I am not accustomed to an overabundance of wild ducks. Holly and I hunt public land, which, for the most part, means we scratch out a duck or two apiece on any given day. This suits us just fine.
But we went down to the Salinas Gun Club on New Year’s Eve for what we expected to be a pretty good hunt with our friend Pete Ottesen, and Pete did not disappoint. I’ve hunted with him before, and I knew that the Grasslands, a vast natural marsh in Merced County, was a massive teal wintering ground. After hunting with him last year, we threw a big teal dinner shortly thereafter.
Teal, for those of you who might not know, are more than just a pretty color: They are a pretty — and petite — duck that spends much of its time eating seeds, when it is not embarrassing hunters with its aerobatics. Their small size and dietary habits make the green-winged teal among the finest-eating birds we have in California. (The cinnamon teal is another matter.)
As expected, the shooting was epic. Teal fly early and they can be very tough to hit, as they fly more like scared pigeons than ducks, wheeling and zig-zagging rapidly. I shot several using one shot each, though, and began to feel good about myself. Too good, it seems, as I then missed six in a row. Damn teal.
The Grasslands is not a place to shoot mallards, and big ducks are not very common, other than the pintail. What’s more, the hunters there know that gadwall and wigeon — two prime eating ducks where we hunt in the Sacramento Valley — tend to be sketchy in their marshes. Another lesson in the importance of diet to an animal’s flavor.
Pete and I had our seven-bird limit by 8:30 on the first morning, and Holly not only got her first-ever limit of seven ducks (yay!) but repeated the feat on Day Two. (Here’s her account of our trip) What’s more, she shot a few interesting ducks as well, including a gorgeous cinnamon teal drake she may get mounted. I’m taking a keen interest in the ringnecks she shot: I am fond of their flavor, because, like gadwall, they are eater’s ducks: Teal are accessible to anyone’s palate, but gadwalls, ringnecks and wood ducks all have very distinct flavor profiles. I am thinking about smoking the ringnecks over apple wood this weekend.
With so many birds I could get choosy about rendering out some wild duck fat. I almost never render out diver ducks or spoonies, and I generally take a long look at the pope’s nose (the butt end) of every duck before tossing it into the pan. Teal are always worth rendering, as are pintails and rice-fed ducks. But here in the Grasslands, where everything eats natural forage, we had a lot of skinny birds. Still, I managed to get nearly a full pint of clean duck fat.
Another benefit of such abundance was the heart bonanza.
Yes, teal have teeny little hearts, but we got so many birds that I replenished my supply to the point where I can make the duck heart tartare that went over so well at the last Duck Hunter’s Dinner; I have another coming up soon and wanted to make the dish again.
We also came home with two snow geese: One a giant old bird, the other a smaller Ross’ goose, which is a subspecies that doesn’t get too much bigger than a mallard. The big ole’ snow was possibly the toughest plucking job I have ever had, but it will make excellent goose prosciutto and the legs will go into confit.
This goose also had a gigantic gizzard. How big? Here it is next to a teal. They weighed nearly the same. I cleaned the gizzard and plan to brine it, sear it hard on all sides, then slice it into translucently thin slices as a sort of carpaccio. I think it’ll be good.
This still leaves a shitpile of ducks. After two days of hunting, we each shot limits, which means we now have 28 ducks and two snow geese in the fridge. Having this many birds presents an unusual opportunity: I have enough to make another batch of duck sausages. Normally we only get enough for me to make one batch a year.
Why not roast all the ducks? Well, the one you see in my hand will get roasted, because its breast is in good shape. But some of our ducks are shot-up to varying degrees, so I can feel better about skinning them and chopping the meat for sausages.
I am still undecided about what kind of sausage to make, though. Anyone have some suggestions for a style or flavorings? I’m all ears.