I love a good boat ride. Getting up at 3 a.m. to drive an hour or more in the windy winter to launch a Jon boat into an icy dark, stunningly cold marshland is not my idea of a good boat ride, but we all have our preferences. I like to take in my sea adventures on warm, soft, breezy sunny days, but apparently that is not good duck hunting weather. This frigid early morning quest is “strictly for the birds,” I tell my husband, and literally it is.
“Strictly for the birds,” is a phrase of American origin that entered our vocabulary after WWII. It means, in a word: nonsense. Waterfowl hunters know that sometimes, after an exceeding amount of effort, they come up empty handed. And while each hunter has their own reason for liking the sport, I ponder, why would anyone do this for nothing? This is a question I posed to my avid hunter husband and his response enlightened me.
“It’s an organic challenge,” he quipped back without hesitation. “Honey, you know just as well as I do every time I go hunting it’s an adventure. The trailer wheels could go flat, the engine could stall, the wind can shift, and the tide can be an issue. Every time a situation presents itself you have to adjust to the best of your ability. It’s not just about shooting things, it’s how you set up the right environment to attract the birds. Weather details matter, fronts mean birds, planning and executing a good hunt takes some thought.” Hmm, I thought, an interactive game, but it’s more serious than that, unless you take your twin teenage sons along. The guns remain serious, but the time spent on the marsh, pure comedy.
To prepare for this article I asked each one of my children who hunt (3 out of 4 do) what hunting stories they would like to share, their responses were very similar and very amusing. “Which story do you want? The one where dad hit the log and broke the engine leaving Uncle Joe stranded in the marsh? Or the one where we forgot the guns?” My oldest daughter piped up with the most beguiling tale. “One time dad and I were all set up perfect, and then he realized he forgot the ammo. So, he left me on this small marsh island while he took the boat back to the ramp to get some shells. Not long after he left, I heard the strangest, angriest ear-piercing shriek I had never heard before. As it became louder and louder, all I could think of was that some sort of Sasquatch creature was coming for me. Mind you, I was 12 and I had quite the imagination, and no shells in my shot gun was reinforcing my fears. It turned out to be a sika deer.”
I asked my teenage boys what they liked most and least about hunting trips with dad: “Marsh breakfast, cheesy grits and bacon, and the dog always gets a plate, too.” “After heading out into the cold abyss and asking yourself is this what military service is like, it’s nice to have something to shoot at because it takes your mind off of how incredibly cold and tired you are after trudging through the mud with an enormous bag of decoys and weight on your back.” A mother’s favorite: “I don’t like to bother washing the hunting clothes, I mean, they are just going to get dirty next week.”
These misery strewn briefings were told with smiles and chortles. The words they chose told one story, and their facial expressions and hand gestures told another. Not one story shared contained any mention of the kind of duck they had shot, it was all about the lead up. It was about the adventure and not the trophy.
When we got around to discussing the ducks, all stories were overshadowed by Will recalling his first goose. He was a proud 10-year-old and when he got home, he ran into the house with his hands around its neck, whirled it around in the air and then slammed it onto my kitchen counter presenting it with a thud and beaming pride. “Look what I got, Mom!” It was a very big goose.
The family dog that loves to hunt is essential to the hunter. Our dear yellow lab “Josie” was quite a good retriever if she saw where the bird fell but did not have much of a nose. Nevertheless, she always did her best and in her aging years liked to tag along for just a boat ride – head perched up and eyes wide, faithfully surveying the marsh. Her last boat ride was very sad for all as no one wanted her to retire. Our black lab “Tess” is equipped with an exceptional nose and almost too much energy. One time she retrieved a small dinghy, anchor and all, for her family.
An autumn sunrise on the marsh with the wrens chirping and the crows flying by gives the hunter time to think, time to enjoy the outside world and take in the expanse of the marsh and its untamed allure. Hunting is also a time to talk about life, good and bad, with friends and family. Conversations on the marsh are a blessing for all who get to participate in this sport, especially when you get to do it with lifetime friends and relatives. One thing this family has learned hunting together through the years is that you can learn to live with disappointment if there is a story to tell. As my husband says, “If there is lead in the air, there’s hope.”
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Brian’s Duck Creole
Yield: 4 servings
This is a delicious recipe for any kind of marsh duck. We used the last of our garden peppers and green tomatoes.
4 duck breasts
6 oz Chorizo sausage
1.5 stalks celery
2 bell peppers
2 Hungarian wax peppers
¼ Vidalia onion
1 t gumbo filé
1 t dry rub sage
1.5 T chopped garlic
1 t dry thyme
.5 t salt
.25 t black pepper
1/3 c. white wine
1/3 c. water
Garlic powder, smoked paprika, celery salt, salt and pepper to taste
.25 c. olive oil, plus 3 T
1 c. dry rice pilaf
2 green tomatoes
1) Prepare a traditional rice pilaf.
2) Season each duck breast with (separate from recipe) salt, black pepper and garlic powder.
3) Medium dice the celery, onion, sausage and peppers.
4) In a pan with ample space pour in ¼ cup of olive oil. Bring just to the smoking point. Place duck breast in the pan and sear both sides. Put on a pan and finish in the oven to the desired temperature at 135°.
5) While the pan is still hot, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the sausage, celery and onions. When a little color develops, add seasonings and peppers.
6) Once the peppers have just softened, deglaze the pan with the white wine and water. Allow to reduce just slightly. Take off the heat and set to the side.
7) Slice the tomatoes in ¼” slices. Lay flat on a pan and dust with flour. Sprinkle with celery salt, black pepper, garlic powder and smoked paprika.
8) Again, bring a pan with a little olive oil just to the smoking point and add the tomatoes. Once they are brown, flip them and brown the other side.
9) Place tomatoes toward the outside of the plate. Use the rice to make a “bowl” in the middle of the plate. Spoon the sausage and veggie mixture into the “bowl.” Slice the duck breast and arrange on top.