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Washburn: Confessions of a coot shooter
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Washburn: Confessions of a coot shooter

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There’s something I really need to get off my chest this week. I’m sick and tired of looking over my shoulder. Tired of dealing with the denial. Right here and right now, I’m going to publicly admit -- well, I’m going to admit that I am an unabashed coot shooter! The daily limit on coots is 15 and, sometimes, I shoot lots of them. Not only that -- but I also take the birds home and eat ‘em.

The problem, of course, is that everyone already knows that the lowly coot [a.k.a. mud hen] is totally inedible. It is also common knowledge that coots feed exclusively on mud. Therefore, coots taste like mud. Every waterfowler knows this. Even people who have never spent a single day in the marsh know how terribly inedible coots are. Just ask the next person you see if coots are any good to eat.

Adult coot

An adult coot, a giant member of the rail family.

“What, are you nuts?” they’ll respond. “Don’t you know that coots taste just like mud?” Follow up by asking these same culinary experts when was the last time they ate either coots or mud, and they’ll stare at you as if you’ve just grown a third eye.

Time to move on. Here are the real facts. Coots don’t eat mud. Coots are, in fact, delicious. Too bad the species has been victim to such an undeserved reputation. No migratory gamebird – Yes, I just called the coot a gamebird – has been more maligned, misunderstood or thoroughly underutilized. In the North, coots are treated with outright distain. Virtually no one bothers with them. But in the Deep South, coots are taken more seriously. Journey all the way to the Louisiana delta, and you will have arrived in the Coot Appreciation Capitol of the World.

Down in Louisiana [pronounced Loozee-ana], coots are known as pouldeau – which I’m told is a Creole word for "water hen." Although there are dozens of excellent cajun recipes for the bird, coot gumbo is the most popular. It is also the most complicated and time consuming. On a simpler note, coots can also be used in pot pies, stew, baked with rice or oyster dressing, stir fried with vegetables, or sautéed with mushrooms, onions and peppers.

Once a mess of coots are brought to bag, no birds are easier to process. Simply make a single cut at the lower end of the keel, slip your first two fingers under the hide and pull upwards. In about the time it takes to read this sentence, you’ll be done. Finish by removing fillets from the breastbone. Before cooking, I usually refrigerate the meat in a dry zip lock bag. I’ve also used marinades, which do a good job on the outside grill. Don’t forget to include the legs.

Pouldeau portrait

Ready for a closeup. 

During fall migration, foraging coots become hog fat. The fat is edible, but nobody -- myself included, really needs it. Once meat is thoroughly chilled, I quickly remove all fat with the dull side of a butter knife.

Regardless of which recipe you choose, there is but one hard and fast rule for preparing coots – DO NOT overcook! Treat coot breasts the same as you would your favorite steak. 

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If you’re still feeling skeptical, try this. After safeguarding your image with a proper disguise, go to your favorite wetland, collect a few coots, and then try this simple home taste test. After bringing chilled breasts back to room temperature; season, press and sear meat in a hot oiled skillet. Reduce heat to medium; add minced garlic, butter and some chopped portabella. Cook until mushrooms are soft, and meat is medium rare. Serve alone or with rice. That’s all there is to it; an incredibly simple recipe that a child could master. Here’s the fun part. In spite of negative preconceived notions, I’ve yet to find a single person who didn’t think this recipe was melt in your mouth delicious.

Migrating coots

A flock of migrating coots makes a stopover at Clear Lake. Guided by starry constellations, coot migrations occur entirely at night. Many of the flights terminate on the food-rich wetlands of the Mississippi delta.

COOTS ARE COOL

Commonly referred to as "mud hen or mud duck," the American coot is neither a hen nor a duck. It is instead, a giant member of the rail family. During fall migration, coots become highly conspicuous by congregating in large rafts containing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of birds. Contrary to popular opinion, coots do not eat mud. Instead, they obtain the majority of their food by diving to the bottom of open lakes and marshes where they pull and devour the tender roots, shoots, and seeds of aquatic plants.

When leaving the water, coots require a lengthy running takeoff. Once airborne, their short flights appear weak and clumsy; often terminating with a crash landing back to the surface. But mud hens are capable of conducting strong, long distance migrations that may stretch from central Canada to as far south as northern South America. Coot migrations occur exclusively at night and, in spite of the bird’s incredible abundance, most people will never see the flight. Taking wing at sunset and flying through the night, the birds arrive at their destinations enmass. At daybreak, local duck hunters are often surprised to find their favorite wetlands dotted by hundreds of coots where few or none were present the day before.

In more than 60 years of duck hunting, I’ve only witnessed coot migrations on two occasions. One was at Winnebago County’s Rice Lake, the other at Ventura Marsh in Cerro Gordo County. Both occurred during the first week of November. Amazingly, both events were shared by long time hunting and trapping partner, Ed Kotz.

Coot - on the wing

Although their initial flights may appear weak and clumsy, migrating coots are capable of long-distance journeys — some traveling as far as northern South America.

Identical in nature, both migrations were spectacular mass exoduses that occurred under clear, mostly calm skies. The flights began at sunset when large numbers of coots suddenly began taking to the air. This time, instead of appearing weak or clumsy, their flight was light and buoyant. Upon rising from the water, each coot would begin spiraling upward in wide circles. The birds circled higher and higher until they became mere specks in the ten power binoculars. Reaching their desired altitude, the birds leveled off and disappeared to the south. As daylight diminished, more and more birds joined the exodus until the scene resembled a giant rotating swarm of insects perhaps best described as a "cootnado." At first glance, the flight appeared random and disorganized. But all birds eventually ended up at the same altitude and traveled in the same direction -- forming a continuous parade that stretched for miles.

Firsthand opportunities for viewing a coot migration are apparently so rare that I’ve only heard one other person describe it. That migration occurred at southeast Iowa’s Lake Odessa, where DNR Wildlife Supervisor, Bill Ohde and son Nick had just finished a late afternoon duck hunt. Ohde’s description of the event was a carbon copy of what Ed Kotz and I had observed in northern Iowa.

Enjoy more wildlife tales online at Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog.

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