks.
Aaron had both cameras along, just in case we needed to ditch the fishing and hike up a hill to cackling chukars. In three hours, we hooked two fish, but landed neither. Guys got a little short as the fishing slowed. Finally, just before noon, I hooked and landed a nice 8 lb. fish on camera. We had just a few hours to get back into the mountains and find a few more birds on camera.
As we stepped away from the jet boat and up on the first flat, the dogs locked up. A cover of huns flew and JJ and I knocked down two individuals. Over the next 90 minutes, we would several more coveys ofWhat had been a trip that looked so dismal became one of the most profound television shoots in my 18 year career.
That night, as I packed my bags and laid down to get a few hours of sleep before the early morning flight home, I winced in pain from two days hunting Idaho's mountains. I had blisters on my feet, my legs stung from the remote mountain climb and the fields of prickly star thistle, but I smiled as I popped a couple aspirin. This kind of pain, I like….