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Central California Cottontails with a .22 cal Crosman Pellet Gun

Posted on 10 February 2010 by Cork Graham

Cork Graham with a freshly taken Sylvilagus audubonii, using a .22 Crosman pellet gun

Cork Graham with a freshly taken Sylvilagus audubonii, using a .22 Crosman pellet gun

Whenever a rerun of Spy Game is broadcast, I always smile when I hear Brad Pitt’s answer to Robert Redford’s question about how he became a sniper: shooting team in the Boy Scouts. For me it was my Daisy BB gun and trips out to Lake Pond Oreille, every summer we visited my grandparents in Spokane, when my family home as the son of American expat businessman was Saigon and Singapore during the 1960s and 1970s. Trying to hit the metal band of a log piling reaching six feet above the surface of Pend Oreille, 70 yards offshore from the porch of our family friend’s cabin, was a lesson in trajectory and wind.

I shot every chance I got during those summers, because when we returned to Southeast Asia, I would have to leave my marksmanship to slingshots and low poundage field archery equipment. Firearms and even BB guns were illegal to possess in Southeast Asia.

Shoot enough years it’s hard not think fondly of those early days, out in a field plinking at tin cans and perhaps sniping a bird or rabbit for the family table. When an excuse to try out the new “adult” pellet guns came up—we’re now legally allowed to use pellet guns of at least .20 caliber to hunt wild turkey in California—I called up Crosman to try out one of their .22 line.

…Plus, I’ve received a number of cookbooks I have to review from American authors and those across the pond, like Darina Allen and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, two well-known and respected cooking writers in Ireland and England, who really know how to do wild game justice: a big fat cottontail would be a perfect entree!

What arrived in the mail was a .22 Cal. Remington(R) NPSS Digital Camo. Talk about accurate. With a rifled bull barrel and a large objective scope on top, and nearing 1,000 feet per second it looked like a sweet combination for small game and hitting a turkey in the head. What makes the drawback, though—like it can with any firearm—is the trigger.

I’m all about triggers as you may have guessed. A crisp trigger with a light poundage triggerpull (2-3 pounds), greatly assists a shooter in their keeping a tight group. What a trigger on a pellet gun that relies on a spring, just like a majority of triggers you find on crossbows (except the well-designed trigger from Excaliber Crossbows), has going against it is that it delivers that “Boing!” that does wonders in knocking off a marksman’s focus on the target.

As with a conventional bow, follow through is very important. That’s where a smooth trigger helps in keeping that target fixation: As if using a bow, you keep your bow focused on the target, and with a rifle you keep your crosshairs on the target for a few seconds after you shoot.

Now, if you’ve tried the triggers on break-action, as Crosman calls, it “break-barrel”, pellet guns, you’ll notice that the trigger does have that sponginess that makes it hard to predict exactly when the gun is breaking. But, because of this, and also because of the lack of a significant recoil, pellet guns are a great training tool to improve you shooting skills.

Though many would think that improving shooting means learning how to deal with heavy recoil, it’s really about learning how to work a trigger, and in conjunction with breathing and beats of your heart. When you can overcome the uneven resistance of a break-barrel pellet gun trigger, you’ll have mastered the even squeeze necessary to hit a target with a fine-tuned firearm.

A great work on the act of integrated shooting (breathing, heart rate, trigger squeeze), is on page 180 of The Ultimate Sniper [Updated and Expanded], by a man I highly respect for his work, background, and teachings Major John L. Plaster—I’ll be conducting a Cork’s Outdoors Radio interview with him soon, so stay tuned!

Armed with that Crosman .22 Cal. Remington(r) NPSS Digital Camo, and having already been successful on wild boar earlier that day at Native Hunt, described in last week’s column, Michael Riddle and I put the pig in the roaster and jumped in my truck.

We drove over to another property that makes up 27,000 acres of prime land that Native Hunt has sole hunting rights to, and found the cottaintails that had teased me earlier while we waited for a  longbow hunter that was slated for hunting pigs that morning.

As usual, the cottontails didn’t show until the last hour of daylight, something that made the large objective scope a real asset. When I took my first shot, Riddle called out, “High!”

Adjusting, the next shot hit lower, but not enough. Peter Cottontail bounded off, sitting just short of a clump of weeds.

