by Kevin Estela November 18, 2020
The term “surf and turf” usually relates to a dinner entree consisting of one protein from the land and one from the sea. Most of the time, this means steak and lobster or some form of red meat and shellfish or crustacean. If you’re looking to dine out on the frugal side, this menu item is usually on the other far side of the menu. I’m going to take some liberty with the term “surf and turf” and extend “surf” to the rivers and tributaries of the great lakes for the purpose of this monthly blog. I’m writing this and I get to set the rules. Trust me, this story is going to be worth bending the terms. You see, I’ve just had an epic week of hunting and fishing so this article for Fiddleback Forge was certainly going to include the amazing bow hunting experience in Kent, Connecticut and catching monster fish in Albion, New York. Granted, the cost of the gear and travel to get these menu items is far from frugal but the taste is priceless.
On election day earlier this month (Tuesday of course), I decided to wake up early and visit my favorite hunting grounds on private property in Kent, CT. This property belongs to a close friend and features some gorgeous farmland with rich oak trees surrounding the area. I’ve seen plenty of deer on this property before and I had a successful hunt on a nearby property last year. This year would be different though. Earlier in the year, I completed the bowhunting safety course online during “covidcation” and a 2-week mandatory travel quarantine after visiting Arizona. I passed the field portion of the course and successfully demonstrated my capability with my Excalibur Axe 340 crossbow. Yes, I know some of you are probably poo pooing my choice of hunting implement but you still need to get close and you need to be accurate. I had spent a dozen or so mornings in the woods during bow season and while I saw a few deer at greater distances, none were ethically close enough to shoot at. The whole time, I trained, I prepped and I was ready to test my skills on this one day earlier in the week. I’d go solo, like I have many times before, and would rely on all I’ve learned from more experienced hunters and do it on my own. Even though no one was with me physically, I had plenty of giants with me experientially, spiritually, and mentally.
I set up early in the Northeast corner of the field, before sunrise, and knew the wind was coming out of the Southwest. It was the day after a strong windstorm and I had a feeling the deer would be more active with less forceful and unpredictable winds. I had my back to a stone wall with a clear view of the field and I made sure to avoid silhouetting against the backdrop.As the sun came up over the horizon, I spotted two does about 90 yards from me. I am not a trophy hunter and in the words of my hunting buddy, “do you have a recipe for antlers? In other words, buck or doe, they both taste great. I watched these deer enter the field, feed, and gingerly graze as they closed the distance to me. I had my rangefinder and kept checking the distance between us. Moving very slowly and only when their heads were down, I took ranges to different spots in the field to know where 35, 25, and 15 yards were. I had confidence in my crossbow out to 45 yards but wanted to be ethical and challenge myself. It took about 40 minutes for the deer to close to 40 yards but only about 1 minute to walk to within 20 yards. I waited as long as I could for the broadside shot and took it. I couldn’t run the risk of the deer smelling me or spooking and the time was right. The mature doe bolted for the thick woodline and I walked to the illuminated nock of the crossbow bolt sticking in the ground with bloodstains. My aim was true. After 30 minutes, I tracked the doe down through thick blackberry briars. I field dressed it, dragged it out of the woods, loaded it onto the receiver hitch cargo carrier, and drove it over to my buddy Dave’s house to skin and butcher. My first deer, hunted with a crossbow, was added to the books. Turf was ready.
Only two days later, on Thursday, I met up with my friend Jason and Glen to go to Western, NY for our annual trip for trophy-sized trout, steelhead, and salmon. We left around noon and arrived in Albion, NY around 6pm. That night, we sorted gear and slept early as we would wake the next 4 days around 3:30am to secure a prime spot at Oak Orchard around 4am. Readers of this blog may recall the name of this destination from a previous blog a couple years ago. Oak Orchard, once again, did not disappoint although we had spotted luck this year with varying water flow. On day one, I was skunked except for a single half-rotten salmon I grabbed with my bare hands for a photo op before releasing it back to the water. Jason and Glen used center-pin rods and reels and I used my favorite spin fishing gear including a St. Croix rod and Shimano Stradic reel. We fished for 10 hours each day starting around 6:30am in the morning. The only breaks we took were to rehydrate and perhaps catch 20 minutes of a mid-afternoon nap on the riverbank. You want to make sure not to venture too far from your spot or else you run the risk of losing it to another anxious angler looking to hook the big one. Each day, we fished until dark, returned to our cabin, and heated up meals we premade and packed along in coolers for convenience. The deer I shot earlier in the week became a venison stew one night and we ate like savages. From the time we got back to the cabin to the time we fell asleep was probably only 2 to 2.5 hours each night. Not one night were we awake after 9pm.
For the four days we fished, we all had mixed luck. On one day, I lost close to a dozen hookups and so did many of the guys on the river. The salmon, brown trout, and steelhead were sometimes active but were mostly reluctant to try out the egg sacks we tied up and used as bait. We cast thousands of times, no exaggeration, and this year we had fewer landed fish than in years past. At times, we went from fishing to wishing. We still did really well with Jason catching the largest fish, Glen catching the most fish on the last day even after the water was drawn down, and me landing some of the most beautiful fish in my own personal records. “EAT, SLEEP, FISH” is a bumper sticker but it also is the way we live when we fish the Oak. It sounds crazy to spend the majority of your day in waders in the water with guys up and down the river for as far as the eye can see but that’s what this trip is all about. Ok, well it is also about making fun of one another, telling plenty of crude jokes, and cursing anytime a fish unhooked or was lost. As always, it was a great trip and we took home salmon, trout, and steelhead to put in our freezer before the winter weather rears its ugly head. Surf was ready now too.
One week after putting the deer down in the field and only a day or two after putting fish on the stringer, it came time to put the two together and make an epic “surf and turf” meal. For me, this means venison cooked sous vide and steelhead grilled to perfection. The sous vide treatment (125 degrees for 2 hours) renders the wild game so soft you can literally cut it with a spoon. My friend Patrick Smith of Kifaru and Mountainsmith fame turned me onto this method and my life has never been the same since. Coarse ground pepper, kosher salt, and some avocado oil was all the seasoning needed. The steelhead was cooked with minimal seasoning as well, grilled skin side down on a copper grill mat and finished with a garlic butter. The copper mat makes it easy to cook fish without it falling apart and through the grill grates. I wouldn’t even worry about the vegetable pairing for this meal. Vegetables are boring when you have two wild meats like this. In less than one week, this epic combination was taken from the land and put on my table.
I’m a sportsman, a foodie, and someone who enjoys sharing my travels with my readers. Food brings humans together and the stories you can share about that food make great dinner conversations. I only wish I had enough food to provide all of you around an incredibly large dinner table. All I can do is hopefully inspire you to recreate a surf and turf (remember the extended definition) meal of your own. The meal tastes even better with the satisfaction of knowing where it came from and the fun you had in the process. Good luck out there in the field, shoot straight, keep tight to your line, eat well, and live life to the fullest.
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