2018 Himalayan Snowcock Hunt

I’d been thinking about and “researching” Himalayan Snowcocks for about 10 yrs. I’ll admit it, I was intimidated. I’m 55+year-old flatlander from Texas and hiking/hunting between 9,000 and 11,000 feet altitude wasn’t something I took lightly.

This is my story and I hope it helps you get your Himalayan Snowcock.

It just so happened that I shot a Chachalaca in February.

Then, reveling in my success at shooting one of North America’s rarest game birds, I found this article about hunting both rare game birds. I decided I wasn’t helping myself by waiting and that I should just go ahead and see if I could get both the Chachalaca and Himalayan Snowcock (I’ll abbreviate to HSC – also meaning High Sky Chicken because everyone – and I mean everyone – chuckles when I say Himalayan Snowcock) in the same year.

Himalayan Snowcocks were imported, nurtured and liberated by the NV Fish & Game Dept, along with several other species, to improve sport hunting opportunities in Nevada. If you go after a HSC, you’ll owe them a debt of gratitude for their foresight and investment.

This HSC hunter’s story was rich in detail and helped me set my expectations early on.

The Chase is ON

I started my research and learned quickly that I had two choices – go on my own or hire an outfitter. Internet research for real info on the HSC is thin. There are quite a few opinions and second/third-hand stories but few genuine personal accounts of what it took, how it went and what they learned.

I knew quickly that a DIY hunt into a completely unknown and hostile environment (high mountains for a flatlander) wasn’t going to give me the favorable odds I wanted. I’ve done quite a few DIY hunts but always into big western upland hunting where I could get back to the truck if something went sideways. I couldn’t see myself being able to do that with a trip into the Ruby Mountains.

So, I decided an outfitter/guide would be my best choice. There are only really two outfitters/guides that hunt the HSC in the Ruby Mountains.

I chose Mitch Buzetti from Nevada High Desert Outfitters. Mitch and his guide Garret were fantastic and I couldn’t have asked for more from them.

I talked with Mitch and learned that the “season” is from early September until late November but weather and snow frequently close access to the highest areas of the Rubys and that late Sept is really about as late as I could expect to hunt successfully. I’m also an avid dove hunter and early September is dove season in Texas – can’t miss that!

Mitch also had the advantage of more scouting because he runs horse-packing and outfitting trips into the same area during July and August. If the birds were there, he’d probably see or hear them. Since there are only a couple thousand HSC and the Ruby Mountains cover about 800 square miles, scouting can make or break a challenging trip.

After talking more with Mitch, I selected the last week in September with an eye towards to quality of the HSC’s feathers. Seems as though they don’t shed their pin feathers until later in the season. I wanted to mount mine so the plumage was important and I elected to go later instead of earlier.

Mitch provided a simple but effective gear list. All I needed to do was send a deposit, begin accumulating gear and start training.

Mitch explained that the adventure would be with himself and another guide (one to watch the bird after it is spotted while the other guide and I stalked it) starting in Lamoille, NV basecamp via horseback up to about 9,000 feet elevation. We would hunt that area for 4 days or until we got a HSC. We would then break camp and horsepack back out of the Rubys into basecamp near Elko, NV.

Mitch also patiently answered all of my questions as they came up in the months leading up to my hunt. I had a lot of questions and Mitch, while being very busy, managed to patiently answer every one of them.  Thanks, Mitch!

I had a goal and a plan – time to get to work.

The first step was getting licensed – non-resident – and an upland game stamp. Turns out you also have to have a HSC Permit/Survey and NV Fish & Game were equally helpful. Call the Elko NV Fish & Game Office for help with this.

Since I’ve been building these annual trips for the past 8 or so years, I’ve learned to dedicate a little time each week to researching and preparing for my trips. This approach was very helpful leading up to this trip as I discovered new information almost every week.

