Category Archives: waterfowl hunting

Spicy & Crispy Goose Hearts

Early season goose hunting can be a struggle.  Stale, local birds, a still-limited number of suitable fields for hunting, and heavy pressure from other hunters that, like you, have been chomping at the bit to get started shooting geese again.

This past weekend was one of the starkest examples of this that our group has had; just two geese fell over the course of a series of weekend hunts. High winds and tough field conditions had us flagging and calling to several groups, and some even looked like they’d commit, but at the end of it all they often just moved on to other areas.

So, with just two birds to work with, I took as much as I could off them.  I went slow and methodical in the butchering, getting every last speck of breast meat for grilling or pastrami, the full tenders for a little pan-fried afternoon snack, the legs and thighs for a slow-cooked braise, and in a new adventure I pulled out two plump little goose hearts and after I trimmed the arterial scraps from the top of them, I found myself with two delectable looking morsels.  One had a single pellet hole in it; proof of what brought that bird down from the sky.

The “before” picture.

If there had been more geese (and thus more hearts) I would have thought of something more elaborate, but for having just the pair of them I decided to make a quick little fry-up. The technique is simple enough and when I pulled the two hearts from the frying oil, I could tell I was going to like them.  Speculatively I cut open the first heart, the panko-crust crackling like a potato chip, and I was not disappointed.  It was cooked perfectly and after one taste I was addicted.  I think I ate the second heart in one big bite. These are an absolute “must make again”.

Sure to be a hit with those who like deer, moose, elk, lamb, or beef heart, these go well with the cold beer of your choice.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of 1% milk
  • 3 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1 ½ tbsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup of Japanese style (panko) breadcrumbs
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • Peanut or vegetable oil (enough to fill a saucepan or fryer two inches deep)
  • 6 Canada Goose hearts
  • 1 large egg

Cooking Steps

  • An hour before cooking place the goose hearts in a bowl with the milk. Let soak for 30-45 minutes.
  • Remove hearts from the milk, rinse and then pat dry or place on a wire rack to air dry.
  • While the hearts are drying, heat the oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Mix the cayenne and flour in a small bowl.
  • Beat then egg in a separate bowl.
  • Add the panko to a third bowl. I added more cayenne to the panko, but that’s strictly optional and more an indication of my level of mental illness than anything else.
  • Roll the goose hearts in the flour and cayenne mixture, then dip them in the egg mixture, before tossing them and coating thoroughly with the panko crumbs. Set aside for a few minutes to let the breading dry.
  • Add the hearts to the hot oil, ensuring not to crowd too many in or the oil temperature will drop.
  • Fry for 6 minutes total, turning the hearts to ensure even cooking.
  • Remove and set on a plate with a paper towel to cool. Season with the kosher salt while still hot.
  • After 2-3 minutes they should be cool enough to eat.
Crunchy, spicy goodness.

I like the crispiness of panko breading, but I’d bet you a shiny dollar that if you dumped a mess of buffalo wing sauce over these they may not be as crunchy, but they’d be just as tasty.

Time to Make Some Noise

Since the end of May, it’s been far too quiet around here. Those familiar responsibilities of family, work, and household duties never sleep, and like you, I have been working away through the sweltering dog days of summer all the while pining for cooler weather, soggy boots, and uncomfortable camp cots. My turkey vest, jacket, hat and other sundry items sat piled in the corner of my basement for weeks on end; occasionally I’d pass by them and scratch out a few notes on the box call, or blare out a barred owl greeting, if only to remember those spring mornings while giving the dog a bit of a scare.

But now the molt has passed and geese are flying again.  As I drive the country roads in my area, I’m seeing flocks of juvies eagerly committing to fields without a second thought to any potential danger, and to be honest, I just can’t stand it. I want to be out there in the worst way; schlepping decoys, waving flags at birds as they trade beyond earshot, and racking spent shells out of my shotgun.

I’m fed up with silence.  But now, noise is coming, and I for one could not be happier.

About three weeks ago I transferred my lanyard and calls into my vehicle, and I spend my time at red lights or in gridlock double-clucking and spit-noting my way through the drudgery.  I put YouTube videos of seasoned professional goose callers and call-makers on the car stereo and “sing along”. I used to notice the sideways eyes that other drivers sometimes cast my way, but now I’m envisioning groups of geese swinging wide over cut grain and dropping their feet while our barrels rise to meet them.

