In our house, we like to eat from the field. The one exception for eating primarily wild meat might be chicken, which my wife uses for many different dishes and even frequently makes stuffed whole chickens, which are awesome. If I could find a feral group of chickens that strayed off a farm somewhere, I am sure I would find a way to hunt them. I grew up eating wild game meat and fish all my life so I have always enjoyed turning what I catch or kill into something tasty when possible. One of my fondest memories is eating dry sausage on Saturday afternoons at my grandparents’ house in New Braunfels, Texas. We affectionately call dry sausage “dashboard sausage” as it is cured and resembles something between a large smoked snack stick and deer jerky. It is basically a ring of smoked sausage that is dried at room temperature for about 30 days or so. This is an “old world” style of sausage that started during the days before refrigeration in Europe. German settlers brought over the idea to our part of Texas and, I imagine, other areas of the country as well. You can throw a ring of dry sausage in your truck on a hunting trip and eat it over a few days. Perfect “guy food”! This was a staple in the homes of both of my grandparents when I was growing up and we ate it all the time as a snack or sometimes even as part of a meal. When I started selling hunts and advertising for DB Hunting Ranch (www.dbhunting.com) at gun shows many years ago, I ran across The Rust Game Place and Meat Market, who regularly sell smoked meats and cheeses at Texas area gun shows. They were a fellow exhibitor and we got to talking. It turned out that the owner of The Rust Game Place was a childhood friend of my dad. In fact, his dad and my grandfather were family friends and hunted together often throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s and also shared a sausage recipe from the Rust family. My dad would often recall his childhood memories of making ring sausage with this old recipe. He still always says something like, “Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt, used it to comfort my sore fingers from all the work”! The Rust family recipe was and still is the same old recipe my dad’s side of the family has used for years. I felt like I found the holy grail of deer sausage! No one in the immediate area I now live in makes smoked ring sausage, dried sausage, hard salami, “Buck sticks” (snack sticks), and other meat like they do. I started to get to know Randy Rust, the owner, and even re-built his website. These days, The Rust Game Place and Meat Market (www.therustgameplace.com) now makes a lot of smoked meat products for me each deer season and also hosts a full meat market and online ordering for their many smoked meats, cheeses, and other products.
A question I often encounter when I talk with new hunters, non-hunters, and sometimes even veteran outdoorsmen when I talk about eating some of the things I have in my freezer is usually, “You can eat that? Really? How?” Oh yes…You can! Now that I am married, my in-laws especially have given me a hard time about bringing home raccoon, carp, gar, wild hogs, deer, and more wildlife from our local area and abroad. They always do it in a playful and joking fashion, of course. My mother-in-law’s favorite line when she comes over for family or holiday events is usually, “What kind of road kill are you cooking for us today, Dustin?” My father-in-law often reminds me that everything is edible, but you don’t HAVE to eat it all! True. I enjoy eating what I kill or catch, for the most part at least. It is part of the hunting or fishing experience and my adventures would not be complete without this process. I have cooked raccoon, rabbit, and squirrel in the crockpot and pressure cooked carp to make what resemble salmon patties. Many people do. Current reality shows and “field-to-table” outdoor shows help further the education on making some lesser known wildlife a tasty table fare.
Those Gar? Really?
I am a member and webmaster of a Christian-based wounded warriors charity named Crosswater Outfitters (www.crosswateroutfitters.com) in the Fort Hood area, based in the North Central Texas area. We host events on Texas area lakes for wounded soldiers and their families. I lovingly refer to Crosswater Outfitters as “Jug Fishing for Jesus” as we are a ministry based in helping share the simple Gospel message of God and Jesus Christ and we teach this through weekend jug fishing trips on Texas area lakes. At a recent event, we hosted, the fishing was tough. We had over 70 people to feed and were only pulling up one or two fish per 10 jugs we would run in the morning and evening. With about 8 boats having this kind of catch rate, I was getting concerned. I was reminded of the “Loaves and Fishes” Gospel story where Jesus fed a multitude of people with only five loaves and two fish. On the day of the fish fry, which was planned later that evening, we pulled in two Longnose Gar. In fact, that was all we pulled in that morning on my boat. I decided to keep them. Another boat mentioned they had thrown large a Gar they caught back the previous day, seeing that it was unfit to eat or serve to our guests. I told all the boat captains to keep all the Gar they caught for the rest of the trip, if any more came in, and then said a few prayers and decided to let faith go into action. I knew I could make Gar taste good for the main meal , if needed, and wanted to show our crew and guests how good the fish was to eat. Besides, God always comes through in some way at these events and I knew He would make something happen here as well. I cleaned fish for 3 ½ hours later that day.