Lowering the reticle of the scope yet again, I took another shot at Sylvilagus audubonii, otherwise known as the desert cottontail rabbit, prevalent in Central California and much fatter and larger than the small bush cottontail I was accustomed to hunting in Mendocino National Forest as a teen. A .22 pellet hit Sylvi Auduboni in the head with the effect of a light switch being turned off.

Wide-eyed, I looked at Riddle. “Dang!”

These little pellet guns pack a punch. Only a 20 yard walk to where he lay, the cottontail rabbit was stoned cold dead, not even convulsing. Not wanting my Brittany Spaniel, Ziggy, getting interested in rabbits, I walked quickly past the backseat of my Dodge Ram Quad Cab (Ziggy staring at me, and the just-departed Sylvi in my hand, from the backseat), and put Sylvi in the back of the truck payload.

In an hour, Riddle and I would be back at the Native Hunt Lodge, checking the doneness of the pig in the Caja China, and skinning Sylvilagus auduboni deciding which review volume I’d be referring to in order to cook the prime pink cottontail meat and its heart, liver and large kidneys: The River Cottage Book, The River Cottage Meat Book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best – Over 700 Recipes Show You Why, or maybe even Pot-Roasted Rabbit with Prunes and Pinot-Noir from Chef John Folse’s eloquently illustrated and easy to follow gamecook’s bible After the Hunt: Louisiana’s Authoritative Collection of Wild Game & Game Fish Cookery, with a Papapietro-Perry 2007 Peters Vineyard Pinot-Noir from the Russian River Valley.



  1. On the Track of the Wily Wild Boar Babi Guling
  2. The River Cottage Meat Book by Michael Fearnley-Whittingstall [Book Review]

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Pheasants: Hang ’em High!

Posted on 31 December 2009 by Cork Graham

What a horrible reputation the ringnecked pheasant has: tough, wiry, tasteless, dry. If only those who had shot and cooked that prize bird (pheasants in days of old were only available in Europe to the conquering Romans who brought it from Asia and their descendants who became the rulers of Europe west of the Rhine), had properly applied aging.

Good game bird cooking all starts in the field, and carries through in the days before a bird is either cooked or put in the freezer for a later date. How long, was the question I put to my new hunting friend and writer, Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.

Hank Shaw and Cork Graham along with Ziggy after a successful pheasant opener.

Hank Shaw and Cork Graham along with Ziggy after a successful pheasant opener.

 His suggestion was three to four days for a bird club pheasant, that’s basically a chicken that has been getting fast and sassy on a remote feeding system with poultry feed, as was available to us on our first hunt together at the Stockton Sportmen’s Club.

For a wild bird, Shaw’s suggestion was seven days. This is often the recommendation used in Europe, especially the UK. Whether you talk to culinary expert Hank Shaw, or one of those cooking writers we both admire, like British writer Clarissa Dickson Wright, you can’t go wrong with aging your bird–whether two days, three days or until the head separates from the body.

Yes, in traditional British bird aging, pheasants used to hang until it became so rotten it fell to the ground.

When I first moved from combat journalism to outdoor writing, as the outdoors columnist for the last large family-owned newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area, The Times of San Mateo in 1994 (It was eaten up the ANG /Denver-based MediaNews Group conglomerate in 1997 [renamed The San Mateo Times], along with the Oakland Tribune, Alameda Star and a number of other Bay Area papers [you’ll notice the columnists and writers are the same for all those papers]–All they wanted were the printers and real estate. Within a month, all journalists got their pink slips, if they weren’t already looking for more secure pastures…so much for honest local coverage; sadly, this is the way of The Press in the New Millenium: Thank God for the Internet!), I was invited to the Gabilan Valley Sportsmans Club to hunt pheasants for an article. My Chesapeake Bay retriever had his first chance at pheasants and we both had a phenomenal time.

As we were leaving, the owner recommended that we hang our birds. The suggestion was to hang them by the long tail feathers. Depending on how many days and the temperature, the pheasant would fall, indicating that it was ready to pluck and cook or put in the freezer.


Personally, I prefer to eviscerate all my game and fish within moments of the kill. It cools the game quickly, which in the Sunshine Land of California is a priority, and more importantly removes all the body fluids that begin seeping into the cavity.

Microscopically, body organs are actually very porous. It’s almost like a sieve. When the body is alive, those organ membranes are vibrant, contracting and expanding to hold or release fluids, as the body needs. When the body dies and the autonomic nervous system no longer controls those actions and fluids that taint meat like urine, stomach acid and bile, those fluids begin a slow release.

