Hunt it, Grow it, Cook it

I truly believe the best ideas are hatched at cocktail parties (or maybe just over cocktails).  But  an idea was born. Brad’s an outdoorsman, his wife Alexandra (Ali) is an expert and prolific gardener, Daniel is a professional chef, and me – well, I do dishes and love to eat! Hence, we decided to combine our talents and appetites to develop a menu, because we are lucky enough to live where it’s possible to truly eat local!

Ali, swooped by our front porch one morning, dropping off venison roast from Brad’s hunting. And from their garden; asparagus, spinach, radishes, red onion, shallot, chive flowers, rhubarb and six farm fresh eggs. It was like the TV show “Chopped,” but thankfully, without a weird ingredient. Daniel was in chef heaven. Our menu was by no means typical or conventional, but it was spectacular!

Garden and venison harvest from Brad and Ali’s homestead (Photo by Vicki Sternfeld-Rossi)

The three-course menu was:

Appetizer

Melon soup garnished with pickled radishes, cucumber gelée, sweet pickled ginger, chive flowers and mint

Entree

Sous Vide and blowtorch-charred venison, with red onion marmalade, spinach spätzle le, fresh steamed asparagus, tossed with tarragon butter.

Dessert

Rhubarb compote, yogurt custard, topped with rhubarb granita

Here is a glimpse at the process:

Venison – Daniel portioned the venison into 3 “logs” along the grain of the meat, which allowed him to slice against the grain for tenderness. Before cooking them, he gave them a dry rub of British sweet spices (think mulled wine), vacuum packed them, and cooked in a water bath for 12 hours at 131 degrees. Before serving, he caramelized the meat with a blowtorch.

SoupFirst, he pickled the radishes, (sweet pickling spices), pickled julienned ginger in simple syrup, then made a cucumber gelée by juicing the cucumber and setting with agar, (acts like gelatin), that chilled in the fridge to set. Next he juiced a melon (cantaloupe).  The cold soup was garnished with chive flowers.

Spätzle – (think tiny dumplings). The spinach was blanched and chopped very fine, then added to a batter (similar consistency to pancake batter), that he made into spätzle by running through the holes in a colander over boiling water, drained and tossed with olive oil.

Dessert – first he made the rhubarb granita, which has to be frozen (it’s a like granular sorbet).

Rhubarb compote, yogurt custard, topped with rhubarb granita. Delectable! (Photo by Vicki Sternfeld-Rossi)

For those who don’t have a professional chef in their kitchen, here are some other suggestions.

Quick pickling is easy – and it is an interesting and fun way to use all the radishes (or carrots) that are ready for harvesting. Added to a sweet type of cold soup like melon, it’s a good way to wake up your taste buds for the meal to come. Or, even more simple, just wash the radishes and eat them (my favorite way).

I love a spinach salad, and with hard boiled farm fresh eggs, and bacon -it’s always a winner. The asparagus is always tasty tossed in butter, and like most Waitsburgundians you have herbs in your garden, an easy addition to elevate fresh asparagus. Chive flowers are a fun kick to add to a salad or vegetable dish, and they’re pretty.

Roast the venison like a roast beef; set the temperature of your oven at 350 and cook about 15 minutes per pound (final result should be pink like a medium rare steak). Asparagus – steam and then toss in a simple mixture of tarragon butter (or another herb you have in your garden).

We learned about hunting and keeping chickens, they learned about cooking, while social distancing!

Alaska Coho on the Fly

August 18th, 2020 – Alaska Coho on the Fly | Harvesting Nature

There is no better retreat from the dog days of summer in the Lower 48 than a stint in Alaska chasing coho salmon (“silvers”). August is prime time for the coho run in southeast Alaska, and for a DIY fly-fisherman, the term “epic” can be realized in the literal sense.

The tail of the month on Prince of Wales lends itself to streams swollen with pink and coho salmon, the fall coho run peaking in September. Fish are battling their way to the spawning grounds, eager to take on all comers with the audacity to stand in the way. Trolling open saltwater is a fine method to put fish in the box, but nothing replaces the experience of stripping streamers for big fish in small water.

