THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

The period between November 1 and January 29 truly is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s not the gathering of friends and family around absurdly large meals whose leftovers are still big enough to feed a small village in a third world country (although I’ll admit, that’s nice too). And it’s not the allure of 70% off department store sales or the prospect of being stampeded by thousands of your own countrymen when the doors all open at 5 am the morning after Thanksgiving like they were opening the gates at the running of the bulls in Spain (although my husband did bravely throw himself into a snarl of overzealous gun enthusiasts in order to snag a Ruger 10/22 for only $189 from Turners Outdoorsmen on Black Friday).

No, this is the most wonderful time of the year because it’s also the time of year when the deer, turkey, waterfowl, and upland game seasons overlap,

giving hunters a plethora of “Choose your Own Adventure” stories to tell their family and friends during those sit-down mega feasts or while waiting in line to purchase/return that unholy rainbow-knitted sweater.

Having painstakingly endured three unsuccessful turkey years (that’s six seasons) – one of them 7 months pregnant and soaking wet – I opted to forgo turkey altogether this year and instead save my nickels and dimes for a guided deer or other big game hunt later in the season. (Which I did in securing So Cal Guided Hunts on a bear expedition back in November, which I have yet to publish but will soon.) And while suddenly finding myself unemployed in September, making plans for the 2013 hunting season somewhat dim, I still managed to make a trip out to Colorado for a spectacular guided goose hunt with field expert, Tad Stout, from the outfit Good Times Guide Service.

My partner and I met Tad in the parking lot of a Pavilions grocery store in Windsor, Colorado at approximately 4:45 am. The temperature was a cozy 21 degrees. From there we caravanned, followed by another hunter, Gus, in a rented station wagon, to the honey hole just another three miles outside of town. While Tad got busy setting out decoys, we got busy filling out paperwork. I wouldn’t normally mention such a mundane fact if it weren’t for a BOLDED AND DOUBLE UNDERLINED clause in the rules and regulations page of the contract that states very clearly “DO NOT BRING YOUR OWN CALLS UNLESS YOU WANT TO PAY AN ADDITITIONAL $50.” I asked Tad about this clause and he said that he didn’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times (early on in his career) that clients would insist on calling their own birds resulting in a loss of opportunity for the hunters, and a loss of revenue for Tad. So we put away our calls and climbed out of the truck.

There was snow on the ground. The edges of the pond were frozen. The temperature had dropped to 14 degrees. Why didn’t I bring my toe warmers? I’ve only hunted and fished with a guide a handful of times. It’s such a luxury to not have to call your own birds or not have to re-tie your own lure when you break one off in the bottom.

With four of us in the blind we dropped a couple of geese shortly after sunrise. Tad was only shooting back up. We sat silently for another thirty minutes or so before getting off another couple shots at some divers that flew overhead. Unlike the Northern California flyways that I had hunted in the years previous, this particular area, about 90 miles Southeast of Denver, isn’t in a flyway. The waterfowl here are local to the area. There were many geese and mostly greenheads, far fewer teal, spoonies and widgeon than the areas I had hunted in California. The traffic overhead wasn’t as heavy as it was the day earlier, Tad and Gus told us. The day before they’d come and limited out before noon. Such was not to be our luck. We sat there sunrise to sunset and bagged almost 20 ducks and only seven geese.

During the slowest part of the afternoon, the land manager radioed Tad to advise that he’d been out over by the frozen pond next to the house just a few minutes ago and had seen several sitting ducks we might take aim at. Eager to force some warm blood through our veins by way of a little exercise we climbed out of the blind and hiked up a plowed section of the field frozen over with ice. We snuck up on the flock from behind a collection of tractors and other miscellaneous farm equipment.

Our blind partner, Gus, signaled that we should all spread out and sneak up on the ridge, then, quietly, and on his cue, pop up at the same time – hopefully startling the birds off the pond and scattering them. POP – POP – POP – POP – POP – POP. We dropped another three or four mallards right on the spot. Another two sailed and fluttered downstream.Ten minutes after climbing back into the blind, Tad appeared with an extra large, hot and molten pizza topped with everything but the kitchen sink. Now THAT is service!

Good Times books fully guided Canada goose, duck and dove hunts as well as fishing trips. What I really liked about the outfitter was how they priced their services. You paid $125 up front and then $20 for every goose you shot and another $10 for every duck. This really puts the pressure on the guide to do his job and call them in – and Tad did an excellent job despite the mediocre conditions – he really worked those birds (and delivered a pizza!). Now that “leave your calls at home, unless you want to spend another $50” clause was making sense.

The photo taken above is of my son posed with a selection of our harvest. When I shot the photo I didn’t at the time envision it would be our Christmas card, but facing the prospect of donning lame reindeer sweaters and posing on the beach like the folks in 75% of the other Christmas cards you’ll undoubtedly receive this year I thought,

“naw, let’s go with the incredibly awkward family photo concept of our 9 month old son draped in a bunch of bird carcasses.”

I sent out 35 of these cards to friends and family – some of which include vegetarians and closet PETA benefactors. I don’t know how our card was received in those households – whether it was placed on the mantel alongside the reindeer sweater people, or was immediately filed in the circular bin. From our fellow hunters and family members in Texas and Illinois, we’ve received emails, Facebook messages and cards filled with praise.

One of the most rewarding elements of hunting is being able to provide a turkey, a goose or a duck for your holiday dinner the way our ancestors, the pilgrims did, 500 plus years ago. There are many ways to prepare wild game, and for the best recipes I turn to Hank Shaw, Author of Hunt, Gather Cook, and most recently, Duck, Duck Goose. I recently interviewed his life partner, Holly Heyser (currently editor of California Waterfowl magazine and author of the blog Nor Cal Cazadora which I have been reading with great joy for about 3 years now) for a story I’m working on called Ladies of Long Guns…which is way behind schedule…but I digress. Back to food.

For this past Thanksgiving I prepared my own duck sausage, the recipe for which I obtained through Hank’s website. But instead of casing it, I portioned it out into 1 lb. portions and froze it – all but the pound of sausage that I added diced Serrano chilies and jalapenos to before stuffing it into hollowed out mushroom caps that I then topped with Stove Top Stuffing and parmesan cheese.

See full recipe here.

This recipe was a huge hit with extended family on Turkey Day – even those who purportedly “don’t like gamey tasting meat.” In an email from my husband’s cousin, Stacy, last week, “those duck balls” were requested again as Christmas Day appetizers. So I guess the mushroom caps (or duck balls) will be making an encore appearance.

On a side note I feel I should mention that I traveled to Colorado solo – with a baby – and a long gun. Imagine if you will, a small(ish) woman, single-handedly wielding a baby in a carrier and stroller, with a gun case AND a 50 lb. piece of luggage plus her purse and overstuffed diaper bag (my one allotted carry on). Did I mention the hot coffee in my only other free hand? Sounds nightmarish, right? Not really. As it turns out, porters and strangers are more than accommodating when witnessing such a scene. They did most of the heavy lifting for me. Plus, as it turns out, Chicco’s KeyFit 30 carrier/stroller combo easily fits your standard long gun case right in the undercarriage and is just short enough to fit in most airport elevators.

And that’s how I celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. How do you celebrate the most wonderful time of the year?

If you have a bloody awesome Christmas card or wild game recipe to share please post it here in the facebook comments or in the hunting forum for all to enjoy.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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