Live long enough and you will eventually learn that even deeply held beliefs, tested by time and hard experience, can still be utterly wrong. You know what you know until life throws something at you that forces you to re-evaluate everything you thought was so certain just moments before. In this case, it is the ironclad maxim that you are what you eat.
Everything I’ve read or heard, and everything I have personally experienced as a duck hunter, has told me that ducks that are overly fond of eating seafood will taste of seafood — and that diver ducks are, for the most part, inferior at the table to dabblers because of this. Last week I was proven dead wrong.
Monday morning my friend RJ Waldron of Northwind Outfitters invited me out to hunt diver ducks out around Suisun marshes, at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. We were hunting with a family from Fresno, and RJ had a tip that the spot we’d be hunting would be pretty good for bluebills. So we piled in his boat and headed out into the bay.
There is something deeply interesting about motoring out in darkness, with only the lights of factories and oil refineries to light your way.
The inner Bay Area communities of Richmond, Benicia, Pittsburg and such are working-class, hard-nosed communities. This is the rough hewn, industrial heart of Northern California. Seeing it from the water only makes that more obvious. The spit of land where we set up was no pristine wilderness. Empty soda bottles, a child’s football, cigarette butts, the head of a doll — jetsam from all over the Bay had washed up on our stretch of marsh.
We set up a makeshift blind right on the shoreline while RJ and our friend Jim the Baitguy tossed out decoys from the boat. Diver ducks are, in general, not as wary as dabblers, so staying completely hidden was not nearly as important as staying still. Soon we sat hunkered down behind the blind, awaiting the dawn.
A few minutes before dawn, one of the kids from Fresno spotted something. “Hey, what’s that in the decoys? Is that a duck?” It was. A bluebill, also known as a scaup or bluey, was paddling around in our spread. A good sign. A few minutes later, a flock of bluebills flew by a few hundred yards offshore. RJ and I called after them — bluebills make a raspy growl you can imitate with a regular mallard call. The birds liked what they heard, and turned toward us.
“Get ready,” RJ hissed. We waited for RJ to call the shot as the bluebills flew closer, closer… feet down, ready to land! “Kill ‘em!” And we all let fly. Four birds hit the water.
Ninja the Dog hadn’t even brought in all four before more bluebills came in. A few more went down. “Well, at least we won’t get skunked,” I said.
RJ noticed that these birds were mostly greater scaup, which are much larger than the more common lessers. A big drake can weigh a full 3 pounds, which is huge for a wild duck. I’d never knowingly shot a greater scaup before, but the literature on their food habits that I’d read in the past (yes, I am a duck geek) was not promising: In the San Francisco Bay area, close to 90 percent of a greater’s diet was clams, specifically the invasive Asian clam.
“Oh well,” I said. At least bluebills skin easily.
“You know, a couple weeks ago a client seared some with just salt and pepper and they were great,” RJ said.
“Yeah, but they were skinned, right?” No, RJ said. They were skin-on. Now if you don’t already know this, it is the skin — or rather the fat under the skin — that gives a duck its distinctive flavor. By rights a clam-eating bluebill should have gnarly, fishy fat. I was incredulous. “How could that be?”
“I don’t know, man. But they were good.”
RJ said those birds all had a layer of white fat. I didn’t have time to contemplate this because we kept getting strafed by bluebill after bluebill. So many that Ninja was getting tired.
One more group came in, we rose, fired and four more ducks fell dead. Just like that, it was over. We’d shot five limits of bluebills. I looked at my watch: 9:49 a.m. Amazing.
In the aftermath, as RJ and Jim picked up decoys and we cleaned up our spot, I chatted with one of the Fresno guys about eating these ducks. I told him that he’d probably be better off skinning them and popping off the breast and legs. “But, if you see one with nice white fat, you might want to pluck it.” I picked up a bluebill and stripped some feathers from its breast. A thick pad of white fat lay underneath ivory skin. I just shook my head in bafflement. “Yeah, uh, like this one.”
Back at home, I sat down to skin my birds. But what RJ had said about the skin-on blueys he’d eaten, with just salt and pepper, still weighed on me. Greater scaup are clam-eaters. Period. Still…
Just for the hell of it, I plucked enough breast feathers of all my birds to check them for the orange fat I knew would be an indicator of a fishy duck. After all, every scaup I’d ever shot in California had fat like this. Until now. Every one of these birds — all greaters — was not only fatty, but their fat was almost as white as a rice-eating pintail’s.
No matter what a duck had been eating, I’ve never, ever encountered one that had white fat that was not mild and neutral-tasting. So I plucked them, on faith that my past experience would hold true. These birds were beautiful! Plump, big and not smelly or fishy at all. Still I had my doubts. The real test would be in the eating.
First I chopped up the excess fat on the bluebills and rendered it. A few were whiter than the others, so I did them first. I let them boil a few minutes, then stuck my nose over the pot and inhaled… ducky, slightly saline. Not fishy. I was amazed.
Then I seared some breasts, skin on, and ate them with only salt and pepper. They were, if anything, meatier and beefier tasting than the dabblers I was used to. There was a strong umami hit and that zephyr of salinity, but nothing offensive or stinky.
After consulting with several duck biologists as well as those who are more experienced hunting greater scaup than I am, it seems that this is not uncommon. “Clams are a lot milder than fish, after all,” one said. Several other saltwater scaup hunters echoed my experience: “If the fat’s white, it will be a good bird.”
Never in a million years would I have imagined that a clam-eating, saltwater-living quasi-sea duck would a) be fatty and b) have mild-tasting fat to boot. But it’s true. And I am wiser for it.