Eyeballing a large wake entering a backwater pocket about 100 feet across the creek, a hard role-cast sent a punk bunny leach with dumbbell eyes slamming into the edge of the pocket. A quick, hard strip triggered the aggression of one hulking buck coho, the wake erupting from the shallows in hot pursuit.

A beast of a buck coho that smashed the pink bunny streamer and took me for a ride

I could feel my body’s stress response. Pupils dilated. Arms tensed in anticipation of the strike. An enormous white gape opened on the leading edge of an olive-backed torpedo, engulfing the fly and making a hard turn back into the run. Panic-stricken, I strip-set the hook and held on for the ride.

My eight-weight switch rod reluctantly gave line, the drag screaming as the buck made haste for the ocean and into my backing. Just as quickly, he turned back upriver in full charge, leaving me scrambling to regain line and keep the pressure on. His sleek profile sliced the water like a hot knife as he navigated boulders and riffles.

Three encore runs put a knot in my gut with every turn, each moment of slack line dragging the fluorocarbon tippet across jagged boulders. His aerial acrobatics enacted a spectacular show as he leapt, attempting to throw the fly. Even a black bear browsing the breakfast menu was amused by the show.

At long last, I banked the fish, feeling remorseful in securing the fine specimen and robbing him of passing such fit genetics. He lay among emerald ferns beneath a stone-cold granite wall, alongside a chrome hen I had the pleasure to land moments earlier. Marveling over the spectacle, his well-defined kype, deep rose coloration fading into dark olive along the dorsal with black pepper flecks, holographic operculum, and perfectly symmetrical physical features inspired awe. Laying my switch rod against him for scale, I snapped a few quick photos to forever immortalize the life of what may be the greatest coho salmon I will ever have the privilege to land on the fly.

This was but one of many incredible moments afforded me by the bounty of Alaska over the years, and certainly one of the most memorable. August is getting late for chinook salmon (“kings”), but other species like sockeye and chum can be found in a few creeks. Neither offer the table fare of the coho or chinook, yet both are worthy of every minute of pursuit in fight and splendor.

In eight days of dawn to dusk casting, I fished that single pink bunny streamer pattern, enticing everything that swam, including a small sea-run cutthroat. On subsequent trips, I fished a standard floating fly line and a six-weight switch rod, and even a tenkara rod with equivalent success.

Prince of Wales offers myriad other opportunities to view wildlife, sink pots for Dungeness crab and bottom-fish for halibut and rockfish, all of which met the grill and steam pot each evening. We stood over the searing aromas, enjoying a beverage and recalling our new and everlasting memories. Sticking to the minimalist trend, applying the basic seasonings salt, pepper, garlic, lemon, parsley and butter offers universal succulence for fin fish and shellfish alike.

Good friend Dean Holecek pulls a crab pot in Prince of wales

Given the brutalities of 2020, now is a great time to push back from the stressors of everyday life and hop a quick flight (with an open middle seat!) to southern Alaska. Grab your fly rod and a handful of streamers, don your facemask, and experience the soul rejuvenation that only the last frontier can provide, among salmon.

A Tag for the Table

September 15th, 2020 – A Tag for the Table | Harvesting Nature

It was one of those years. Forced to fall back on “Plan B” for every hunt led me to lackluster locations and conditions with equivalent results. The general rifle deer season in southeast Washington is a predictable warzone. Public lands resemble a pumpkin patch as hunters push the open country. The silver lining was the limited draw whitetail doe (“second deer”) tag in my pocket, of which it was the opening day.

A suffocating fog blanketed the morning, which I swam through with hopes of tripping over a doe in thick cover. And true to “luck of the draw”, I busted several decent bucks at point-bank range, nary a doe to be found. A stark contrast to the years where I held a limited draw buck tag.

By evening, the fog had cleared and I found myself hunkered beneath the shelter of mature pines in a deep canyon where does frolicked carelessly during buck hunts past, yet only a few does fed in a distant wheat field. With sunlight fading, my backside urged an early hike west to a pea field to glass a timbered edge. Turns out, my backside harbors keen instinct as I quickly spotted two does and began the stalk.

With nothing more than failing light for cover, I pursued the perfect doe as she plodded along, stopping just long enough that I could settle the crosshairs. Quartering slightly away, then broadside momentarily, I squeezed the trigger on my heirloom .243 Remington 700, but the gun never fired. She moved too soon to touch off a round, forcing me to pick up and shuffle after her.

