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Illinois hunting and fishing

Duck breast wrapped in bacon was one of the many dishes at the Independent Sportsmen’s Club wild game feed at Kickapoo Sportsmen’s Club.

Cooks get creative with wild game

February 10, 2009 at 07:32 AM

Part of the challenge for cooks at the Independent Sports Club’s wild game feed is the unpredictable combination of meats that will fill the freezer.

“We just have to wait and see what gets brought in, and then we cook it,” said Ray Secker, a hunter and wild game cook from Kickapoo. “That’s the fun part for us.”

During the four years the event has been held at the Kickapoo Sportsman’s Club, the gamut has included various types of fish, wild boar, duck, goose, wild turkey, pheasant, dove, raccoon, squirrel, rabbit, black bear and beaver.

Dishes have included “bear balls” (meatballs from black bear), deer spaghetti, deer goulash, pheasant stroganoff, marinated goose kabobs and barbecue sandwiches featuring beaver, raccoon and boar.

This year’s Jan. 24 wild game feed served 605 plates and raised more than $10,000 to support youth sports programs in the Tri-County Area. Celebrity guests were Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins and former big-league catcher Ozzie Virgil Jr.

“The options are awesome,” said Virgil, who travels to central Illinois for goose and pheasant hunting. “I’ve never had the chance to eat this many different types of game. Bear? Where else do you eat bear?

“A lot of the foods, you expect them to be a lot more gamey. It’s all how you prepare it. I’ve tasted some stuff here that wowed me. They’re just a lot different than what you would think.”

The cooks know it’s one thing to get a skittish guest to try duck or goose, and quite another to talk him or her into sampling raccoon or beaver.

“I made the barbecued beaver,” said Kickapoo resident Denny Ralston. “There was a guy who ate one, ate two, ate three sandwiches. He kept saying it was the best barbecued beef he’d ever had. Finally, somebody told him it was beaver. Halfway through the fourth sandwich, it finally dawned on him what he was eating. He laid it down and walked out the door.

“The guy would do the same thing with raccoon as he did with beaver. It’s great until they know what it is. Then it’s a mind game.”

That’s why Ralston couldn’t help himself on the night before the wild game feed when a reporter dropped in to watch a crew of volunteers preparing dozens of game dishes. After a sample of raccoon had been chewed, Ralston began to rack his brain.

“I got two from (Route) 150, one from Taylor Road and the other one from Jubilee,” Ralston said.

“No he didn’t,” interjected event chairman Dan Kelch, perhaps sensing the reporter’s panic at having eaten roadkill.

In truth, the raccoons had been shot by area hunter Dick McKown.

Although the idea turns the stomachs of many, Ralston said preparing raccoon or beaver meat is as simple as putting the meat into an 18-quart roaster for six hours at 350 degrees, then letting the meat fall off the bone. They can be boiled in vegetables, but he said those meats only need be seasoned with something as simple as salt and pepper, with maybe a bit of garlic powder.

“If they want to put ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce or whatever on it, they can,” Ralston said. “Myself, I can eat it like that. I put it on a sandwich and go with it.”

Raccoon sandwich, anyone?

“Yeah,” Ralston said. “It depends on my mood. Hell, it would be good with mayo or horseradish.”

Secker, who hunts squirrels and rabbits, also realizes not-so-traditional meats scare the average diner. But he never resorts to a cliche to get someone to try his dishes.

“You have to try it,” said Secker, who hunts squirrels and rabbits. “Squirrel tastes like squirrel. Deer tastes like deer. None of it tastes like chicken.”

With rabbits or squirrels, it takes several animals to make a meal.

Secker slices off the meatier portions, dips them in a batter that includes salt, pepper and garlic powder, and pan-fries them until brown. He finishes the cooking process in an oven at 350 degrees.

“We just boil the rib part down to make a stock out of it,” Secker said. “We add a little gravy mix to the stock and pour it over the squirrel meat. It’s a darker meat, so brown gravy goes well with it. I’ll cook rabbit the same way.”

