It’s that time of year. The rain poured the last few weeks across the Pacific Northwest. Winter steelhead are nosing their way into rivers across the region. Snow is starting to stick in the Cascades (we’ll see if it keeps up this year). And ducks are winging south.
Before heading to Maui for a sunny Thanksgiving vacation with family, I got out on a rainy Friday morning for my first waterfowl hunt of the year. I only had a few hours before heading into work, and despite the recent downpour my favorite local public-access spot hadn’t quite filled up with water. As I’ve done countless times before, I resigned myself to hunting the “puddle” that was available, hoping that with a looming change in the weather birds would be flying.
Most didn’t want anything to do with my little patch of water or my small spread of decoys, but the birds were certainly flying. Small flocks of teal, mallards and even two pintails and a big V of snow geese cruised by to take a look. Nearly all were out of range and hesitant to commit, but just seeing so many ducks was a great start to the season.
After missing on a teal flying at Mach 1 and blowing an opportunity on two beautiful pintail drakes after whistling them in from what seemed like a mile out, I was thinking the morning might be a bust. Nothing new for me, but unfortunate considering the chances I’d had.
Then a pair of mallards appeared out of the slate gray sky, cruising in low with no hail call needed and the most perfect slow, settling approach that a duck hunter could ask for. It was a beautiful thing. At least until they banked at the last second and tried to land on a brushy patch of water just outside my decoys.
Knowing the pair would be tough to get once they got in the weeds, I took the shot I had on the closer bird, a hen, and watched it splash satisfyingly down in my deeks. My follow-up shot at the second duck was late, wide and without affect. But in hunting (and in fishing) there is a difference between one and none that defies the rules of arithmetic.
After retrieving the downed bird and giving it another 30 minutes, I waded out of my soggy blind, pulled my decoys, and deemed it a successful day.
My go-to process with gamebirds is 24 hours hanging in a cool garage (except for gut shot birds or diver ducks). Not only does it tenderize the meat and enhance the flavor, but the last thing I usually want to do after an early morning on the marsh is to pluck and clean my haul.
After this standard aging, I breasted out my bird. Likely driven south by a recent storm, the duck didn’t have the thick fat one always hopes for. But for an early season mallard it was nothing to complain about.
Leaving the skin on of course, brining the breast meat in salted ice water for 30 minutes to remove any lingering blood, adding a sprinkle of dill and lemon pepper for extra flavor (chipotle pepper is another favorite of mine), and then following the “How to Cook Duck Breasts” instructions from Hank Shaw‘s excellent Duck, Duck, Goose cookbook, my mallard was ready for searing.
Call me a hipster if you will, but I’ve found that nothing works better for searing waterfowl than a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Need to season your cast iron? I don’t think anything works better for that than cooking a fatty goose or mallard breast. A quick wipe down after each use and your skillet will be better than ever.
Ducks are one of my very favorite things to prepare. I worked for enough restaurants and caterers in highschool and college to consider myself a decent cook, but waterfowl always provides an excellent and humbling challenge. On top of that, the opportunities for variation are endless.
As any experienced duck chef should tell you, the number one thing to remember when cooking these birds is less is more. Rare or medium-rare ducks are moist, tender and flavorful. Overcooked ducks are dry, tough and gamey. And the dividing line between the two is unforgiving.
More time is needed for geese and very fat ducks, but in most cases I like to pull my waterfowl off the skillet or grill before its even done, knowing that it will cook to completion while “resting” on the cutting board.
In this case it was less than four minutes between the time the two mallard breasts touched cast iron and when they were sitting on my cutting board. A minute or two of rest, a few strokes with a sharp knife, a side of rice and green beans and a topping of home-canned cranberry chutney, and the first duck of the season was ready to serve.
Not the best picture, but let me assure you it was delicious. Even my fiance, who doesn’t relish the taste of duck like I do, loved it. Maybe that was because it went perfectly with her chutney.
There’s something about duck that tastes like the season in which we eat it. It’s rich, warm and homey; perfect for a dreary winter night. And the complexity of flavor hints at the incredible journey these birds make, from Alaska and northern Canada to Central America and back again.
I’m by no means an expert waterfowl hunter or an expert chef. Far from it. But there’s something about duck hunting, and cooking, that strikes a chord with me. It takes patience, determination and humility. Traits myself and most other hunters and cooks can benefit from. Something about duck hunting just fits.
And now watching ominous rain clouds roll in off Puget Sound as I type this, its in-part because of these birds that I find joy and optimism in the changing seasons. Dark, wet and stormy days are ahead. There is little that compares with the dreariness of November and December in the Pacific Northwest.
But whenever I brave a downpour or watch another winter storm bearing in, I know that the good rain is calling winter steelhead home to glacial headwaters. It’s bringing fresh powder and a much needed snowpack to the highcountry of the Cascades. And it’s sending ducks south on whistling wings.
I’ll be out there to welcome them back.