Each December, two of my high school friends meet up in California for three days of duck hunting. They have been hunting together for years, but I have never joined them. This past spring, in response to some of my posts showing my recent forays into waterfowl hunting, they asked if I would like to join them. I, of course, told them I’d love to.
For the first two days we hunted flooded rice fields outside Woodland, California. This was my first time hunting ducks, my first time hunting with a guide, and only my second time hunting with anyone else at all.
Hunting with a guide is a glimpse into what I imagine it was like to be a British Lord with hunting grounds and a game warden. We show up in the morning, our guide takes us out to the blind which has been carefully prepared for us. We sit down in our seats and wait as he scans the sky and calls in birds using the array of different calls hanging around his neck. When the time comes, he shouts at us and we spring up and do our best to shoot the birds he’s brought in. When the birds are down, we slap each other on the back or sear each other with playful insults depending on how we shot, while the guide’s dog collects the birds. Our guide dispatches any birds that are still alive when the dog brings them back to the blind, and the guide passes them down so that we can examine them closely.
I used to scoff at this sort of hunting. The game warden knowing the land, finding the herd, setting up the shot, and the hunter doing no more than simply pulling the trigger. And then of course the staff cleaned and cooked the animal so that the lord could simply relax, talk about the hunt, and eat his fill.
A guide service isn’t exactly like that, and I think there is a lot more challenge in shooting anything on the wing, but I was afraid that when we got out there I would feel as if the experience were inauthentic for my own lack of knowledge and experience.
All of my hunting experiences to this point were solo endeavours. Every hunt was full of doubt. I entered the woods or the corn field with minimal gear and minimal knowledge–only what I was able to glean from reading. And then I spent the day second-guessing every decision that I made that did not lead to immediate success. This is not the most fun way to hunt, though there is a purity to knowing that a kill comes down entirely to your work.
However, I would say that especially for someone like me, who never had a hunting mentor, guided hunts seem a great way to jump-start your hunting life. My first goose took me days of work and I came by it in a very unorthodox fashion. I had some knowledge of how goose hunting was typically done, but I disregarded the majority of it because I didn’t want to buy a bunch of decoys. I took an enormous amount of pride in that first goose, but the flip side is that, on my very first day of duck hunting, me and two friends shot about sixteen birds. I learned how these things are typically done, I was able to look at exactly how this guide service set up the blind and the decoy array, and I was able to watch and listen as he worked to call in birds.
The birds that I took home may not have come with the same level of pride that my first goose did, but I came away from this experience overflowing with new knowledge and with a whole bunch of ducks to cook for my friends as well.
Huge thanks to Bobby Balmy, our guide from Northwind Outfitters, and to my friends Aaron and Jimmy. I had a ball hunting with you three and look forward to doing it again next December!
And now here’s what I did with the first few ducks: duck a l’orange.
Duck a l’Orange
2 whole ducks – pintail, mallard, or something else large
1 rib celery
4 cloves garlic
Poultry herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme)
Salt + Pepper
3 large oranges
1 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup white wine vinegar
1 cup pan drippings/stock (if drippings are less than 1 cup, add stock)
Prick the skin of the breasts to allow fat to drain during roasting. Season birds inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff cavities with herbs, garlic, and roughly chopped celery, carrot, and orange.
Roast the ducks at 350 until the a thermometer in the thigh reads 165. When the ducks reach this temperature, broil them on high for about five minutes to crisp the skin. Tip the birds to allow the drippings to drain into the pan and then remove them and allow them to rest while you make the sauce.
Zest one orange and set aside. With a second orange, remove the outer peel with a vegetable peeler and slice this thinly. Juice all three oranges.
Boil vinegar and sugar until the mixture begins to brown. While you are boiling this mixture, drop in the thinly sliced orange rind for a few minutes to allow it to cook and candy slightly. Remove the rind to cool once lightly cooked.
Melt the butter in a saucepan and add 1 tbsp flour. Stir this around until it begins to brown. Pour the pan drippings through a sieve to remove solids. If drippings are less than 1 cup, add stock to get to a cup. Pour this into the pan with the butter and flour. Add sugar/vinegar mixture, 1 cup orange juice, and 1 tbsp orange zest. Cook to reduce slightly and add salt to taste.
Serve the duck whole, garnished with orange slices, fresh herbs, and the candied orange peel. Carve the duck at the table and serve the sauce in a gravy boat.
The sauce is delightful, so be sure to serve this duck with other things to soak it up like mashed potatoes, bread, and roasted vegetables.