Hunting the historic Delta Marsh delivers an incredible mixed bag, lessons in conservation and some wildfowl cooking mastery courtesy of Chef Amanda, who shares her simple and delicious duck poppers technique. A version of this article also ran in The Hunting Wire. Subscribe to it and this blog. It's free.
A visit to Delta Waterfowl's historic Kirchhoffer Lodge at the southern end of Lake Manitoba afforded an opportunity to experience hunting you rarely see in the United States, plus learn about the incredible legacy of waterfowl conservation and research that has taken place in the Delta Marsh for many generations. A bonus was meeting the lodge's chef Amanda Szadkowski, a virtuoso when it comes to preparing waterfowl, a person who ensures even the fussiest "duck tastes like liver"diners leave the table exclaiming, "Wow! That was good."
My early October visit was toward the tail end of the Manitoba season. Ordinarily, most teal have long since left the area for warmer climates. Canvasbacks would be beginning their migration, along with a host of puddle ducks and divers that breed in an around the region. “My goal is for each of you to get a canvasback,” our trip leader Paul Wait explained. Canvasbacks helped make Delta Marsh so famous. Wait is communications director for Delta Waterfowl.
I arrived after dark, bringing a cold rain in with me. Rain pounding on the roof of the historic Kirchhoffer Lodge, coupled with the audible – read “howling” - northwesterly wind had me awake well before my 5 a.m. alarm sounded, wondering what this weather might mean to any morning flight of ducks. Typically, I gauge such assessments on my limited experiences in the Chesapeake Bay area. There, miserable weather just as often keeps birds hunkered in protected pockets of water as it induces them to wake up and fly to feeding areas. But this was new territory and optimism prevailed.
After a drive along muddy levees and back roads (one of our caravan members slid off the road and partially into a marsh ditch requiring a tractor to extricate him), our group loaded into a tracked Argo. Now, my only experience previously with these tortuous beasts was in Newfoundland on moose hunts (click here to see video of an Argo ride in Newfoundland). They tend to beat you up and are famously unforgiving to knees, elbows, rear-ends and anything else that tends to slam into them as you traverse rugged terrain. This Argo, though, must have been the "super, deluxe comfort" model. It was easily the most comfortable of any I've experienced. We snugged parka hoods tight against the wind and rain and rumbled along a two-pronged finger of land jutting out into a small lake in the marsh. Our “geezer seats” awaited, the tongue-in-cheek name given the marsh seats that stick deep into the mud and offer a little support as you nestle into the muck and await incoming ducks. Being a geezer, or at least on the cusp, the seat was most appreciated.
Amazing Waterfowl Diversity
The forecast called for rain and wind through the morning, but daybreak saw the rain subside and the wind lay down. We tucked into the sparse cattails at the end of the point and scanned the sky. The birds didn't make us wait long. Incoming. Boom. Boom. Boom. Two blue-winged teal down, then a couple more. Two bigger ducks swooped in and, realizing something was amiss, hurriedly tried to climb out. Canvasbacks! I shot the drake while Pennsylvanian David Rearick dropped its partner. A few minutes later, a more fully plumed drake canvasback offered me an almost overhead shot. In the split second it took to assess this bird on the wing, my Benelli SBE3 came instinctively to my shoulder. Like many wingshooters, I often shoot better when there is little time to track the bird and plan for my shot..
There isn’t much to add to the discussion about Benelli’s Super Black Eagle 3 shotgun. Simply, it's a great duck gun, winning considerable praise, especially among hunters who face weather scenarios like we had in Manitoba. I used a black, synthetic 12-gauge model. It had the BE.S.T (Benelli Surface Treatment), meaning after a rainy day in the marsh you simply cleaned off any mud and let the gun air dry until the next time out. Across three days of shooting, the proven Inertia-Driven action flawlessly cycled rounds and the Comfort Tech stock and recoil mitigation design cushioned shoulders against load-after-load of three-inch 12-gauge shells.
We were shooting the new Hevi-Metal Xtreme loads, which layers 30-percent original HEVI-Shot, 12-Density tungsten (number 6s) over 70-percent steel (number 3s) pellets. That leading layer of high-density tungsten simply smacks ducks hard, hitting a reported 53 percent harder than the steel layer that follows. The shot is loaded into Federal’s FLITECONTROL FLEX wad. Scott Turner, product line manager for Federal Premium Ammunition and Hevi-Shot, said the new Hevi-Metal Xtreme increases the density of the tungsten pellets compared to the brand’s original blended Hevi-Metal load. He explained that the size 6 tungsten, launched at 1,450 feet per second, has the same ballistic coefficient as the size 3 steel, giving you a solid pattern. That velocity, with that load, offered perfect balance when it came to pattern consistency, Turner said. “At ethical ranges [inside 40 yards], you’re not going to see different points of impact between the different densities,” Turner said. “The reason we put the smaller tungsten up front is that, after launch, it’s
not pushing through that lighter density steel, so you’re not opening up the pattern.”
Turner shared that the loads we were shooting placed 84-87 percent of the total pellets inside a 30-inch patterning target at 40 yards. Incorporating Federal’s FLITECOTROL Flex wad also improves pattern consistency, Turner said. “Consistency is efficiency,” he said.
We shot a four-man limit that first morning, with most birds dead when they hit the water. Even more amazing was the diversity. We had 11 distinct species in the bag, including cans, gadwall, teal, ringnecks, shovelers, scaup, ruddies and more. And we observed three other species, including goldeneye, on the wing.
