Archive | December, 2009

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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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When Your Dog Gets Cold

Posted on 28 December 2009 by Cork Graham


Ziggy comfy in ice with his Avery 5mm Boater's Dog Parka

So much snow flew across southern Oregon’s Highway 66 at o-two-thirty-dark, as I made my way to Lower Klamath Refuge, that I thought I was going to run off the road for sure. We arrived and then it hit me how cold it was as the warmth of the vehicle left me. I was worried.

I wasn’t hunting with my cold weather hardened duck dog, a 100-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever, I got in Alaska as a three-quarter pound puppy. His being missing really hitting me with sadness as I could just start to see the snowed peak of Mount Shasta in the distance. Seochael (short for Matahan Seochael, Peaceful Bear in Scottish) had passed more than ten years ago.

There's something magical about duckhunting in view of snowcapped Mt. Shasta!

There's something magical about duckhunting in view of snowcapped Mt. Shasta!

By my side was my new bird-hunting companion. Like Seochael before, Ziggy was my utility dog: he not only pointed pheasants and chukar, he would for the first time be taken into the field to retrieve ducks from water. There was only one thing…Ziggy’s a Brittany (we don’t call them Spaniels anymore) more suited to warmer, drier pheasant fields.

Hypothermia kills! Many hunters take their dogs hunting, even in places with conditions not that harsh and don’t even realize that their dog is suffering from hypothermia. Others pull the ego trip, stating, “My dog’s a duck dog, he don’t need any of those newfangled neoprene dog vests…my grand-pappy never had one for his old dog, so why break with tradition!”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for traditions. Hunting being one of my most cherished. But veterinary medicine has come a long way, and what we thought were conditions that dogs were bred for, were in the long run cutting down the longevity and quality of life for a dog, not the least of which is arthritis that comes on early because of extended time in ice cold water. Everything you can do to keep your dog too long in a cold can delay that onset of old dog ailments.

The normal body of a dog is higher than humans: 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If your dog’s body temperature goes below that it’s a bad sign. If it hits 96 degrees your dogs in real trouble! Other symptoms include depression, lethargy, weakness, shivering, muscle stiffness, low heart and respiratory rates, stupor, difficult breathing, and fixed and dilated pupils. Worst of all, as it’s near too late, is coma.

For a dog that had only learned to swim two trips ago, dealing with ice and snow would be no small feat for Ziggy. As it was, it would be until our next trip out to Grizzly Island the week after Thanksgiving, that we’d get into ducks. This Saturday after Thanksgiving that I was hunting Lower Klamath, on the other hand, was a total bust.

What was important was that the conditions were so cold that the area I was hunting required me breaking one to two inches of ice to place dekes, and that the water refroze within only an hour. During all this, my thin-skinned Brittany pointer, did fine: Ziggy doesn’t even like to get wet during a bath. Now he’s a duck-hunting fanatic!

What was it that made something like this possible?

A good neoprene dog vest! It was so important to the venture that I couldn’t wait until I was back at the office in San Francisco to pick up the 5mm and 3mm dog vests that Avery Outdoors had sent me to review. I ended up running over to Medford, Oregon’s Sportsman’s Warehouse the day before the trip to Lower Klamath Refuge: not even two years old, I didn’t want my new hunting buddy dying from hypothermia.

As you can see from Ziggy’s icicled whiskers, it was cold. We don’t get that kind of freeze in the San Francicsco Bay or Sacramento Valley that I normally hunt for waterfowl. As we waited at the ice’s edge for the ducks that never flew (holding in the closed zone to recover from the previous days’ storms-to say we missed it would be an understatement), I would every once in a while slide my hand between the vest and Ziggy’s back. It was like a furnace under that neoprene-and having Ziggy in an Avery Boater’s Dog Parka with its handle harness was an added asset when I had to get him out of the water and onto the ice!

Sure he shivered, but often it was only because he was anticipating birds. By the time we left this ice-cold blue bird day, Ziggy was fine and toasty in his 5mm vest. And it wasn’t only that he was protected from the dry air cold, but he was also defended from the cold of having followed me in the water as I set my mallard and widgeon decoys.

A week later, at Grizzly Island Refuge, conditions were strikingly different. This time Ziggy was chest deep in water with me–and he retrieved his first two ducks, a male and female widgeon! Though we were into December, it felt as though were hunting the much warmer early season, and I felt no guilt in my very warm and comfy 5mm LaCrosse waders, as Ziggy was well protected in his 3mm Avery dog vest.

What’s more, unlike a dog vest I tried on my Chessie, so many years ago, these vests easily fit a number of body types with minimal adjustments. With regards to Brittanies, Ziggy is of the tall and lanky, unlike the shorter and stockier variety, which could easily be snug with the straight chest to waistline of a Lab. And still, the vest fit perfectly. Each vest has a zipper and length of Velcro that goes the length of fastening to enable custom adjustment of 1.5 to 2 inches from chest to waist. Also, you can also trim with a pair of scissors.

As we’re deep into cold weather, do your duck dog a favor and get him or her a neoprene dog vest. And if you’ve got a pointer or Spaniel that you thought might not be a great all-round bird dog, get a neoprene dog vest for your dry field hunting partner and enjoy the extension of a season that stretches into ducks and geese!

In the photo below I’m warm and cozy in a LaCrosse Brush-Tuff™ 1200G MO Break-Up® Waders that arrived just in time.

You can order your dog a vest directly from Avery Outdoors’s Sporting Dog Website.

Ziggy in Avery's 3mm Standard Dog Vest in Shadow Grass camo

Ziggy in Avery's 3mm Standard Dog Vest in Shadow Grass camo

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