feature By: Bob DeMott | March, 21
Some of my fondest memories of upland bird hunting have been created with guns stored and dogs curled up on the rug before a glowing fire. For example, over a half-century ago in 1970, to celebrate our mutual friendships and the collected good fortune of strenuous work afield by men and dogs and to share wild bounty with family and loved ones, I initiated an annual tradition that has remained unbroken. I host a wild game dinner (sometimes two if the seasons are especially bountiful). The tradition was rooted in a simple proposition: Our group all agreed on sharing its successes afield in a celebratory, communal way.
At 77, I realize every hunt could be my last, every hunting season, my final tango. I admit I hear fewer flushes, and I miss more shots than I once did, but the inevitability of those sobering declines bothers me less and less. Who cares? I tell myself. It’s not a competition. As Jim Harrison used to say, “Take the best as it whizzes by, and let the rest go without regret.”
Besides, the fewer birds I bag nowadays taste no less brilliant than when I first took them half a century ago and perhaps are even more delectable and prized than ever for their rarity. They continue to supply indisputable reasons to keep on keeping on, aches, pains and awkward silences notwithstanding. I hope it never happens, but if I reach a point where I can no longer appreciate the taste of wild birds and the indescribable pleasure of serving them to friends and allies, I know it will be time to quit hunting altogether. Otherwise, there will be no point in continuing a practice that has helped define a good part of my life.
I learned at an early age from my uncles in Connecticut who mentored me in sporting ways and intricacies of cooking wild game: If you hunt, you are duty-bound to honor your quarry by cleaning, preparing, cooking and eating every wild thing you bring home. On the ethical scale of propriety, it is a form of respect and homage, a deep, bend-at-the-waist bow to the wild creatures that enrich our lives by giving theirs.
Shooting a cottontail rabbit or a snowshoe hare ahead of one of my uncle’s beagles was easy enough – even a dreamy kid could do it. But after the adrenaline rush of the successful shot, after the hound music had stopped ringing in my ears, and the palpable weight of dead quarry in the game bag had time to register, the moment was incomplete without the sobering, blood-and-guts follow-up of skinning, cleaning and cooking that led to a simmering pot of cacciatori.
A few years later, in 1958, influenced by another uncle’s gourmand sensibilities, I hung my first grouse for several days from the rafters – French-style – in my father’s garden shed before cutting the bird down and dressing it so my mother could superintend its roasting in the oven. Few dishes I have eaten since have tasted any better than that one. That it came as a result of a classic point by my first bird dog, a sweet little Llewellin named Suzie, made the entire experience not only indelible but also foundational.
Wild game is too valuable not to be treated seriously and respectfully. Long before the locovore movement started to trend, my companions and I practiced resolute field-to-table habits that underscored our rationale for venturing afield in the first place. I like to think we were ahead of the curve. Unlike my uncles, who grew up during the Depression and hunted to augment family meals, few of us any longer need to hunt to sustain our lives, and yet being able to hunt is what we need. Doing so provides plenty of reasons for going afield: The way a day out of doors has its own character and qualities; the intense physical exercise that comes from miles of walking in untutored terrain in all weather; and especially the pleasure of following athletic dogs and watching their joyous, bred-in-the bone work in an acute and almost unimaginable realm of the senses that is utterly closed to that of human beings.
I also appreciate the obligation I feel to use all parts of the game I have been fortunate enough to collect: duck, grouse and woodcock wings sent to state biological or federal migratory bird research stations; feathers and fur saved for tying trout flies; and because I love to cook, meat to be readied for the table. “Eating a bird, I savor it twice,” Charles Fergus says in The Upland Equation (1995). “I taste the succulent flesh, and I remember how I brought it to bag.”
Not to put too self-congratulatory a point on this, but each wild game dish is a marker of an authentic quality of life not easily found these days. In the realm of food, as with so many other social arenas, doing it yourself will always be preferable to having it done for you and brings all of us closer to a satisfying elemental plane of existence.