The predawn hours before day two offered similar heavy wind and rain. Fortunately, the forecast called for things to clear by 8 a.m. I hate it when the weatherman is wrong. That is precisely when the rain kicked in, lasting until noon. We were in a blind and, thankfully, the wind was blowing and gusting at our backs, audibly roaring through trees along massive Lake Manitoba’s shoreline, just a couple hundred yards distant. Still, we picked off birds, including many single gadwall looking for a place to sit down. A dearth of daybreak teal had us wondering if the birds had finally decided to migrate. Many likely did, but not all. Besides the canvasback drakes a day earlier, the highlight came when Saskatchewan writer Lowell Strauss and I each shot banded blue-winged teal. We later learned the ducks were banded that summer by the team of volunteers and technicians that included our guide for the day, Troy Blackwell.
Research studies, along with annual waterfowl banding projects, are among the legacy of the Delta Marsh. Wildlife and wildfowl luminaries and biologists have found their way to the marsh for nearly 100 years. In 1979, a Marsh Ecology Research Project was launched involving the construction of 10 different “cells,” each capable of supporting independent research projects related to waterfowl and habitat. Some were shallow water, others deep water, enabling the study of a wide variety of plant species, soils and more. This project was a partnership between Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, according to Wait, with DU building the cells and Delta then running the student research projects on them. At any given time, 50-75 people were actively working the sites. “The amount of wetland science that came out of this area is remarkable,” Wait said. “Four books and more than 100 scientific studies, doctoral dissertations and master’s degree theses resulted from the work done over the ensuing years. The work is still relevant today.”
Our group got to meet Delta Waterfowl’s CEO, Dr. Scott Petrie, a man who loves his dog Boone and enjoys obviously reciprocal affection. “He’s not much on finding birds if he doesn’t see them go down – has never had any formal training – but he loves to fetch and does a great job on ducks he marks,” Petrie said. Petrie shared that he was a researcher at the marsh back in the 1980s. The work left an indelible mark, along with a passion for the marsh and the effort that takes place throughout the Delta organization.
Petrie shared that he and other Delta leaders see a concerning situation related to the future of conservation and waterfowl hunting. There was a time when most leaders of state and federal fish and game agencies were hunters or, at least, had exposure to hunting traditions. The biologists and policy makers who made recommendations and decisions about species management and habitat also had hunting experience, typically. Today, though, most wildlife management students, the future leaders of many conservation and governmental programs, have minimal or no such exposure. Delta’s own survey research shows that about 70 percent of wildlife management students today have no hunting background. Delta calls it a “looming crisis,” a situation where a generation or more of people now working in wildlife policy positions lack an understanding of hunting’s many virtues and might not share or appreciate the passion hunters bring to conservation.
To address this, Delta Waterfowl began a University Hunting Program in 2017. They actively recruit professors and students, offering instruction that complements regular wildlife courses. A central part of the program is getting these young professionals out shooting and experiencing the wonder of a hunt, whether that be a field hunt for geese or a magical moment in a marsh. They get to experience the planning, logistics and camaraderie, and see the incredible bond between hunters and their dogs. Ideally, they also get to feel that adrenaline-fueled moment when they realize they are transitioning from watchful observer to active participant in a tradition as old as humanity. “We know not all of them will become hunters, but we do know we are planting seeds,” Petrie said.
The program operated at 72 universities (with 415 students) last year, among them Yale, Cornell, Penn State, Florida State and Ohio State. More than 100 are expected to be participating soon. “We want to keep rolling this out to as many universities and colleges that offer wildlife management degrees as possible,” Petrie said.
Another program called “First Hunt” targets waterfowl hunter recruitment. Wait calls it the “largest” in the world, having had more than 100,000 participants since inception in 2003. That program aligns with one of Delta waterfowl’s “Four Pillars” approach to waterfowl conservation, the HunteR3 (hunter recruitment, retention, reactivation) pillar. Other pillars include Duck Production (Hen Houses, Predator Management), Habitat Conservation (policy work, Working Wetlands program), and Research and Education (master’s and PHD research).
Dine on Ducks
Amanda Szadkowski handles the culinary chores for Delta Waterfowl at the Delta Marsh operation, routinely cooking for dozens of diners at a single meal. She has a mastery of all things waterfowl and in pairing side dishes and desserts. Her method of using the sous vide technique to cook duck breasts before searing them in a skillet is one that I will readily adopt. She has experimented with enough cooking ingredients, marinades and seasonings to know what works. Some ducks that many consider wholly unpalatable somehow become delicious with her treatment, often finding their way into fajitas, duck rolls and the recipe we'll look at in more detail here - poppers. The video posted earlier in this package shows how she makes them. Her segment is about a minute in. Check it out if you didn't already.
Simply, she takes duck breasts and trims them into small rectangular strips. These are put in a fajita marinade. She prefers Claude's but bemoans the fact it seems difficult to procure in Canada, so she orders it from Amazon. The other ingredients are bacon, cream cheese and mild, sweet peppers. Mezzetta is a favorite brand. She explains that she first stuffs the peppers with cream cheese. Then, the marinated duck is wrapped around the pepper. The bacon is wrapped around the duck and secured with a toothpick. Finally, you set your smoker/grill on medium-high to high and then cook them until the bacon is thoroughly cooked.
They're meaty and delicious, typically served alongside a couple of other offerings as appetizers. Give them a try with your ducks. You'll like it!
Thanks for reading. Enjoy the outdoors and good, safe hunting.