I carved every boneless edible piece off the catfish the boats brought in. With the rest of the days’ catch, which improved as the day went on and boats went out and came back, it miraculously appeared would have enough fish. About that time, one of soldiers visited my cleaning station and commented, “Are you going to clean those two Gar? Can you even eat them?” I assured him that I was about to prove a point! By some miracle, all I needed to get the job done was a pair of tin-snips to cut into the armor plating of the gar and, sure enough, by some stroke of grace, the leader of our boat crew had an old pair of them in his truck. It only took a minute to penetrate the armor of the two Gar and get down to the boneless strips of white meat inside. I trimmed out the meat and cut away all the undesirable areas and tendons, cutting up the remaining pieces into chunks for the deep fryer. To keep things separate, I put the humble Gar in its own container, to be fried after the fry crew finished cooking all the catfish. At dinner that night, I marked which tray was catfish and which tray was Gar. There was nothing left but crumbs in the Gar tray and plenty of catfish left over after the end of the night. Several of the soldiers and members of their families, as well as even Crosswater staff, came up to me and remarked things such as, “I never knew a fish that ugly could taste that good!” and “How did you get that nasty fish to come out looking that nice? It didn’t even taste like fish!” I was thrilled. I even surprised myself a little bit. That weekend we all came away with something from the experience together: God is awesome and Gar is tasty!
There are many great books about “field-to-table” cooking. Among them, two of my personal favorites are Ted and Shemane Nugent’s “Kill it and Grill it” and Scott Leysath’s “Better Venison Cookbook”. These books have been out for a while and both of these authors have great hunting shows of their own as well as other cookbooks on the market. There are many other great resources in print and on the internet to help make just about anything that can be considered somewhat edible, taste good.
Dustin at the above mentioned Crosswater Outfitters event with a soldier and his daughter, Ken (Fellow CWO Member) and one of the Gar.
Reel in Some Dinner, With an Arrow!
In Bowfishing, or even conventional rod and reel fishing, I am not a big fan of eating carp and buffalo or other scaled “rough fish” due to the many “Y-Bones” in the meat. I usually chunk them up for cut bait for future catfishing trips or even try to find a local turtle farmer as turtles and other critters LOVE these fish. Remember, nothing goes to waste in nature if you don’t want to eat it. Snakes, turtles, small game, and other fish have to eat something, too, and are most likely grateful for what you leave for them, should you choose to do so. There are some folks who like to eat carp and buffalo though and do so daily all over the world, especially in Europe and Asia. Grilling or baking them on the “half shell”, (with the skin and scales on) and scoring through the small Y-Bones, then seasoning them like regular fish, and throwing them on the grill skin side down, is a pretty popular method. From my experience, Grass Carp taste better than Common Carp due to their diet. My grandparents used to even pressure cook carp that they would catch while on catfishing trips. They would fillet the fish and cut it into chunks, then stuff the fish chunks into a canning jar and pressure cook a batch of them at a time. They would store the canned carp, like canned salmon, and make carp patties out of them using several seasonings, onions, bell pepper, and other ingredients and fry them like a sausage patty or burger. Many seafood markets now have salmon patties and “burgers” made from fish like this and it has become a more popular way to eat fish in our culture today. As I mentioned earlier, I also have tried this method but there are so many other fish I usually catch and eat that I typically do not eat carp and buffalo these days. There was a time though, in my earlier years of rod and reel fishing for carp, where carp patties were a common meal for me.
Marty McIntyre with Garquest Bowfishing Adventures (www.garquest.com) likes to take large buffalo and fillet out the ribs, cutting each rib separately, and then battering and frying each one separately. The end product is like eating any other kind of meat right off the bone. Again, this is not my preferred fish to eat, but your mileage may vary. No, I will not make any “Cedar Plank Carp” recipe jokes here. If you missed that one, look it up sometime. I assure you will at least get a chuckle out of it. And to think, the humble carp was brought to the USA in the early 1900’s as a food source for our expanding economy, especially in rural areas of the country, due to its adaptability to just about any kind of water and fast growth potential. That is a history lesson I love to share with others while I am out on the lakes and rivers, just for fun. Many people find it hard to believe this to be true but you can do the research for yourself. For most folks in our country these days, however, the carp is looked at as the feral hog of the rivers and lakes as a “trash fish” and bait stealer! Go figure.