Here, I discovered old TV-to-Digital copies of Mitch leading an outdoor writer on a HSC hunt. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

This is a birder’s video of the real thing – very hard to find! Looks easy but if you’ll notice, the video was taken in March rather than in hunting season.

There are more videos out there and this one is from Asia – much closer to their real home.

Accumulating The Gear

I had most of the gear on Mitch’s list. He made a couple of recommendations when I asked for specifics and here’s what I learned.

Hiking boots.  I had flatlander upland game hunting boots and was pretty sure they weren’t what I needed for mountain climbing. Mitch recommended Kenetrek Mountain Extreme boots. I chose non-insulated and I also purchased the Kenetrek Boot Wax and applied monthly for the 6 months leading up to my hunt. I broke them in and you should too! These boots felt like mountain goat hooves on my feet. I literally could not feel the ground under my feet and I was used to feeling where I walked when upland hunting. In hindsight, these boots were perfect and performed flawlessly in some extremely harsh conditions. They’re expensive but if your feet don’t work, you can’t hunt – especially in the Rubys.

Binoculars & Bino Strap System. Again, I’m a flatland bird hunter and we don’t typically need binoculars. Mitch recommended 10x and I got the Steiner Predator 10×26. He also recommended the Crooked Horn Bino Sling and it worked flawlessly as well. I was impressed with their ability to highlight animal colors against natural vegetation colors.

Gun Sling. Meh, I’m mostly an upland bird hunter with some heavy waterfowl hunting in Dec & Jan. I’ve never used a sling and didn’t want one. Nevertheless, I got one and was very grateful for it during the trip.

100 ounces of water! Mitch told me I’d need 100 ounces (3 liters) of water to carry and drink during the day while hiking.  I’m not sure if you’ve weighed 3 liters of water but it weighs 6.6 pounds.  It doesn’t sound like much but if you have a poor-fitting or frameless backpack, it’s miserable. I tried 3 different light to medium duty backpacks with various frame constructions until I found one that fit me well and had a container and sleeve for the 100 ounces of water.

0 Degree Rate Sleeping Bag. I live in TX and it just doesn’t get cold enough to justify a cold-rated sleeping bag. It didn’t get real cold while I was there but the warm sleeping bag kept me toasty.

Altitude Sickness Meds. We camped and hunted from 9,500 up to 10,800 and the air was exceedingly thin for this flatlander. Mitch recommended chocolate bars as an antidote/preventative. I actually got a prescription for an old high blood pressure medicine that worked like a champ. I never had any altitude sickness of any sort. Ask your doctor.

Bonus Items that Paid Off

Crocs. Yeah, those things. My feet really appreciated something other than my hiking boots/hooves at the end of a long day.

Camp Pillow. It doesn’t look like much but I was surprised at how effective it was and it sure beats a rolled up jacket!

The Ruby Mountains Visitor’s Guide – Larry’s book has everything you need to fully understand and appreciate everything you’ll experience.

Layers, layers, layers. The temperatures were in the 30s at night and up in the 60s during the day. But, at that altitude, sun, shade and wind have a big impact on the “felt” temperature.  Multiple layers of outerwear, backed by my regular thermal underwear, made the temperature & weather variations easy to adjust to.

Prep & Training for the Trip

I’ve been planning and running these types of “big hunts” for 8 years and have developed a little rhythm that helps me get prepared. Each week, I reserve about 30 minutes to work specifically on the hunt. I start in January so I have plenty of time to get everything completed well ahead of the time to hunt.

This trip needed gear accumulation and break in, hiking practice uphill and long distances and gunshot practice.

In April, I began hiking 2 miles every morning before work. I used this daily routine to get fit, break in my boots and test/break in my backpack with 100 ounces of water. I also got a Deutsch Drahthaar puppy in June so she joined me every morning and added some levity to a boring walk. We still continue those daily walks today! And no, she didn’t join me on this trip – no dogs needed for the HSC.

