Of all the common game birds in Arkansas, perhaps none is less hunted than the American coot. This black waterbird with the white beak frequents flooded crop fields, lakes, ponds, marshes and other watery habitats throughout The Natural State. Some know it as the mud hen, marsh hen or whitebill. Folks in southern Louisiana call it poule d’eau, or “hen of the water.” Although it is often seen swimming with ducks, the coot is a member of the rail family, and like rails, it is quite tasty when properly cared for and prepared.
I have seen flocks of coots numbering in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, on some Arkansas oxbow lakes and large reservoirs. DeGray Lake near Arkadelphia, for example, seems to annually host extraordinarily large rafts of coots containing thousands of individuals. Rarely are coots seen alone, preferring, it seems, to swim and forage in groups of a few to many birds. They prefer shallow water, where they feed on aquatic vegetation and small invertebrates.
The word “coot” is a synonym for fool or simpleton, and with good reason; these birds are dumb as dirt. They sometimes sit on shore basking and preening, and on several occasions when I was younger, I managed to catch one by simply running it down. Coots have weak wings and require a long watery runway to accomplish their typical sputtering, walk-across-the-water takeoff.
Many waterfowlers hunt from blinds for an hour or two during the morning. When the ducks stop flying, they start looking for coots as bonus birds to shoot.
Because coots seldom decoy and don’t respond to calls, however, hunters usually must go looking for them. You can scout for flocks, then move your boat into thick cover nearby and ambush them. Or you can use your boat to drift into position with the wind, lying down and out of sight until you’re within shooting range of a flock. Coots love the security of flooded willow thickets, and I’ve also killed many by wading into such an area and stalking them with a shotgun.
Coot season runs concurrently with Arkansas duck season: Nov. 18-26, Dec. 7-23 and Dec. 26-Jan. 28. The nice thing about coots is, the bag limit is 15 daily instead of just six for ducks. If shooting is good, you can kill enough birds to enjoy an unusual but delicious feast with family and friends back home.
The possession limit is three times the daily bag limit, so if you have time for several hunts, you can freeze some meat for future consumption.
Skin, don’t pluck, the coots you harvest, and place the meat on ice as soon as possible. Most hunters save only the breast meat, as the legs, wings and other parts are too puny to make them worth saving. Slice the skin over the coot’s breast, roll it back and lay off the two fillets with a sharp knife. Be sure to remove all fat, which is where bad flavors often originate, and cut away the silverskin, which toughens the meat. Most cooks place the breast meat in a favorite marinade, then set in the refrigerator and allow to marinate 24 to 48 hours before cooking.
As table fare, a coot won’t equal a plump acorn-fed mallard or corn-fed dove. But as the old adage goes, “Don’t knock ’em till you’ve tried ’em.” The dark meat of these overlooked game birds embodies a hearty wild flavor well-suited to a variety of unique, and very tasty, recipes, including those that follow.
2 pounds boneless coot breasts
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 onions, sliced, separated into rings
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
1 pound egg noodles, cooked per package directions
Slice the coot breasts across the grain into thin strips. Mix the flour, salt, black pepper and cayenne in a bag, add the coot strips, and shake until coated. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Brown the meat lightly in butter over medium heat. Add onion rings, mushrooms and water. Cover and cook over low heat 1 hour or until tender. Stir in the sour cream, and heat through, but do not boil after the sour cream has been added. Serve over cooked noodles. Serves 3 to 6.
Bayou Meto Coot
Breast fillets from 4 coots
2 cups cream
11/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
Strips of pimento
Parboil the coot breasts for 30 minutes in water with a bouquet garni of herbs. Remove the breasts, and place in a glass casserole dish. Cover with cream; season with salt, white pepper and paprika. Cook 30 to 40 minutes in a 375-degree oven. Top with strips of pimento. Serves 2 to 4.
Breast fillets from 6 coots
1 dozen small onions, sliced
Place a Dutch oven on campfire coals, add a generous amount of bacon fat, and heat. Add onions to cover the bottom of the pan; then add pieces of coot. Season with salt and pepper, and cover. Cook slowly until done, stirring occasionally. If necessary, add a little water to prevent scorching. Serves 3 to 6.
1 pound sliced okra
1/4 cup bacon drippings
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
1 large white onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
7 cups water
Cubed breast meat from 4-8 coots
1 pound andouille sausage, cubed
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 pint oysters
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
Gumbo filé powder (optional)
Cook the okra in 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings until tender; set aside. Make a roux by heating the remaining bacon grease and butter in a Dutch oven; stir in the flour. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the roux is a caramel color. Add the white onion, bell pepper and celery; cook until the onion is clear. Add 3 cups water, the cooked okra, coot meat, sausage, salt, black pepper, green onions, garlic, bay leaf and thyme. Simmer for 2 hours. Add 4 more cups water with the oysters, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce. Continue simmering 1 hour. Serve over cooked rice. Serves 8 to 12.
Jack’s Bay Coot
Breast fillets from 4 coots
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup sherry
1 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
Salt and pepper the coot fillets. Brown in a mixture of oil and butter. Pour off the oil/butter, and cover the meat with water. Add remaining ingredients, cover, and simmer until done. Serves 2 to 4.