An eternity lapsed as we waltzed across the slimy harvested field, watching her body fade to a near silhouette behind the crosshairs until she finally stood perfectly broadside long enough for my index finger to activate the firing pin. Had she had turned or stepped once again, the decision was already made to pack up and hike out. Literally, not another 30-seconds of shooting light remained.

The shot was textbook, high-shoulder, dropping the year-and-a-half doe in her tracks. She fell behind a slight rise, high enough to conceal her, save for the white belly beacon. A tough season behind, I reveled in the moment, giving thanks on one knee with a hand upon her hide.

We’ve all heard it said, a trophy is in the eye of the beholder. Continuing to kneel, gently stroking her thick winter coat, I admired the blessing given for my nourishment. She was the perfect age and health, gifting our table with quality and quantity.

Reaching into my pack, I pulled a skinning knife, quartering knife and bone saw, laying them on her still ribcage. Draping my elk quarter bag across my pack frame made for clean and easy loading.

As blade struck hide, I methodically skinned from spine to knee. I can reasonably average forty-five minutes from start to finish on any given deer, precisely the longevity of my headlamp batteries this particular evening. Having triple-checked that I packed my tag apparently drained all other cognitive ability to throw in a few spare AAAs.  

Adding the final quarter and stew scraps, I tied off the quarter bag as my headlamp faded to black. With cell phone in-mouth, I secured the bag and gear to my frame pack, hoisted it to my shoulders and embarked on a moonless, black-as-a-pine-box, 45-minute hike beneath a billion glorious stars.

As a boy in Appalachia, hunting does was a way of life. Table fare and the accomplishment of the harvest was never lost on antlerless deer. Most folks I know in the west wouldn’t dare work for “just a doe”. But the harder the work, the sweeter the reward and adventure. The loss of my headlamp simply tested my navigation skills and revealed an incredible unfettered view.  

Slogging through the soft, rich mud along the field crest, I gazed at the city lights of Walla Walla to the west. The glow was faint, but bright enough to silhouette some large firs. Keeping time with a cacophony of distant coyotes, my only startle came from a small covey of Hungarian partridge busting from underfoot.

Approaching my truck, I longed for the shot of water and snack that I had stashed in the cab. Reminiscing of the hunt, I looked forward to reviewing the memories of the evening, burned timelessly into mental film for decades to come, the good Lord willing.

Sliding my pack into the bed and climbing into the driver’s seat, the Tundra roared to life, set in motion to the northeast toward home. The prospect of fresh tenderloin urging me on.

Memories of the Hunt – A Thanksgiving First

November 17th, 2020 – Memories of the Hunt | Harvesting Nature

“The report of the rifle ringing in my ears and the events that had previously unfolded plucked my cognizant abilities, tossing them candidly into the crisp November dusk. I felt as though I were strolling through a Pink Floyd tune, my body operating on autopilot as my mind replayed a thousand frames per second, scouring the details of the past 120 seconds.”

Thanksgiving hunts are timelessly special, particularly when family and “firsts” are involved. The emotion and exhilaration of this chubby teenager taking his first white-tailed deer, Thanksgiving 1996, inspired a lifetime of outdoor pursuits.

Read more at Harvesting Nature!

The author in his heftier youth, age 16, with the coveted first white-tailed deer.

A Pointing Dog Reborn

My wife and I feared hip dysplasia would curse her hunting career and quality of life. But Yuba was born anew… Unrivaled drive and skill appeared with the death of distraction and relentless pain once both hips were repaired.

A young setter with a burning desire to hunt pheasant for the gun found a new lease on life, once free of the torturous chains of bilateral hip dysplasia.

Read the story at A Pointing Dog Reborn | Harvesting Nature.

Three Keys to Mountain Stream Trout

Published July 2021 @HarvestingNature

Stepping into a reach I had never laid eyes on, water spilled across the floodplain through newly cut side channels, occupied new backwaters, and spilled through massive apex log jams. Beautiful pools formed below the jams and behind precisely placed root wads. Riffles spilled across cobble bars parallel to the head of the pool, forming textbook dry-fly dead-drifting waters, irresistible to inhabiting trout.