It’s the immediate killing, bleeding and gutting of the trout, that I’ve caught or taught others to catch and prepare for the table, that draws the compliments for their taste.

On the other hand, pheasants, along with waterfowl, can often be improved by leaving the innards in during the aging process. You simply hang them whole up in a cool, airy place. This is Hank Shaw’s preferred method.

Personally, I like to keep the innards and use them for a number of table offerings: gravy bits, pate, to name just a few. So, leaving my pheasants, ducks and waterfowl whole is not an option.

The problem is that birds can dry out in the process of them hanging with an empty body cavity. Shaw offered a remedy: stuff a paper towel in place of the organs. It worked fine.

So what’s my method for aging pheasants and ducks and geese for that matter? Simply pluck some feathers around the vent. With the bird on its back, make a small slit above the vent, parallel to the outstretched wings. Just under the point of the breast bone is perfect.

Reach in with two to three fingers and draw out the intestines, gizzard, heart, coagulated blood, etc. Wash off the heart, liver and gizzard.

The gizzard is my favorite for gravy, also quick grilling. After washing it off, slit it down the middle and remove the tough inner skin that is all calloused by months or years of grinding gravel to digest grain. Trim all that might be green from the gizzard fluids. Wash it again after you’ve removed all suggested: inner skins, gravel and grain.

Pay special attention to the gall bladder attached to the liver. It’s dark in color. The dark black or green comes from the bile inside. If that touches any meat or the livers, it’s ruined. Cut it away while making sure to not contaminate your fingers. With heart, trimed liver and gizzard, washed, put them in a Ziploc bag to place on ice. They’ll go in the freezer for another day.

Wash out the inside of the bird and wipe it out a couple times with paper towel. Then, place one or two paper towels in the empty cavity, doing your best to keep any outside materials like dirt, dust or feathers coming in along with the stuffed paper towels.

Shaw has created a nice regulated aging box out of his wine refrigerator. I like to just hang my birds by their feet from a nail in one of the rafters in the cool open area of my garage. Depending on the air temperature, I’ll hang my birds between one to three days.

Pheasants hanging in the garage.

Pheasants hanging in the garage.

I prefer my birds lightly aged as I’m doing it more for the tenderizing of the meat and helping the birds best retain its moisture while cooking, which I add to with a one day stay in a brining solution once I’m preparing to cook it.

I’ll check the birds everyday to make they’ve not gone over the edge. It’s really just a process of checking the smell. There’s the birdy smell that the pheasant has when it’s freshly killed. Once the bird begins a slight ripening, I’ll immediately pluck the bird, wash it off and then stick it in the refrigerator for at least one or two days. In a Ziploc they’ll last for up to 7 months with no problem.

If you want to keep them for up to a year and a half, sink them in water in a Ziploc and the ice will keep them from getting freezer burn and drying out, just like a wooly mammoth.

…Hank Shaw has been commissioned to write a book–so stay tuned!

Happy New Year!

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After the Shinto Priest

Posted on 17 October 2009 by Cork Graham

Ziggy and me in El Dorado NF
Ziggy and me in El Dorado NF

My girlfriend keeps calling the California Valley Quail the Shinto priest and it’s starting to stick: those single head feathers do make them look like a Japanese priest. I’ve been chomping at the bit to hunt quail with my new, young Brittany. But, last weekend the quail season hadn’t opened in the area I wanted to scout out.

Instead, we went hunted last weekend for Mountain quail after reading an article in Western Outdoor News (WON), and of course the areas mentioned in the articles were hammered. Sadly, it was evident not just in the scarcity of birds [got only one opportunity–at the end of the long walk, of course] but in the number of spend shotgun cartridges littering the mountain roads in El Dorado NF.

This week I’m headed to another place, BLM property, for the general opener of California valley quail. I’ll be headed for the Sierras again, the lower Sierras this time. Going to be interesting to hunt public land during an opener like quail, especially after learning the Clear Creek Management Area near Hollister has been closed. That was one large piece of property full of quail, turky and pigs. Won’t be opened until next fall.

Well, I guess I should get some sleep, but I’m revved to take Ziggy for his second quail hunt. I’ll be hunting with, Nick Nigelbaum, 26, one of the co-founders of the The Bull Moose Hunting Society. Will report next week!

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