Eating Local

By Brian Flowers | December 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: December 2021
Two hunters shoot at doves
Eating Local

It seems that everywhere you look these days, there’s a message about what you should or shouldn’t eat. More and more, Americans are conscious of where their food comes from and how it got to their table. Terms like “locavore,” a person whose diet primarily consists of food grown or produced locally, or “organic,” food that is grown or made without artificial chemicals, have made their way into our everyday language.

For many Missourians, hunting, fishing, and foraging provide a welcome supplemental source of protein and natural healthy food. While my wife, JoAnne, and I still shop at the local grocery store, we enjoy supplementing our meals by raising a backyard garden and foraging for wild edibles. Last summer, we grew tomatoes, onions, lettuce, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans. All of this in a small 6- by 40-foot plot in our urban backyard. We also ease our food budget by gathering wild mushrooms and utilizing the wild game I bring home from my favorite activity — hunting.

I started hunting and fishing as a child, mentored by family and friends, and I was lucky to have a wooded area right across the road from my house. I spent many days wandering and exploring nature. As I got older, I became more successful and that meant food for the table. I harvested my first deer and several turkeys within a stone’s throw of my childhood home. I remember being ill-prepared for processing my first deer and calling on my schoolteacher Mr. McLeary to guide me in field dressing it.

To this day, I’ve continued to supplement our family meals with wild game, a resource that’s available to all of us. For those wishing to do the same, let’s break it down and examine how you can start going from field to fork.

Small Game: Squirrels

Growing up in south-central Ozarks, I had a leg up when it came to finding wild game to hunt. It seemed that wild places were literally just down the road or around the corner. Because they were abundant, one of the first species I learned to hunt were squirrels. On the spectrum of difficulty, squirrel hunting doesn’t require special equipment, techniques, or skills to master. While some may see the squirrel as a backyard nuisance or a birdseed thief, squirrels can form the basis of some of the most delicious wild game meals you can enjoy.

Most all hunting comes down to finding where the game want to be. For squirrels in the late summer and fall, that means large hickory or oak trees. Missouri has two species of tree squirrels — fox squirrels, called “red squirrels” by many, and eastern gray squirrels. Fox squirrels are the larger of the two species. They tend to be found near the edges of timber stands, in isolated woodlots, and open woods without much understory, along timbered ridges and uplands, and even in hedgerows. Grays are more likely to occur in extensive tracts of forest and bottomlands, but it’s not unusual to find both species using the same area. No matter which you hunt, you’ll want to choose younger squirrels, which will provide tender meat for the table.

A bit of scouting will help you find public conservation areas with hickory and oak trees. You’ll find that squirrels in August and September will be high in the tree canopy, cutting and eating nuts. Hunters can utilize the tree cover to stalk within easy range of feeding squirrels. Move slowly through the woods, scan the treetops for movement, and listen for the sounds of rustling leaves, indicating squirrels jumping from limb to limb. Also watch the ground for freshly cut nut hulls. If you find fresh cutting sign, find a comfortable seat and relax, you’ll most likely see squirrels soon. As the fall progresses and trees lose their leaves, you may hunt by posting up under larger trees and waiting for squirrels to make an appearance.

Either way you choose to hunt, you’ll want to wear camouflage clothing and be conscious of your movements and noise while in the woods. A .22 caliber rifle, .410, or 20-gauge shotgun are the preferred firearms for effectively taking squirrels.

Kevin Lohraff, manager of the Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City, loves to squirrel hunt and from an early age enjoyed homemade meals of squirrel and wild game.

“I love hunting squirrels,” Lohraff said. “They are practically everywhere, and I don’t have to travel far to find them. They live in nearly all wooded public land and since squirrel season is long, I can fit a squirrel hunt between other hunts, floats, and fishing trips from early summer through winter.”

Squirrel and Dumplings

Squirrel and dumplings, one of Kevin’s favorite recipes, can be found in Cooking Wild in Missouri by Bernadette Dryden.

Cut three squirrels in pieces and boil for 1½ to 3 hours until just before the meat begins to fall off the bones. Remove pieces from the pot and set broth aside for later use. Roll pieces in seasoned flour, and brown them in a little oil in a big cast-iron skillet (make sure it is deep and has a good-fitting lid). Remove the squirrels and set aside. Then get busy making lots of gravy.

To make gravy, add hot broth to the skillet containing the drippings. Stir well. In a cup, mix some of the broth with flour to make a paste. Add that to the pan and whisk until gravy is thickened to your satisfaction. At this point, I usually add sauteed mushrooms and fresh garlic, parsley, and black pepper. Add squirrel pieces to the gravy.