Choke tubes have been swapped out of the 870, and the ammo box has been switched from medicine for birds with spurred legs to something for ones with webbed feet.  Ultra-hard-hitting turkey loads that boom on spring mornings were replaced with blistering fast steel that will crackle like popcorn through the frost.  The summer of scrimping and saving is now heading towards that heady time when I drop dollars on the stuff that really matters.

Worries about mosquitoes and ticks are waning for another year, and I’m looking forward to cold, chapped hands, stinging wind, and mud on my waders.  There’s a simple joy to be found in stalking creekbeds and riverbends, waiting for the adrenalin-inducing explosion of whirring wings and the surprise “hissssssssss” of the wind riffling across the back of a silent mallard bombing the spread.

I’ve been out of practice with my insults over the summer too, and I’m rapidly trying to get my banter back up to snuff in advance of the barbs and jokes that will fly over beverages and too-much-food in our opening camp weekend. The parties sometimes reach fever pitch with the escalating voices and laughter of a dozen grown-ass men all cackling and arguing and hooting at once.  In a jarring juxtaposition, I’m also ready to stand silently in the dark with some of my best friends while we wait for those first flights to filter in, the birds giving themselves away in the pre-dawn twilight with braying honks and whistling wings. If you have never heard the unspoken signal of shotguns loading in the dawn, that warning that legal light has arrived, then my friend you have not truly lived some of anticipation’s finest moments.

We’ll laugh, we’ll shout, and we’ll unload guns the loud way.  This will all go until the freezers are full and the time to chase deer arrives.  But from Labour Day until Halloween, things won’t be as quiet as they once were.

Enjoy it waterfowlers. Embrace the coming chaos.

Some Thoughts on Competition

Photo from SignsoftheMountains.com

Competition is generally a good thing.  It builds character, it drives improvement, and it fosters a strong work ethic.

This is, of course, the conventional definition of competition, which is not what I’m going to be talking about here.

Reports are starting to trickle in from friends and family, and overall it is looking like being another solid season of waterfowling for 2017. Things have been slow to ramp up, but that pattern has appeared in previous seasons with the action heating up as more crops are cut and cooler weather brings fresh migrators through.

But this year, unlike previous seasons, the reports from the field indicate that competition for access is going to be high, and I’ll expand on that topic in a few paragraphs.

I think back to my formative years when there was virtually no conflict at all when it came to access.  Provided you had a decent relationship with the local landowner and you left the place better than you found it, there was simply no problem at all in getting into a good spot for a shoot.  Almost every landowner we used to have access with asked little more of a hunter than simply closing a gate or parking in a certain spot on the property, and although some would gladly accept some wild game or labour in exchange for hunting permission, most did not even care for that.

Most were just happy to have someone shooting the geese off of their fields.  But something has  changed.  Goose hunting is business for some now, and a few select outfitters have taken to leasing access from landowners (sometimes at premium rates) directly aimed at the exclusion of local, recreational waterfowlers from fields and areas they have traditionally accessed simply on goodwill.

It is tradition versus business, and tradition looks to be losing.

Five points are problematic here and I’ll briefly summarize them now.  Hopefully these serve as some idea of what myself and other waterfowlers (call us amateur, recreational, local, legacy, or whatever else you want to label us with) are dealing with in relation to professional groups barring access through rental payments to landowners.

  1. Reduced Access

Since many do not have the means (through a prepaid client base) to pay up front for access, or to even pay for access at all, for non-professionals, there will be a direct loss of hunting opportunity. That such a situation is problematic when organizations like Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited are bemoaning low hunter recruitment and a loss of support for waterfowling is obvious.

  1. A Dangerous Precedent

Related to point one, this could conceivably set a ‘pay to play’ precedent with local landowners, putting a once democratic pastime in the hands of a moneyed few, or in targeted business interests. In many areas of Canada, there is little ‘lease’ type of access in contrast to what is seen south of the border.  Hunting leases have been targeted as one of many reasons for dwindling hunter participation in America, and it also creates competitive crowding on public lands.