Citrus-based marinades, such as those featuring pineapple or cranberry, are used to make deer, goose, duck and shrimp kabobs. Because those are lean meats, they are grilled over low heat for a limited time.

Larry “Ug” Kelch of Brimfield used another marinade, featuring ingredients such as vinegar and honey, when future son-in-law Brad Onion returned from Canada with a black bear killed using a bow.

Eventually, Kelch and his wife, Jackie, prepared half the bear in small, marinated pieces and half as “bear balls,” meatballs utilizing homemade barbecue sauce.

“When he brought the bear in, it was quartered up and frozen,” Larry Kelch said. “We had to de-bone it. We were surprised how lean it was. Me and my wife had a ball experimenting with it. We tried some recipes off the Internet and they were terrible. So we did our own thing.”

Although many hunters make their own cookbooks or look recipes up on the Internet, the cooks in this club say experimentation is much of the fun.

“I’m quite old,” said Larry Wilson, 72, of Peoria. “I’ve been hunting since the early ‘60s. It’s trial and error. When I first started, it wasn’t fit for consumption. Like all wild game, it takes the cook to make it.”

Secker recommends boiling meats such as raccoon or beaver in a pot of vegetables for a few hours to draw out the gamey taste. Secker believes most game meats taste best when warm.

He also emphasizes the importance of killing the game yourself, or knowing the hunter well enough to accept the meat. Otherwise, it may not be harvested properly.

“If the meat is bad when you start, it’s going to be bad when you cook it,” Secker said.

The most common mistake is to overcook wild game, which usually has a low fat content and dries out quickly. Secker once made deer salami so dry, not even his dog would eat it.

“For every good dish you get, you probably throw one away,” Secker said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

“You can have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to experiment.”
Cooks from the Independent Sports Club’s wild game feast recommended a few recipes.

Larry “Ug” Kelch of Brimfield prefers a homemade marinade recipe he acquired from the late Fred Boland, his former neighbor. Kelch has used the marinade on meats such as beef, venison and even bear.


  * 2 cups water
  * 3 tablespoons vinegar
  * 1/3 cup honey
  * 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  * 1 teaspoon black pepper
  * 3 teaspoons garlic powder
  * 4 1/2 teaspoons celery seed
  * 4 1/2 teaspoons ginger
  * 6 tablespoons oil
  * 6 tablespoons soy sauce

Heat all ingredients. Place meat in a glass container and cover with marinade. Use enough marinade to completely cover meat. Leave in refrigerator for 8 to 10 hours before cooking meat.

Kelch used the marinade to prepare black bear for the ISC wild game feed. Half of the meat was marinated, cut into small pieces and placed in oven bags for 90 minutes at 350 degrees. It was served with no sauce.

The other half of the meat was made into meatballs, or “bear balls.” Here is that recipe:


Grind bear meat into burger

Form burger into meatballs

Cover bear balls with barbecue sauce (Kelch used a homemade BBQ recipe)

Place barbecued meatballs on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes, at 350 degrees.

Serve warm.

Longtime ISC cook Larry Wilson of Peoria enjoys his wife Luella’s Italian deer recipe with barbecue sauce. She likes to dip it in the sauce. It works with beef roast or any venison cut, including a recent batch the Wilsons made using hind legs of a deer.


  * 3-4 pounds of venison
  * 8-ounce jar of mild pepperoncini peppers
  * 1 can beef broth
  * 1 can beer
  * 1 teaspoon oregano
  * Dash of garlic salt

Pour all ingredients, including the juice from the jar of peppers, into a crock pot. Trim fat from meat and add it into the crock pot. Cook all day on low.

Sometime during the day, when meat is tender enough, use a fork to shred the meat. Put shredded pieces back into the crock pot until they have finished cooking for a total of about 10 hours.

Serve warm on a hoagie bun.

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