I tried a hiking stick and while it was useful, I didn’t take it with me on the trip. It was just another thing to handle when I needed to paying attention to my balance, the next step and finding a bird. I used the butt of my shotgun instead.

I’ve learned to practice shooting the types of shots that I expect to see on my hunts. When I went on big Western state upland hunts, I took a lot of trap practice. Setting up a practice course for shooting birds off cliffs was going to take some creativity.

I figured I’d mostly be shooting downward at 50 to 60 yards and Mitch confirmed this. I have a small mountain on our ranch near Blanco that provides about the only decent elevation (about 400 feet) for a long way in Central TX.

I started by using balloons as targets but they were too fragile and got popped overnight between when I set them and then needed to shoot them. Then, I printed a picture of a chicken and stapled it to a small board and set them up as targets at 40, 50 and 60 yards downhill. This worked well and allowed me to understand how my patterns were impacting the target.

3.5″ shells are just Punishers and patterning them is really painful. Shotguns aren’t made to shoot from a rest.

This is really good coverage from my Old Favorite choke and evidence of why I like it so much.

This lead to actually patterning my Briley EXR choke (my favorite) against a Mueller UFO choke (the contender). Turns out that the UFO worked better for 3.5″ #4 lead at 50 and 60 yards. I highly recommend patterning your shotgun if you go on this trip. You may not get more than one shot!

I did this weekly from July through August and it helped me build a lot of confidence. It also helped me learn that my shotgun performs slightly differently on a downhill shot than it does on level or uphill shots. This was very helpful to know.

I started my weekly target practice with a brisk 3-mile hike prior to climbing the “mountain” and shooting. This let me get my heart and breath rate up prior to shooting. Shooting right after a stiff climb is not something we do frequently in Texas and this helped me better understand how to shoot well when under pressure and panting.

One last note on preparation and training. I did more work and trained harder for this hunt than any previous hunt. It paid off in many different ways. The most surprising way was that it allowed me to “participate” in the hunt every week as I imagined what it would be like as I accumulated gear and trained. Essentially, I got almost a whole years worth of hunting because I was materially involved in the hunt every week leading up to the actual hunt. I’ll definitely do this again!

The Launch

My gear required 2 large bags and I also had a shotgun. This was a mistake that cost me an extra $150. I would have been better off with 1 very heavy bag and my shotgun.

My flights were easy and I arrived in Elko, NV in the early afternoon and checked into a hotel. We flew in over the Humboldt Range but I was on the Humboldt side rather than the Ruby side. The look rugged! Little did I know….

I repacked my hunting gear into 2 smaller bags that weighed no more than 30# each. This made it much easier to pack and balance my gear on the pack horses.

I had some extra time so I visited a local museum and was rewarded with a phenomenal taxidermy display. The only disappointment was that the display did not have a HSC!

Elko is located at approximately 5,000 feet. We’ll be going up!

Garret (the second guide) picked me up early the next morning and we went to Mitch’s house to finish packing and then to the barns to collect horses and gear for the trip.

We traveled via truck and trailer up Lamoille Canyon to the trailhead. There we unloaded the horses and gear, loaded the horses and gear and were on the trail to camp by 1030.

We crossed 3 passes on the way to camp.

We traveled via horseback through Liberty Pass by Liberty Lake and arrived at the campsite by 130 to set up camp at 9580 ft.

Camp was located just beneath Wine’s Peak near a small lake and consisted of a large wall tent and a portable electric fence corral for the horses. It was dry and very dusty the whole time.

Ah, the horses. There wasn’t a day go by that we didn’t have some sort of horse “issue”. But in the end, they were worth every bit of nonsense they created because every step my horse took was a step I didn’t have to. Bless those ponies!

It was interesting to note that there was almost no wildlife evident – even songbirds – during our trip from the trailhead to camp.

The Firebox, Cooler boxes, and my bed.

Setting up camp was interesting and I could tell they’d done it many times before. I was able to help but mostly, just stayed out of the way of a well-oiled guiding/outfitting team.

