Nearly every day, Dan Hannum takes one of his three dogs out to practice for chukar hunting competitions.
On a recent, unusually warm day in late winter, he loaded up Red, a 6-year-old English pointer and a three-time national champion.
Just across Highway 50, not far from his Dayton home, Hannum finds a sagebrush-covered slope where he plants a chukar, one of the leftovers from another hunt.
When he lets Red out of the truck, the dog takes off running in wide circles.
Hannum doesn’t mind.
“I like a dog that’s gung ho,” he said. “The faster you do these hunts, the better your score is.”
But when Hannum blows the whistle, Red snaps to attention. Hannum toots his whistle in a series of blows that Red understands and the two wind their way through the brush.
Until Red freezes. He stands perfectly still, eyes locked.
Hannum notices his change in body language and circles behind him, careful not to walk in front of the dog.
“Sometimes it wrecks the spell between the dog and the bird,” he explains.
The bird flies into the air, and Hannum pulls his shotgun into action.
Dan Hannum started hunting around the age of 16 and was immediately hooked.
“It’s really addicting,” he said. “The adrenaline that you get going is kind of amazing.”
While he has hunted wild game like deer and antelope, his true passion is hunting birds, particularly chukar.
But a knee injury in 2000 left him unable to climb the steep, rocky and sagebrush-strewn terrain the Western pheasant calls home.
So he found a less traditional way to pursue his hobby — competitions.
In the tournament competitions, hunters are assigned a relatively flat sector of range where usually four birds have been planted.
The dog has 20 minutes to sniff out the birds, then flush them out. The hunter must then shoot the birds and the dogs retrieve them before the timer stops.
“The dog gets graded on how it points and how it retrieves,” Hannum said. “You have to bag the bird, and if you miss, there’s a penalty. So it’s not just about the dog. It’s about both of you.”
It wasn’t too long after he started competing Hannum decided to start putting on the competitions himself.
“I just saw some opportunities other events were missing,” he said.
Rather than appeal to the elite hunter, he said, he makes his competitions more family friendly with youth and women’s divisions as well.
“I cater to the weekend warrior type, the guy who doesn’t have time to train the dog with a professional trainer,” he said. “I’m going after 85 percent who the other guys leave behind.”
He’s hosting the U.S. Bird Dog Western States National Championships in Mound House Thursday through Sunday.
He said he expects 75 to 100 competitors, with on-site bird dressing.
“The birds are taken care of,” he said. “Nothing goes to waste.”
Spectators are welcome and there’s no admission charge, but they should bring their own chair.
Hannum said there will be a wide array of abilities among hunters as well as dogs. And, he cautioned, it’s hard to tell the best hunting dog just by looking at it.
“You see a guy with a mutt and all a sudden, bam, he blows everybody away,” he said. “I got my tail kicked by a Labradoodle about a month ago. I emailed the guy to congratulate him.”
Hannum is also busy getting his own dogs ready for this competition and others around the region.
Taking quick but careful aim, Hannum shoots the chukar from the sky.
Now it’s Red’s turn. He collects the bird and brings it back to his master.
Hannum carries the bird back to his truck.
“Chukar is a pretty good tasting meat,” he says.”My wife makes some chukar fajitas, and they’re really good.”