Few things can compare to eating game killed the same day or so recently that it still qualifies as fresh. In A Hunter’s Road (1992), Jim Fergus reminds us that the French call such pleasure au bout du fusil, at the “end of the gun.” I was able to do that regularly in my upland hunting life, and it was a small blessing every time it occurred, especially with teal, wood duck and woodcock that often went from field to plate without delay, always served rare in the glow of candlelight.
In those earlier times when bird populations in Ohio were relatively bountiful and my friends and I were hunting frequently with reasonable success, it wasn’t possible to consume every bit of daily bagged game, so freezing became a necessary evil. The annual dinner utilized whatever extra game had been stored before it might be ruined by the dreaded freezer burn or neglect. I never cared to leave game in the freezer more than a few months, and certainly never over the summer and into the following hunting season. I know that with proper vacuum sealing, game lasts much longer than that in the deep freeze, but sharing the bounty expediently always seemed preferable to hoarding and risking the loss of palatability. (Sharing also extended to the annual dinner’s aftermath: A portion of whatever game was left over was divvied up among the guests, while the remaining portion – often considerable – was donated to a local men’s shelter.)
For creative inspiration and pragmatic instruction, a shelf’s worth of game cookbooks were at the ready. But there is a point when cookbooks aren’t enough, so I often turned to my sheaf of handwritten, loose-leaf recipes, accrued over the years. Scrawled with annotations and smeared with who-knows-what sauce residues, these were taped within eyeshot on the kitchen cabinets or propped next to the stove, as needed. They were the true mainstays of my trial-and-error, wing-and-a-prayer culinary process, especially where ruffed grouse were concerned. Because they have never been as populous as their more northerly kin in the New England and Great Lakes states, Appalachian/Allegheny region grouse exist in a realm of rarefied upland accomplishment that cannot be overstated. Sharing that bounty, the result of dozens of hours of hard hunting in steep, hilly terrain over many decades, was a supreme source of personal gratification.
Through the seventies and eighties and into the nineties, when there were ample grouse to be had, some renditions stood out, such as roasted whole grouse in a Triple-Sec and mandarin orange glaze, and roasted whole grouse with a simple stuffing of chestnuts, apples and currants in a Calvados reduction, partnered with nutty wild rice, chargrilled asparagus and homemade applesauce from autumn’s crop. But that abundance all changed in 2009 when I bagged my last Ohio grouse.
For a variety of reasons, too numerous and complex to detail here, by the 2000s the bottom had fallen out of the state’s grouse population, so much so that I felt guilty about taking a resplendent male with a rare cinnamon ruff. The surprise came as the result of great dog work by my setter Meadow, so when the flush occurred, primal instinct took over: I made the shot and ended an era. Since then, I can count on one hand the number of grouse my dogs and I have encountered in our local coverts. So few, in fact, that I no longer raise my gun at the flush. In the past decade, the grouse I have served at the game dinner came from my Wisconsin or Michigan forays. And even with those, there have never been enough to constitute a reliable main item on the annual menu but just enough to be a tantalizing, nostalgic sidelight, a taste of bygone days, that must be augmented by other wild game dishes.
While the grouse came and went, woodcock remain the true constant in my Ohio upland bird hunting life and an integral part of the yearly game dinner. Populations have fluctuated, prime coverts were lost for good when landowners plowed under once productive swales of alder, and yet somehow woodcock keep on keeping on and are in a class all their own. Despite their frequency, which I think is greater than anyone imagines, Ohio is not considered a destination site for woodcock, and comparatively speaking only a handful of hunters pursue them here – in 2019, for example, only 37 people kept DNR cooperative woodcock hunt diaries. But the fact is that without that wonderful bird – in many ways the equal of grouse for producing great dog work and fast wing shooting action – there would be far less wild bird hunting in this state. The ephemerality of their autumn passage through Ohio only adds to the birds’ allure. With good reason Merrill C. Gilfallan claimed in Moods of the Ohio Moons: An Outdoorsman’s Almanac (1991), “the most idyllic form of hunting in Ohio is seeking the woodcock.”