  1. Hunter Conflict

It is not difficult to see how the practice of paying for access at the prohibition of local hunters from their traditional fields and marshes could create conflict.  Waterfowlers in particular seem more attached to the places they’ve hunted and the relationships they have cultivated with landowners.  To reduce those traditions and relationships to merely commercial relationships will most certainly lead to a broader divide in the hunting community.  Is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ between outfitters and their paying clientele on one side, and what I’ll call non-professional hunters on the other really what we need in a time when the tradition is believed to be under attack from outside forces?

  1. Hunter Apathy

This is the scary part.  Generations of waterfowlers, suddenly finding themselves on the ‘outside’ may lead some to give up altogether.  Think I’m being alarmist?  I’ve seen several examples both in the area I hunt and on countless forums, magazines, and in public interaction that lead me to believe many hunters will just say “To hell with it, then” and just stop chasing ducks and geese out of stubborn resentment.  If this happens, and I really do believe it is underway in some places, who will buy the waterfowl stamps necessary for conservation, who will support DU and Delta, who will champion waterfowling to a non-hunting public, and most importantly, who will pass this timeless and incredible tradition to the next generation?  I do not believe this is me using hyperbole.

  1. Hunter/Landowner Relations

For a long time, hunters and landowners worked cooperatively, in a non-commercial sense.  Hunters would offer their labour in exchange for access.  They would offer part of the harvest to any landowners interested in fresh goose meat or a plump mallard. They checked on the fields and popped into the marshes just to make sure things were on the up and up.  In some places I’ve heard stories where hunter access has discouraged trespassing.  In short, there was a sense of community between landowner and hunter.  But with land ownership being centralized and held outside of the local communities, and with guide services exploiting their superior financial position relative to local hunters, how could good relations between landowners and local hunters as stewards of the land continue?  If a guide service has the means to pay, and a landowner wants the money, far be it from me to think I could intervene in a meaningful way.  But an outfitter visits a spot in season a few times, with paying clients from outside the area.  They are there short-term and they are usually gone.  A local that gives a damn about the land drives by it every day.  But I imagine absentee landowners and outfitters care little for these long-term relationships.  To say nothing of the anecdotal stories heard occasionally about guided hunting parties leaving gates open, litter behind, and the like; what kind of landowner relationships spring from that?

Now this could all be construed as just so much ‘bitching’, or a reluctance to ‘adapt’ and perhaps it is those things in a way.  Local hunter in our jurisdiction, and it is possible that in other areas as well, do not have ready means to ‘rent’ access, and we cannot really control the price paid by outfitters and guide services to lock us out.  But with access at a premium, and long-standing tradition of ‘amateur’ hunting in the area, the grievance is legitimate.

It also calls into question, ultimately, what the guide services and outfitters are truly interested in progressing.  Is there a real concern about the long-term viability and participation in the tradition from the grassroots level, or is self-interest in business the lone driver in this push to exclude local participation from waterfowling?  As I see it, paid access is a threat to the viability of the sport long-term, especially in areas where there is not a history of leased access.

I suppose the motivations of those doing the paying and those taking the money are ultimately unknowable answers, but I know where my best guess aligns.

Being in the Moment

I always want to write these things down while they’re happening, but I’m usually too busy being ‘in the moment’.  Still, as I find myself in moments like the one I’m in now, bouncing along in turbulence somewhere over Lake Ontario, I think back to that good time had in the camp, and the memories replay like a slideshow across my mind replete with all the sepia-toned embellishments inherent in fond recollections.

There’s a mid-afternoon sun and a cool breeze from the northwest when we pull up to gate the day before the opener, and I don a hoodie before cracking a can of the cold stuff. It tightens my throat and I shiver but not from the early fall air, but from the adrenalin and anticipation.

Trucks begin to roll into what pass for parking spots, haphazardly crooked to the untrained eye, but for the baptized there is a sense of spacing and order.

We lean against railings and tailgates, busting each other’s chops, eating cured meat and crackers, punctuating insults and hunting stories with reckless cackles of laughter.  Evening creeps in and still more trucks filter in, until before long twenty grown men are milling around, shaking hands, toasting the gathering, and shouting to be heard.

The next door neighbor, who is also the father-in-law to one of our comrades stops over and we tell him not to expect much in the way of peace and quiet tonight.  He mutters a chuckled, unrepeatable curse word and an hour later meanders back home.

