After college I planned on becoming a serious waterfowler who mostly targeted puddle ducks (blacks, mallards, wood ducks, teal, etc.) over decoys, so my first step was buying a Winchester Model 101 12-gauge over-and-under from Vaughn Cail, a gun-shop owner in Palermo. He had worked at Winchester as a shooting expert and talked me into purchasing the shotgun with 26-inch barrels, and improved-cylinder and moderate chokes.

In those pre-Choke Tube days, manufacturers made shotguns with chokes built into the barrels, so duck-hunting friends called the choice worthless as a duck-hunting tool. However, my decision proved fortuitous, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

I then bought a green, 18-foot, rib-and-plank Old Town canoe with a canvas-covered hull and also camouflage clothing, large camo cloth for a blind, decoys, duck call, boxes of No. 4 shells and an intelligent chocolate Labrador retriever that a novice handler could train. While collecting the gear on a teacher’s salary, I shot clay targets at Cail’s skeet range. I’d done plenty of grouse, flushed in a quartering-away angle, but I wanted to learn how to lead ducks rocketing past. Clay targets refined that skill.

My first duck season arrived and I regularly shot waterfowl on the wing that flew into my decoys, thanks to skeet shooting, so all proved well. I found ’em, shot ’em and retrieved ’em with my dog. No one in my family had hunted or cooked ducks, so I collected myriad recipes.

After all the spent money and learning time, though, I discovered a huge problem: Something about the flavor of ducks turned me off. Woodies and teal struck me as the worst. Duck hunters suggested sauces, baking with bacon strips on top, hiding serving pieces in rich stews, cooking medium rare, etc. (Woodcock sauteed to medium rare in clarified butter pleases my palate, but that technique didn’t work with ducks.) It was depressing to learn how to hunt ducks but hate eating them.

My solution was pragmatic. I loved eating grouse, tolerated woodcock and enjoyed pheasant, so I quit duck hunting and headed to the uplands. The Lab flushed and retrieved grouse, woodcock and pheasant with aplomb, open-chokes worked well against upland birds and L.L.Bean sold all the hunting clothes the heart desired.

Other wild birds have turned my palate off. Sea ducks were far worse than puddle ducks, rail tasted as if I had marinated them in motor oil, and snipe were better but still challenged my palate. I have long since given up hunting them.

Some fish have turned me off as inedible, too, but catch-and-release takes care of that problem – except in other folks’ dining rooms. Once in a Central American fishing lodge, the chef served jack crevalle most nights along with better choices such as common snook. Raw crevalle meat was dark red and cooked to a tan color that tasted like inexpensive cat food.

The lodge owner asked, “How’d ya’ like the jack?”

“It’d be perfect to bake on a plank,” I answered.

After owning a fishing lodge for years, he knew what I meant – bake the jack crevalle on a plank, throw the fish away and eat the plank.

The snook was superb, though, the best.

Discussing the eating quality of game fish reminds me of lake trout. A guide once told a group of us that poaching a laker with quartered carrots in the liquid took care of the poor taste.

I would rather snow-blow my yard than troll deep so I have caught darned few Maine togue except in early spring when fly casters can find them on top. On the other hand, in Quebec’s north country, I have caught many river lakers on flies. The Quebec guides sauteed lakers over coals minus carrots, which tasted fine. In fact, either brookie or laker filets tasted fine with my fried potatoes and guide coffee. Both choices pleased me. I’ve mentioned this last point to Mainers who look at me as if I were winkydoo. Then to appease me they might say, “Togue ain’t bad in a pinch.”

Some endorsement.

When growing up east of Augusta, I knew lots of anglers who trolled deep for togue and headed to destinations such as Moosehead Lake. These days I know darned few people who bother with this large member of the char family, particularly fly rodders who concentrate on casting to salmonids in flowing waters and ponds.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be contacted at:

[email protected]

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