Make the drop biscuits using your favorite recipe. Drop the batter by heaping tablespoons atop the meat and gravy in the skillet. Place lid on tightly and cook on top of the stove until the dumplings are done.

Fast Flying Game: Dove

The mourning dove is one of the most popular game bird species. Annually, as many as 900,000 people hunt doves in the U.S. When looking for how to prepare dove for the table, you’ll likely find a variety of ways to enjoy your harvest. From dove on the grill wrapped in bacon, and casseroles made with dove, to dove and dumplings, it’s easy to turn this game bird into magnificent table fare.

Missouri is home to three species of doves, including the mourning dove, white-winged dove, and Eurasian collared-dove. Doves feed on a variety of planted crops and natural food. Harvested wheat stubble, corn silage, and sunflower fields are the most popular places to find doves. A pond with an exposed bank adjacent to feeding areas is also a sure bet. I often see doves loafing in the tops of dead trees close to feeding areas.

No matter which area you choose to hunt, you’ll need to do plenty of scouting first to ensure a good hunt. Doves are very sensitive to hunting pressure, so just because you have a good shoot today doesn’t mean it’ll happen tomorrow. Doves are also migratory, so as fall temperatures begin to decline, so do dove numbers as they move south.

Dove hunting doesn’t require a lot of equipment to get started. A 20- or 12-gauge shotgun with shot in size 7½ or 8 will do just fine. A prepared hunter will have camouflage clothing and a chair or bucket to sit on in the field. While hunting doves won’t require a lot of equipment, it does demand that you practice some wing shooting before going afield. Practice with your shotgun before the season by shooting clay birds at a target range. Shooting left and right crossing targets will ensure you’re ready for fast flying doves when the season starts.

Doves are easy to field dress and prepare for the table. First remove the skin and feathers exposing the breast. Then pull gently on the breastbone to remove it from the carcass. The breast meat can be filleted from the bone, cleaned properly with cool water removing any shot, feathers, or damaged meat. You may choose to marinate the dove breast overnight or just send them right to the grill. Sprinkle the breast with a bit of garlic salt and black pepper, then wrap in a half slice of bacon with a slice of jalapeño and some cream cheese. Secure with a toothpick. Grill 3–5 minutes or until bacon is crisp.

Fast Food: Venison

Annually 500,000 people in Missouri hunt whitetail deer. Deer seasons are long, running generally from September 15 to January 15, and deer can be found in all 114 counties of the state. Combine season length, abundance, and over 2.5 million acres of public hunting lands and this is a formula for success. Deer season is a long-standing tradition in Missouri with many hunters joining annual hunting camps where stories are told around campfires, hunters catch up on the latest gossip, and good food is shared.

The first lesson for a new deer hunter is preparation, and one of the most important elements is scouting. I normally begin by looking at satellite images of the area I’ll be hunting. I look for potential feeding areas and bedding areas. Well ahead of the season I take a hike to confirm what I’ve seen on maps and photos. One of my favorite tips is to find “funnels,” areas where deer travel between bedding, feeding, and loafing areas. If you can locate these areas, you’re almost assured of a successful hunt. Just like people, deer are creatures of habit and successful hunters take the time to learn those habits and behaviors in their area.

Be conscious of your scent and which way the wind may be carrying it. Find areas where you’re able to stay downwind from potential deer travel corridors and trails. Deer hunting doesn’t require special expensive equipment to get started. A basic bolt action rifle in a larger caliber or archery equipment is a must but building a ground blind or just learning to sit still under a large tree are skills that anyone can master.

My favorite recipe for venison is smoked jerky. When processing my deer, I save a portion for grinding, removing as much of the white connective tissue as I can. Once ground, I use any number of commercially available jerky seasoning mixes. You’ll mix your ground meat with the jerky seasoning mix and cure. Let it sit for 24–48 hours in a refrigerator. Remove the meat and use a jerky gun to layout nice even strips of meat on metal racks for smoking. Utilizing my pellet smoker, I’m able to smoke the venison at 185 degrees for two-and-a-half hours. My final product is tender, delicious, and similar to products you might find in a store. Jerky done this way won’t be shelf stable so refrigerating or freezing is necessary.

No matter how you choose to enjoy Missouri’s abundant resources, getting outside to hunt, fish, or forage provides a unique and tasteful experience.


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This Issue's Staff

Stephanie Thurber

Angie Daly Morfeld

Larry Archer

Cliff White

Dianne Van Dien
Kristie Hilgedick
Joe Jerek

Shawn Carey
Marci Porter

Noppadol Paothong
David Stonner

Laura Scheuler