Mitch had a couple of pieces of equipment that were slightly heavy but worth their weight.

Battery powered drill for the tent pole connections. You really don’t want your tent poles coming loose and falling down – anytime.

Air mattress pump because blowing up an air mattress with your own breath at 9,500′ is probably not possible.

Potty convenience!

Mitch built us a water spigot from a nearby stream so we’d have water.

After camp was set up, Mitch and Garret spent an hour or so spotting the nearby cliffs for HSC and teaching me what to look for. We didn’t see anything other than a lot of rocks.

The ground was very dry and dusty and the portable electric fence didn’t work well because the “offending” animal wasn’t electrically connected well enough to the ground to generate a shock from the electric fence. Most of the horses honored the “fence” but there was constantly a rogue or two that challenged it and attempted to wander off. Whoever noticed a wandering horse was responsible for speaking up and collecting said horse.

The horses were kept on a high line during the night. It looks like it should work but there were little rodeos every night that needed to be sorted out.

When the sun set, the temperature dropped very rapidly. Multiple layers of warm clothing will be your friend. The sunsets (and sunrises) at 9,500′ were spectacular!

I could easily see the Milky Way – something we seldom see in Texas. Mars, shining brightly early in the evening, was particularly spectacular and something I’ll remember my entire life.

Supper was pork chops and apple sauce and we were in bed by 8 PM. Mitch kept a jug of Tang ready and available all the time – man, it was great!

Mitch & Garrett are the hardest working guide/outfitters I’ve ever had the pleasure to hunt with. They’re up at 5 and asleep after me and either cooking, cleaning, wrangling horses, chopping wood, getting water, or spotting. All. The. Time! And, never a grump or angry word – always fun to laugh & joke with. Thanks, guys!

GPS Tracks

The Hunt

Friday, Day 1

5 AM wake-up. The moon is still out and I can easily see features on the moon that we can’t usually see from Texas. It’s cold but it’s not freezing.

Waiting for the sun and her warming photons seems to take forever.

A quick breakfast and lunch to go and we saddle up.

We horse-backed and then climbed to a nearby ridge and began scouting. This is approximately 10,890′ and above and behind our camp. Not much oxygen up there…..

I scouted too but didn’t have nearly the equipment that Mitch & Garrett had. I look pretty good though!

These are the cliffs where the HSC live. They didn’t live here though. We did regularly see Mountain Goats though. In fact, Mitch knew one of the females quite well – she had a crooked horn. It was interesting to note that all of our Mountain Goat sightings were below us.

After a morning of scouting several ridges, Mitch sent me and Garrett around another long ridge that curled back into camp. Mitch took the horses and met us at camp. Garrett took me on a brisk 2-mile jaunt along the top of the ridge over these magnificent rock slides. It was brutal and treacherous. The rocks varied in size from fist-sized to Volkswagen Beetle-sized. And, I could hear them sliding and moving as I moved across them. Hard to imagine what it might look like if they decided to slide – again.

We didn’t see any HSC but once we came down off the ridge, we found a Blue Grouse in the forested area and I got on the board. I was really hoping it was a Spruce Grouse but no luck – she’s a Blue. At least I won’t get skunked!

I was soaked with sweat by the time I got back to camp and was grateful for a variety of clothing layers. I started with 7 layers (including duck hunting long johns) and worked back and forth as the temps and my effort changed during the day.

The altitude meds worked fine and I didn’t have any altitude sickness. I did fail to eat and drink well this first day and suffered for it during the evening and night with horrendous leg cramps. Bad enough to give me head spins! This isn’t unusual for me but I didn’t have any pickle juice to counter it. I did have Magnesium tablets and that helped a bit but the best remedy was to eat and drink properly and frequently during the day and then use as much salt on my food in the evening as I could stand.

Oh, and those crocs were pretty darn wonderful by the time I got back to camp.

The lake next to our camp provided abundant opportunities for reflection photos – this is one of my favs.