Knowing the fish would be somewhat less active in the glacial June flows, I nevertheless opted for a size 12 elk hair caddis. Having embraced fishing simply, a tenkara fly rod has become my go-to for mountain trout streams. Capable of landing fish as large as salmon (speaking from personal experience), easily reaching mid-stream pocket water habitats, and presenting a flawless dead-drift, a lightweight tenkara rod and single fly box graced my presence as I traversed the cottonwood riparian and shallow riffles.

A riffle formed the beautiful emerald pool where it collided at 90-degrees with a large toppled tree root wad. Hydraulic forces cut their way through the substrate until the head of the pool widened enough to shift flow and scour downstream depths. It was the ideal location for a calculated approach and fly presentation.

Dropping the caddis into the riffle and watching it bob carelessly into the flow seam below, it was no surprise that a rainbow stealthily slithered to the surface, trouncing the fly with the confidence of snagging an easy meal. A soft pop of the wrist set the hook with the tenkara rod, which played the 12-incher through the riffle and into a shallow pocket for a safe release. The fish’s cotton candy pink lateral line, grape-sized parr marks, and overall random speckling of bluish blotches and tiny black flecks were a sight to behold. Its otherwise chrome sheen was nearly blinding in the morning sun as rays peaked over the eastern basalt rim.

Approaching “fishy” habitat is an important consideration. How the angler casts a shadow, disturbs the water, or presents the fly and line can mean the difference between landing multiple, and possibly big fish, and no fish. Consider a classic log jam and downstream pool.

Whenever possible, approach the pool with the sun in your face. Keeping a long shadow off the water serves well to avoid spooking fish. Additionally, I like to approach from the side and begin near the top of the pool. Bigger trout get the best “lie”, meaning they take preferred feeding zones, which are usually farther back in the pool where the water is calmer and predators more visible. Fish are easily spooked here and often race into the whitewater at the top of the pool seeking shelter. Game over.

Approaching from the side, one can cast high or across the pool and drift down for the best presentation. Additionally, any fish caught in the top of the pool are less likely to escape to the tail and spook other fish when released.

If you must approach from the bottom end, carefully work your fly further and further into the pool to try to catch any fish near the tail before spooking them with the line touching down or wading into them.

When approaching from the top, keep a low profile and dead drift the fly from the head of the pool into the middle and tail. This is superbly easy to do with a fixed length of line approximately one-, to one-and-a-half times the rod length. Keep the rod tip high as the fly touches down, then slowly drop the rod consistent with the flow rate to keep line drag from affecting the fly drift. A hungry trout cannot pass on a caddis presented accordingly.

Aside from log jams and pools, gentle runs with large boulders providing velocity breaks are a good choice. Side channels, root wads, and anywhere riffles push perpendicular into a stream bank or other structure, creating a deeper pocket, is bound to hold trout. Trout also seek flow seams where faster water eddies off into slower water, depositing food, and allowing trout to save energy when holding position.

Approaching the next pool from below, a gravel bar split the pool, sending a run to the river-right bank that paralleled a downed tree, and creating a scour pool on the river-left bank beneath a small, submerged tree. Drifting a fly along the right-bank produced a single missed strike, but working slowly to the head of the left-bank pool enticed several fish seeking shelter beneath the tree.

While fly-fishing may seem intimidating to the novice, there are three general keys to mountain stream trout that can be quickly mastered; quality habitat, a stealthy approach, and clean fly presentation. The best producing areas are always those resembling quintessential trout habitat, with braided channels, large wood, a good riffle-run-pool sequence, and lush riparian vegetation. An elk hair caddis or Adams are staple flies, working on nearly any mountain stream at any time, making fly choice less concerning.

Mountain streams are the heart and soul of fly-fishing. Keep it simple. Keep the rod tip high. And savor the radiance of those speckled forest gems.

 

Mourning Smoke

Published September 2021 @HarvestingNature

The dove opener is a fancied event in many states across the U.S., including my Virginia hometown. While I personally looked forward to October squirrel and whitetail seasons most, I always made time for a few sultry evening tree line sits with friends, awaiting a passing shot at a dodgy mourning dove as it traveled between cut silage corn and farm ponds.

