On our third day of duck hunting, we headed out into Suisun bay looking for diver ducks, again guided by the folks from Northwind Outfitters.
We arrived at the marina well before first light and climbed into their boat, the Sundance. Full dark all around, we road out into the bay, the heavy salt air in our noses. When we reached our little piece of marsh we climbed out and set up the blind, gathering marsh grass to hide the sharp angles. Our guides drove the boat around, casting out long lines of decoys in the nearby water. Once all the decoys were in the water one of the guides joined us in the blind and the other took the boat off a safe distance. And we sat and waited for the sun.
As soon as the sun peeked above the horizon things were happening. The first ducks came in quick, swerving past the blind and back out to safe waters before I had my safety off. These divers don’t operate like puddle ducks. There would be no easy shots as they came in, straight down the pipe, to sit in the water. But we had plenty of action and quickly adjusted.
The birds came in mostly from the right side, blasting across our shooting lanes like rockets. I was fortunate and ended up on the left side. When they came in Jimmy had the first shot, then Aaron, and if they didn’t take it down I would get my turn. The great benefit here is that while those two had to jump up and start shooting immediately, I had time to get my gun up and start tracking before the bird was in my lane. As a result, despite being the least experienced duck hunter and worst shot out there, I knocked down a number of speedy birds on their way out.
Periodically, we would put our guns down and Melynda would bring the boat in to scoop the birds out of the water and finish any that we’d crippled.
The action was fast and hot. You have to get up quick, aim quick, and shoot quick. We missed some easy ones and knocked down a number of harder shots. But we were having a blast throughout. On this third day I developed and popped a blister on my trigger finger. I had to wipe the blood off my hand after every shot. But I never noticed the blister when the next round of birds was coming in.
The sun was up at 6:50 and by 8:10 all three of us had our limit, a whole mess of lesser scaup, buffelheads, and goldeneyes–plus one coot for good measure. We piled back into the boat and headed back to terra firma.
We drank a couple morning beers and breasted out the birds. Sea ducks all have that orange fat that tastes of the swamp, so there’s no purpose in plucking them to be used whole. Though we did save a pintail and a spoonbill from the day prior so I could learn some bird cleaning tricks from the boys.
That night we all met up for dinner. Aaron and Jimmy brought sous vide legs confit from all our day one birds. We drank beer that Jimmy brewed back in Virginia and had a wonderful night. Prior to this hunting trip, it had been a decade since I’d seen either of those guys. This was certainly not how any of us expected we would next see each other, but it sure was a good time. And hopefully one that becomes an annual event.
And now to start turning those divers into good eats. Divers have kind of a bad reputation because of their eating habits. They all have that dreaded orange fat which, when cooked, lends an unpleasant swampy, marshy flavor to dishes. But if you trim the fat, as with breasting the birds, you are left with perfectly good, rich duck.
Another step to avoid any issues with fishiness is to put the duck in a dish where that sort of flavor will fit in, like gumbo. So, here we have it: diver duck gumbo. An immensely rich, flavorful broth filled with duck, shrimp, and okra. Can’t beat that for a winter diver duck meal.
Diver Duck Gumbo
1 lb. diver duck breast, cut in 1” cubes
1 lb. raw shrimp, I use peeled and frozen (because Colorado)
1 bag frozen okra (12-16 oz.)
1 green pepper, diced
1 white onion, diced
3 sticks celery, diced
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 tbsp Cajun/Creole seasoning
½ tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp gumbo file
6 cups stock
1 stick butter
½ cup flour
Salt + Pepper
Fresh parsley to garnish
Season duck breast with salt and pepper. Bring large pot to medium high heat. Add canola oil when hot and then toss in the duck. Cook a few minutes until browned and remove. Be careful not to cook the duck too much–no one likes overcooked duck.
When the duck is out of the pot it is time to make the roux. Reduce to medium-low heat and add the butter. When melted, add the flour. Let this cook, stirring regularly, until it reaches a nice, chocolatey brown. Lots of people will tell you that making a roux is difficult, but it is not. Do it in a heavy pan and don’t leave it alone for too long, and you will be fine. But also be ready to add your vegetables once it gets to that chocolate color.
When the time comes, toss in the onion, pepper, celery, and garlic. Stir this around and let it cook for about 5 minutes. Then add your cajun seasoning, paprika, thyme, tomatoes, and stock. Bring this to a boil and simmer covered for about 45 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.
After 45 minutes add the shrimp and okra and simmer for five more minutes. Remove from heat, add duck and file. Serve in a bowl over a scoop of white rice and sprinkle a bit of fresh chopped parsley over the top for good measure. Enjoy!