Brandon Butler: Thanksgiving a perfect time to share wild game

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It has been since I started hunting at 12 years old. There was magic in getting up early to go afield in pursuit of deer, rabbits and pheasants, then returning to the year’s greatest family feast.

I’d rarely make it through the first quarter of a football game before passing out on the carpeted floor next to the fireplace.

Many of the people who made those early Thanksgivings so special have passed on, while the rest of us have built lives pulling us in different directions. The gatherings these days, for me, are smaller but no less special. I have children of my own now, as do my cousins. When we can all be together, it’s wonderful.

This will be one of those years. Chances are there won’t be any hunting. But my contribution to the feast will be a few wild game dishes.

Thanksgiving is perhaps the greatest opportunity of the year to introduce others to the delicious value of wild game procured through hunting or fishing. If there will be someone at your gathering who does not support hunting, you have a chance to change their mind by introducing them to just how great venison, duck, pheasant, rabbit, quail, crappie, bluegill or catfish can taste. Then, while they are mesmerized by exploding tastebuds, tell them about the joy you experienced in both acquiring and cooking the meat.

If the goal is to seriously impress, you can look up endless recipes online for how to cook any fish and game. There are also great wild game cookbooks available. Steven Rinella’s MeatEater Cookbook is excellent, as are all of Hank Shaw’s books. You can probably pick up some wild game cookbooks at your local Goodwill or used book shop.

Or you can keep it simple. I’m going to give you four examples of super easy ways to impress guests with wild game:

1. Nothing beats a fish fry. My uncle Tom would cook fish at Thanksgiving as an appetizer while the chaos was unfolding in the house. He’d be out in the garage with a heater going, manning the deep fryer. Cold bottles of beer and hot crispy, fresh-out-of-the-peanut-oil fillets of crappie, bluegill and the greatest prize of all, Lake Michigan jumbo yellow perch. We’d sometimes add hush puppies to the mix.

The fish filets never saw the table. A tray would be loaded while they were still steaming hot and circulated through the crowd. The grandpas lounging in recliners downstairs would be eagerly awaiting. Upstairs, while work in the kitchen was being completed, a little power snack was appreciated. I don’t know if there was ever an attendee who didn’t love uncle Tom’s fried fish.

2. Grilled venison backstrap is hard to beat. There are a number of ways to go about this. You could make an appetizer. To do this, cut the loins into chops and grill them to medium rare. Cut the chops into medallions. Sprinkle sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, then add a few generous dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Mix it the medallions in a bowl to give equal coatings, then serve on a platter with toothpicks. Try to have them eaten when still hot. Keep in mind, this may be someone’s first piece of venison ever. If they are hesitant, eat one right in front of them. Or better yet, have a kid do it. Give them some assurance of how delicious this meat is. If they’re still not down, though, no pressure. Just leave it be. But hopefully they’ll try it, love it, and want to learn about why you hunt and how you harvested the deer.

3. Steven Rinella is the most well-known wild game chef alive. He prepares dishes with names I can’t pronounce. Yet when he came to my cabin for a turkey camp, Rinella introduced me to a simple dish I have come to love — wild turkey schnitzel. All you do here is beat a turkey breast flat with a meat hammer, dip it in egg then coat it in seasoning and bread crumbs. Have peanut oil sizzling in a cast iron pan and fry the schnitzel until golden brown.Cut the schnitzel into 1-inch wide and 2-inch long perfect bite-sized portions. Put them on a tray with different dipping sauces. My favorite is honey mustard, but BBQ and ranch should also be options. This should be a big hit with any children at your gathering. Tell them they’re turkey nuggets. Maybe one of them will want to hear your turkey hunting story. To up your game and make kids smile, drop a few yelps on a mouth call or cut on a box call.

4. Pheasant and dumplings is a simple twist on a classic side dish appropriate for any Thanksgiving spread. You’re going to need to roast a couple of pheasants and then shred the meat. After that, follow the regular steps of making dumpling from scratch or save time with a store-bought option. Wild pheasant populations have declined drastically in much of the Midwest. There are plenty of private pheasant hunting operations where birds raised in captivity are released into the wild for hunting. This is great option for taking a newcomer out hunting and is something you could do on Thanksgiving to get the pheasants you need for the dish. Or, if you serve pheasants you already have, maybe you find an interested individual or group at dinner who’d like to go hunting over the long weekend.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. If you do decide to add a little wild game to your menu this year, take time to spread the word about fishing and hunting to someone who may not have had a chance to learn as you did. I have so much to be thankful for this year. The opportunity to write these stories for you is high on the list.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

See you down the trail …

Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. For more Driftwood Outdoors, check out the podcast on or anywhere podcasts are streamed. Send comments to [email protected]