Fast forward 20 years to living west of the Rockies in southeast Washington, my interest in mourning doves had increased tremendously, largely due to a growing passion for upland bird hunting in general. Throw in the Eurasian collared dove and you’ve got the makings of a connoisseur of the dove species. Interestingly, my daily and season bags remain comparable to those of my youth, although my wingshooting has improved somewhat over the years, but 2020 had some tricks up her sleeve that led to the most memorable mourning dove season on record.

The rewards of a mere 30 minutes of gunning in the smoke

September 11th was the day I had scheduled to depart for Oregon to experience a bucket-list hunt for sage grouse. The pups and I were to drag the camper down to a small BLM parcel on the Malheur River where we would lounge for a few days, between bouts of chasing birds across the high country. My On-X map became polluted with waypoints from scouting aerial imagery and talking to prior successful hunters and biologists. But, as with all the best laid plans, the smoke from rampant western wildfires swallowed eastern Washington and Oregon that very day, smothering the extremely short sage grouse season with hazardous air quality.

Standing at the kitchen sink, sipping coffee and staring longingly out the window into the ominous charcoal haze, I noticed doves coming in droves and hanging around the boney black locusts edging my plot. While the air quality literally stung the eyes, I slipped out back of the barn for a short hunt.

My barn is situated nicely between mature trees, and their overhanging limbs provide good cover on either side for sneaking out for a hunt unnoticed. On the left is an overgrown drainage loved dearly by the quail covey. On the right is the toe of a steep slope and a tree line of locust where the doves perch as they swoop in and out of the food plot. Slipping in beneath the locust sent a hoard of doves sailing up and over the hill. In their absence, I settled on the corner of the barn and waited for the birds to return.

Moments later, a flight circled in from the wheatfield, approaching low and close, thanks to the poor visibility. Steadying my 20-gauge double just ahead of a dove, it tumbled with the powder burn, sending birds circling in chaotic confusion. Swinging through on a crossing bird deposited my second into the bunchgrasses.

Quickly reloading, I could hear the faint chirping of a dove in flight approaching over my right shoulder. I’ve never been good at the steeply angled or straight-away shots, and true to my weakness, I shot behind as the bird sailed past. Within 30 minutes, four doves met the bag and the majority of the flock sought the safety of the adjacent field, but the evening brought more of the same, as did the rest of that week. Was it the smoke or just a good dove year? Maybe both.

Mourning doves have a modest appearance, yet their subtle beauty, table fare, and wingshooting challenge are undeniable

My curiosity on the effects of wildfires on migratory birds got the better of me and I began scouring the internet for scientific literature, only to find there is virtually nothing available on the subject. Studies on captive birds suggest smoke inhalation affects them similarly to humans, causing lung damage and pneumonia. A plausible explanation for the hundreds of thousands of songbirds found dead in the southwest U.S. and Mexico in September 2020. If migrating songbirds suffered lung damage and other illness from the western wildfires, they may have succumbed to compromised health later along their migration route.

Biologists suggest that heavy smoke may cause birds to change their migration patterns and use more body fat than typically required for migration. Additionally, food sources such as insects and feeding behavior may be affected, all leading to additional stress on migrating birds. That said, it could be that my homestead was a hotspot for food, water, and shelter, enticing an unusually large volume of mourning doves, as birds can meet all of their needs here with little effort.

Across the U.S., 2020 appeared to be a good dove season. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 194 million mourning doves in the U.S. as of September 1st, up 11 million from 2019. Hunter harvest was estimated at 4.65 million birds by 293,800 hunters in the eastern U.S., 5.89 million birds by 368,200 hunters in the central U.S., and 1.19 million birds by 86,800 hunters in the western U.S. That equates to a total of 15.8, 15.99, and 13.71 birds per hunter across the eastern, central, and western U.S., respectively. Estimates from the Harvest Information Program (HIP) identified noticeable increases in hunter and bird harvest and nearly double the hunter days afield in the eastern and central U.S., and a slight increase in the western U.S. from 2019.

Wildfires may not have greatly affected populations elsewhere in the western U.S., but my HIP report certainly points to a positive exception in dove season success. An unexpected and pleasant consolation for sparing the greater sage grouse for another season.