In the rest of the bowfishing realm, Gar and Tilapia are among my favorite non-game fish to eat. Tilapia is served at many restaurants and is as easy to clean as a crappie, bluegill, or other pan fish. You can cook them just about any way you can imagine as the meat is as nice to work with as just about any game fish. Tilapia is among my favorite fish to pursue on bowfishing adventures during the daytime because they are pretty smart and sometimes hard to sneak up on as they can easily detect movement and will disappear like a ghost and leave nothing but a dust cloud for you to shoot at if they sense even the slightest hint of danger. It is comparable to hunting a ghost in a way. They are relatively curious fish, however, which usually plays in the favor of the bowfisherman. On one trip I took last summer on a local lake, Marty and I would spook a group of 4 large tilapia from the same sunken tree stump and they kept coming back to it every couple of minutes making it easy to nail a couple out of the group on each pass. If you have tilapia in your area at all, give bowfishing a try. It is a blast!
For cleaning Gar, which are relatively easy to catch on live or cut bait and a fairly easy bowfishing target, you will need a simple pair of tinsnips, a machete (yes, I said machete!), or even a power reciprocating saw to get into that armor plating of this prehistoric fish. What is inside when you get past the armor, as I mentioned before, is nice boneless white meat that fillets out like a deer backstrap. Cut out all the sinew, tendons, and other undesirable parts of the meat, chunk it up into nuggets and batter and fry as you would any other fish. You can even boil the meat in a crawfish boil and make “Gar Balls”, fish cakes, or other recipes out of the resulting meat. Be advised that a Gar’s roe (eggs) are poisonous to humans but if you clean them using the approach I outlined above, this should not be an issue as you will not even encounter the inner cavity of the fish in most cases.
Small Game and Birds
Eating rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, possum, and nutria or other small game is still a common staple for many homes in America, especially in the Southern US and more rural “backwoods” parts of our country. Stewing or braising small game meat is usually the best method due to the traditionally lean and sometimes even tough or chewy nature of wild game meats. For raccoon, possum, nutria, and other medium-sized game, cooking in a slow cooker or oven, like you would a pot roast, is my method of choice. How does raccoon taste? Not bad at all. It reminds me of a beef roast. It is dark meat, maybe a little on the greasy side, but with an overall good taste. Squirrel and Dumplings, cooked much like Chicken and Dumplings, is a very popular dish for many hunters and similar recipe ideas are out there for other small critters as well.
Most upland birds and waterfowl are very tasty and easy to prepare. There are so many different methods around for cooking them that we will not go into all of them here. I will share a couple of basic ideas though. The Mourning and White-wing Doves are some of the more popular upland birds we hunt here in Texas. Simply filleting out the breasts of the bird, or “breasting” them, is the most popular and quickest way to clean these small birds. My favorite way to cook the breasts from just about any upland bird or waterfowl is to stuff them with cheese (even store-bought “string cheese”) and a piece of jalapeno, then wrap with bacon, and grill! Add a cold beverage of your choice and it does not get much better than that, my friends. You can do likewise with many other types of birds and waterfowl.
A medley of Smoked Meats and Cheeses (Left), Summer Sausage with Jalapeno & Cheese (Center), and Dry Sausage (Right)
from The Rust Game Place & Meat Market
One of the best ways I have found to cook wild turkey is to cure and smoke the bird, keeping special care to keep moisture into account as the bird will dry out easily. Sugar curing a whole wild turkey, for instance, will help keep the meat from drying out during the cooking process. Another method many of my hunting buddies use is to fillet out the turkey breasts and cut them into long strips, battering and “chicken frying”. This is very easy to do and the taste is out of this world.
In our next section will cover big game animals and some ideas to help you make a great meal out of almost any part of the animal. Later on in this series, we will cover some tried-and-true recipes from my personal kitchen and hopefully inspire you to try something new on your next wild game cooking adventure.
Dustin Vaughn Warncke