Slay to Gourmet: Wild Duck

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Hunting photos by Jon Wipfli
Cooking photos by James Eastman

Driving north through Wisconsin, my mind kept wandering through what the next couple of days would bring. Coming into this trip, I was hoping to stomp through the woods in search of grouse and woodcock, but with the forecast leaning towards overcast and rainy, I knew my friend Ben Michlig was interested in going for ducks. My intuition was right. When I arrived at the cabin, Ben and his brother Matt had just returned from a duck hunt, and they were both excited to get back out in the morning. So ducks it was.

After scouting out the spot for our blind the night before, we were up pre-bright-and-early and on our way to a small creek that runs into a lake. It was a brutal morning to be rowing upstream, but we finally reached our destination with a half-inch of rain in the boat that wasn’t there when we started. After the half-mile boat trip at 5am, rowing through darkness, wild rice reeds, and fat lily pads in Ben’s small, flat-bottomed jon boat, I was soaked with sweat on the inside of my waders. We dropped Matt off at shore to get the blind cleaned out while Ben and I headed out on the water to set up decoys. It wasn’t long before we were back on land, tucked away in our blind with loaded shotguns, waiting for first light.

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At this point, I was visibly shaking from the cold. The mercury was playing tag with 30°F in the northwoods of Wisconsin and Mother Nature was dumping something between rain and snow on us. I was awkwardly squeezed next to Matt into a small duck blind constructed of twigs woven around a frame of 2x4s on a mud floor. The rising sun slowly started to paint the opposing bank of the lake with the colors of fall and I relaxed, knowing this was as good as it gets. Until of course, the birds that brought us out there in the first place start to fly into our decoys.

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After a few sightings of high-flying ducks, a small flock of mallards made a pass directly over our heads. They continued flying downstream, and just when I thought they were uninterested in our decoys, they made a hard left turn and start circling back towards us. To my left I heard Ben whisper some of his first words of the morning, “Get ready, don’t move.” I watched the ducks from under the bill of my hat, head down, trying not to spook them. As they flew closer, their wings went from flapping to gliding, then to cupping the wind in preparation to land. Ben yelled, “Shoot!” and in unison, we stood. All movement seemed like slow motion. The moment we moved, the ducks knew what was happening. They seemingly started to fly backwards, suspending themselves momentarily as steel shot littered the air. As fast as the moment came, it passed, and the loud splash of two birds hitting the water snapped us back to real-time.

As soon as we retrieved the ducks from the lake, I started thinking about what to cook. I knew I wanted something that wouldn’t overpower the duck and something that wasn’t too heavy. With seasonality in mind, I opted to go with a skewered and grilled duck breast with a horseradish-herb sauce served alongside a room-temperature farro, Brussels sprout, apple, and pistachio salad.

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Continue to the next page for the recipe.

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