At Nebraska duck blind, waterfowl hunters fed gourmet meals

TEKAMAH, Neb. — It’s cold and dark as a group rolls out of pickup trucks, crunches through thin snow past oodles of bird decoys and huddles into a long, rectangular box placed just so, right under the horizon, near the banks of the Missouri River. Blue light starts to brighten the sky. It’s just before 7 a.m., and the duck blind is quiet.

Anyone who’s gone on a hunt knows this drill and this scene, or one like it. But this duck blind, owned by Pheasant Bonanza, is different.

It’s heated. There’s a line of camouflaged men munching chocolate croissants and cinnamon twists and drinking hot, percolated coffee made on the blind’s two-burner gas stove. And on this morning, there will be three courses from chef Nick Strawhecker, there to participate in the hunt but also to cook the style of Italian he’s become known for at his Dante Ristorante.

“This is the greatest duck blind for eating,” said Pender native Mark Lorensen. “That’s for sure.”

It also might be the most Nebraska version of the farm-to-table trend yet. Hunters will eat local food prepared by a local chef while hunting local food less than an hour from Omaha.

“Flight to table” came about after Strawhecker met hunting guide Aaron Schroder, who led the chef on a few hunts this fall. Schroder told Strawhecker about this blind, posh by most standards, and how he regularly cooked breakfast for hunters on site, things like scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy. Strawhecker proposed taking over the cooking in the blind one morning, and an idea was born.

The Omaha World-Herald reports the hunters each paid $250 for this daylong experience, which begins quietly with those sweets from Omaha bakery Le Petit Paris, and lots of hot, black coffee.

Schroder sits on a high stool between two long benches, each holding about four hunters, their shotguns propped in front of them, illuminated by the red glow of the whirring heaters.

Schroder, in a tan stocking cap and glare-reducing sunglasses, pokes his head just above the Duracover — a plastic, straw-like material — covering the blind’s opening. His eyes scan the sky for ducks and geese.

Around 7:45 a.m., he calls for quiet, his eyes darting back and forth over the horizon, as he grabs one of the four calls hanging from his lanyard and starts calling.

To his left, another hunter furiously waves a big black plastic flag, called a goose flag. From a distance, the motion resembles birds’ wings. Despite the effort, the birds pass.

“There’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” Schroder says, chuckling.

While they wait, there’s plenty of time to talk, and cook. Around 9 a.m., Strawhecker gets to work at the stove.

“Let’s cook some pasta,” he said.

He pours half-frozen water into a big pot and in another starts heating chicken brodo, a chicken stock, made at Dante. He seasons the brodo with fresh thyme stalks, lemon juice and salt. Homemade tortellini, each filled with boar meat — it came from a regular customer who shot the animal in Texas — lemon zest and Grana Padano cheese, goes into the water. A few minutes later, hunters quietly slurp down with plastic spoons the first course: warm, rich broth, tender pasta, hearty meat.

Strawhecker drops a rounded spoon of duck fat into a hot, heavy-duty cast iron skillet, which sizzles and smokes in the small space.

He drops rounds of tigelle, an Italian quick bread served in Bologna that’s topped with all sorts of things and served as a snack, into the oil and then sprinkles the golden rounds liberally with salt. Hunters top theirs first with local raspberry jam and Dante’s house-made coppa salumi, an Italian pork cold cut Strawhecker’s been saving for a special occasion. A second round comes with local honey and fennel pollen.

Strawhecker talks about what wines he’d pair with the tigelle, reading the ones he brought for post-hunt enjoyment.

“I have some tall boys in my truck,” Schroder jokes between bites. “But that sounds good, too.”

The duck blind sits just two miles from where Schroder grew up, outside Tekamah.

He moved first to Seattle and then to New York before returning. Pheasant Bonanza, the company Schroder works for, acquired the blind and installed it last summer about 300 yards from the banks of the Missouri, on a river bend. They built a lake near the river and installed the blind on a peninsula.

The blind was the last to belong to renowned Nebraska hunter and guide Ralph Kohler, who retired in 2014 after more than 75 years of guiding hunts near Tekamah.

“There’s some kind of mojo in it,” Schroder said.

He invested thousands of dollars in decoys and, in the off season, trains hunting dogs. One of them, a svelte black Labrador named Stormy, lies in wait in her own blind behind Schroder’s.

Now he runs hunts for ducks and geese in this blind and always serves breakfast.

“There is a lot more to this than pulling the trigger,” he said.

Conversations fade into one another as the group waits, with hunters talking about the best brands of waders and meals they had at restaurants outside Omaha. One man dozes.

As the clock rolls past noon, the hunters get another opportunity. Schroder repeats the process — eyes fixed on the sky, asking for quiet, a burst of calling and then, one word.

“Go!”

Hunters pop out of the blind like they’re part of a human game of whack-a-mole, and after a flurry of shots, one bird goes down. Schroder calls on Stormy, who bounds back and forth until she returns proudly toting a green-headed drake mallard.

Because there’s only one, the hunters won’t eat this duck this afternoon, but Strawhecker came prepared with duck confit and large duck eggs in his cooler. He whips them into the day’s final course: tomato posole, a thick stew made with chili paste, guanciale (Italian cured pork), and hominy from South Carolina’s Anson Mills. He poaches the duck eggs, and, after they’re done, tops the bowl with tender duck confit and the soft-cooked, runny egg. Part chewy, part crunchy, the aromatic corn stew is topped by lots of homemade condiments: kimchi and pickled jalapenos. The hunters eat this final course with appreciative silence.

Though this food is higher-end than usual for the hunters and Schroder, this style of in-blind dining is nothing new. In fact, he calls breakfast in the blind a “Burt County tradition.”

“This has been going on here for years,” Schroder said. “It’s special to be doing this. I think this area is a pretty good-kept secret. It’s one of the last places to do this.”

 

Categories: Firearms, Waterfowl

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