Cousin Luke has brought a couple of deep fryers and before long chicken wings are breaded and hit the oil.  A liter of Louisiana hot sauce meets a half pound of butter and they become one entity of molten beauty before being poured onto drummies and flatties that glisten crispy and golden after a swim at 350 degrees. In an act of mad-scientist impulse, sweet sticky rib sauce coats another batch of wings, while French fries roll in a turbulent froth of scalding oil.

The night carries on and we carry on with it.  30lbs of wings becomes a pile of cleanly-picked bones in a bowed out aluminum pan. Someone passes me a bottle of Jack Daniels Fire and the peer pressure mounts to have a smash of it, and never one to disappoint my friends in such a benign pastime I oblige them before passing the bottle to my right.  The whiskey hits the wings in my belly and I feel happy…in the moment.

Fast forward to sometime after midnight and the remaining men of the camp are all eyeballing the clock, wishing to go to bed but secretly afraid to be the first one to relent, lest his socks get a hole cut in them or he otherwise be deemed ‘soft’.  Everyone eventually tires and as if en masse we all find our bunks, while a few stragglers noisily fight the coming of the dawn.

An alarm blares and bleary-eyed goose hunters rue the moments just so shortly put to bed.  Teeth are brushed, coffee is slogged back, and gear is checked and double checked.  The time has come (too soon for some) to hit the fields and start the day’s work.

We split into two determined groups and make for our spots.  The group I take up with decides we have not been punished enough yet and we choose to hand carry a few dozen decoys, along with guns and blind bags the length of two fields.  We have permission to, and could just as easily driven out to the spot where we eventually plunk down our bags, but what’s the fun in that?  We assemble and place decoys in the dark, and as the first faint rays of sunlight begin to creep in from the east, we find our spots in a deep, grassy ditch to await the morning flight.

I sit pensively with my back against the gentle slope of the embankment, reflecting on the previous night’s decisions and the morning that I hope it will become.  Someone shouts down the line that we’re inside of legal light and the sounds of shotguns being loaded floats from station to station.  It is the modern era after all, and I confirm the time on my cell phone before texting a couple of guys in the other group.  It turns out they have competitors for their field, and are engaged in a debate with other hunters about setup and positioning.

I click the phone off and just listen to the dawn.

In time, and somewhere far off, I eventually hear the whispered calls of Canada geese.  I wave a black flag purposefully but with some degree of blind faith that if I can hear the birds, they can see me flagging to them.  The calls get closer, and someone hollers down the line.

“Geese in the northwest!” and my eyes and ears triangulate on them just as soon as my brain registers the announcement.  There’s a thin string, maybe ten birds in all, stretched out against the horizon and getting unmistakably closer. I put the call to my mouth with my right hand and flag a few more times with my left. The geese wing ever nearer and their chatter is no longer aimless but in response to my calling and the calls of my friends.  As they close to about a hundred yards they lock their wings and begin to drift in. They slide to my right and I break into some more excited chatter, trying to coax them back to centre stage.  They skirt our right flank, but one goose strays too close to our gun on that end and an expert shot folds the bird while the rest wing away braying and moaning.

The flight has started and we rush to make some daylight adjustments to the decoys, with the hopes that future birds will decoy more readily. With the fakes now in a more appealing semblance of order, we charm a few willing participants to play and as the guns bark, more birds tumble down into the grain stubble.

Geese trade about from all directions, some near and some hopelessly far off, and we shoot and we call and we ultimately decide once a dozen birds are in hand that it is time for breakfast.  We have a whole rest of the day to shoot and many of us are both famished and parched.  The masochists we are, we choose to hike all the gear out, and my shoulders really feel the added weight of birds in my hands.

Sometimes I don’t even know why those guys have trucks.

We monopolize four full tables in the local diner, and we eat massive breakfasts of bacon, sausage, ham, eggs, and toast, while pitchers of water and carafes of coffee make their way to our tables. We re-live the moments from less than two hours previous and we get an itinerary in order for the rest of the day.

Cleaning and butchering geese. Tidying up the camp. A long nap for some of us. And then back out again to another field for an afternoon shoot…but that last one is literally another story.

Back in the present, the flight has stopped jostling my hands and of course, all of the grievous spelling mistakes and typos will be cleansed before this gets to your screens, my friends.  Still, I can assure you that things were fairly bumpy here at 26,000 feet.

Not surprisingly, all it took to smooth out the turbulence was some time taken to myself reminiscing on a weekend that literally gets better and better every year.