The menu and food were fantastic. Most meals were pre-prepared by Mitch’s wife, Rachel. Thanks, Rachel!!

GPS Tracks – you can tell where we rode and where we walked/stumbled.

Saturday, Day 2

4 AM wake up and I still have leg cramps – first time that’s happened. I’ll eat and drink better today.

We’re horseback by 5 AM with breakfast and lunch in our saddle bags. Our goal is to be in place scouting at the top of the ridge by daylight to see if we can hear or see some HSC. Horsebacking at the top of the mountains in the dark is an interesting experience. I’m sure glad Mitch has been here before!

We’re in place and scouting by 6 AM.

We heard one down there and stalked down to poke around but didn’t find anything. This trip was mainly a bunch of side hikes that covered about 1,000′ of altitude change. It doesn’t sound like much until you realize that that thousand feet is between 9,500′ and 10,500′. There’s not much oxygen up there to help. I’m OK going downhill but have to stop every 50 or so steps going uphill just to catch my breath. My legs are fine but lungs want more oxygen.

I’m a Frito fan from waaay back and finding these in my saddle bag, just about mid-morning absolutely made my day! And yeah, it was dirty and dusty up there the whole time.

Scouting is hard work. I sometimes took a little nap.

I was infinitely grateful for our horses. They took a lot of steps I didn’t have to – even on some steep terrain!

Someone built a little bivvy up here – probably to hunt the mountain goats that hang around in this area. I can’t imagine spending the night there – yikes!

Our camp is in the trees to the left of the lake. This is taken from the top of Wines Peak – and I even had cell phone connection up here!

Once again, Mitch took the horses back to camp while Garrett and I took the “short cut” straight down the rock slide back into camp so we could get a closer look at the cliffs behind camp for HSC. Mitch beat us.

Looking back up the rockslide we just came down. Pictures don’t do it justice.

Our tent appeared to be level. But, it was just unlevel enough that I didn’t notice until I put my socks on while standing up. Felt like I was drunk until I realized what was going on!

GPS Tracks. Too bad it doesn’t show altitude change from our trip down the rock slide!

Sunday, Day 3

We sleep in until 530 AM because we’re going to hunt the near ridge today. I didn’t have any leg cramps last night so I think my eating/drinking adjustment may be working. Today is Day 3 and I hope it’s like Day 3 in NZ.

We’re going to work that ridge today.

We finished the first ridge and Mitch wants me & Garrett to work the top of that ridge.  I said “Sure, I can get there but probably can’t get back. You ready for a rescue?”  He sent us anyway but lower – through the rock slides – again….

We moved 100 yards at a time across the rock slides and then scouted above. Mitch took the horses and will meet us at the bottom after we’ve made the loop and looked closely.

Woof! Rock slides for perspective. Dirty hunter too!

I didn’t bring a walking stick but found a suitable short term replacement.

Garrett observing what appears to be a forest fire over the far ridge.

Turns out it was a big range fire near Lamoille Canyon – the Range 2 Fire. It blocked our exit!

GPS Tracks

Monday, Day 4

With 3 hunting days in the bag and a severe shortage of HSC, Mitch elects to exit a day early and I agree. Our exit is blocked. We have a choice of a 12 hour ride out on a trail or a 4 hour ride out if we bushwhack out. Mitch says “Bushwhack!”

Morning sunlight shining on the Ruby Dome. Mitch has summited several times.

Gear packed and arranged to load on horseback.

Campers were trapped inside like we were – but no horses!

We being the long slow bush whack out a back canyon.

Steepish! Thanks for sure footed ponies!

A stunning view of our exit canyon.

GPS Tracks

The old trail head where we exited.

A look back on our exit – what an amazing trip!

Returning to Mitch’s house near Lamoille Canyon and you can still see the range fire.

So, I didn’t get a HSC this year – made me sad. I have already reserved next year opening week.  I’ll Be Back!

Until Next Time…..