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Back 40 Buffet: Nature's Bounty is Almost Limitless

Nature offers a myriad of delectable food choices to tempt the discerning outdoorsman's palate.

Back 40 Buffet: Nature's Bounty is Almost Limitless

Wild myrtle or bay leaves collected while afield are the perfect stuffing for a palm- frond-wrapped, campfire-roasted bream. (Photo by Bre Lewis)

Throughout the year, certain game species dominate the outdoor activities of the Southern sportsman. In summer, dedicated hunters endure relentless, bloodsucking mosquitoes while in pursuit of plentiful wild hogs. Come fall, whitetails undoubtedly take center stage. Migrating ducks monopolize winter’s thoughts, just as gobbling toms do in spring.

Less commonly referenced are the other animals and plants available to intrepid outdoorsmen throughout the year. Opportunistically harvesting some of these plentiful resources can help you get the most out of your wilderness pursuits.


SUMMER

The lack of a game-species season doesn’t keep passionate outdoorsmen from hunting over the summer. Invasive wild hogs are legal to hunt in most of the Southern states throughout the year, both on private land and on some management areas. It’s no coincidence that hogs’ summertime haunts go cheek by jowl with prime foraging terrain. Omnivorous like us, hogs also enjoy eating what the season offers. Consequently, when hunting for hogs in summer, be sure to gather some additional sustenance as well.

Hog sign is often found around ripe summer berries. In the South, both blackberries and blueberries can be gathered. Blackberries grow profusely almost anywhere with moderate sunlight. Blueberries have a more limited habitat, but are still fairly plentiful. Notably, highbush blueberries are scattered through scrublands, while smaller shiny blueberries speckle the floor of pine flatlands.


Elderberries are not ripe in summer, but elderflower blossoms are worth harvesting. Their radiating white flowers have no poisonous lookalikes and make fine fare either fresh, battered and fried or used for pancakes. My favorite summertime foraged breakfast is elderflower pancakes with wild berry syrup.

Although not technically a berry but rather a drupe, winged sumac’s summertime red fruit clusters shouldn’t be overlooked. Winged sumac can be found in the same habitat as blackberries, and while the fruit itself should not be consumed, its acidic coating can create a perfect pink lemonade simply by soaking the drupes in cold water at a 1-to-2 ratio for 30 minutes before straining and drinking.

Even with plentiful sign and food sources, hogs can be difficult to hunt, especially on public land. If you’re not successful hunting pigs, have a go at hunting pig frogs, or their more celebrated cousin, the bullfrog. Especially after summertime showers, these tasty frogs can be heard a mile away. Daytime pond glassing or nighttime spotlighting are normally the best ways to find the amphibians.

Be sure to check your state’s regulations for legal means of hunting frogs, seasons dates and bag limits. Along with providing great sport, frog legs are excellent table fare—typically either deep-fried or blackened. Hunting hogs and frogs and gathering berries and blossoms can keep your fridge and freezer full throughout the summer.




FALL

Trail cameras have certainly simplified the act of scouting deer. However, sometimes in-person recon is required for dialing in just the right stand site. This time spent covering ground in places with good deer potential provides incidental foraging opportunities.

Persimmons, ripe throughout the South in late summer through early fall, draw feeding deer. When scouting these groves, pick a few for yourself. Cinnamon-spiced baked persimmons with creamy vanilla ice cream fills a home with the fragrance of fall.

In hardwood hammocks, keep an eye out for fresh sulfur shelf mushrooms (aka chicken of the woods) “fruiting” after a fall rain. This bright orange mushroom forms layers on the base of dead or dying trees and is safe for beginner foragers because it has no toxic lookalikes. That being said, take care to collect from the base of dead or dying oaks, because sulfur shelf mushrooms growing on conifers, eucalyptus and cedars can cause gastric distress in some.

Collecting only the soft outer edges of sulfur shelf provides the tastiest serving and allows the mushroom to regrow this tender portion as long as conditions remain ideal. Noting the location of the mushrooms can provide numerous feeds during that season and in the years to come.

Furthermore, dying live oaks will generally have a heavy acorn drop, as evolution has programmed them to spread as many seeds as they can before they die. Therefore, finding sulfur shelves can tip you off to prime places to hunt later in the season when the acorns drop.

GAF-Natures-Bounty
Clockwise from top left: 1. Summer blackberries ready for the picking. Blackberries grow well wherever moderate sunlight is available. 2. Pluck and singe ducks for swamp cabbage stew. A whole duck combined with cabbage palm heart makes a classic Southern dish. 3. A hog feeding among blackberry bushes. Hogs are prolific and huntable year-round in many places (check local regulations). 4. Ripe persimmons are treats for deer and hunters alike from the late summer to the early fall. 5. Bull frogs make great sport, and their legs make a tasty meal. They are readily available after summer showers. 6. Ripe winged sumac fruit is not edible, but soaking it in cold water then straining results in a delicious, refreshing summertime drink. (Photos by Bre Lewis)

WINTER

Creeks and waterways are full of life even in winter and offer great fun once a day’s duck hunting has concluded. Light tackle and small lures often lead to endless action this time of year on panfish species like bream and warmouth, and even the occasional bass. Low water levels during the winter concentrate fish in deeper holes. Additionally, the cooler weather keeps the mosquitoes at bay in the swamps and sloughs—at least more so than during warmer times of the year. While the most prolific wintertime fish species tend to be on the small side, they’re tremendously tasty.

When the sky begins to darken, keep and gut the last few fish caught. On the walk out, collecting palmetto fronds and a handful of myrtle or bay leaves supplies all that’s needed for fire-roasted fish.

While enjoying an outdoor fire with good company, simply stuff the gutted fish with the foraged myrtle or bay leaves for flavor. Then, wrap each fish individually in the palmetto fronds, using their split edges to tie them in neat packs. Once wood from the fire has turned to hot coals, temporarily shovel the coals aside and place the frond-wrapped fish under them. Allow the fish to cook for 20 to 30 minutes, then remove, unwrap, peel back the skin, and feast on the fresh, flaky flesh inside.

The makings for the historical meal known as swamp cabbage stew can likewise be gathered in the marsh. Harvesting the heart of a cabbage palm furnishes the main ingredient. After selecting a short, easily reachable tree, clear away the obtrusive blades shielding the tree and chainsaw horizontally through the tree below the “heart”—generally the top two feet of the tree’s trunk. Once you’re ready to cook, cut vertically through the layers to remove the heart and immediately cook to prevent oxidation. Checking for a transition from consistent solid trunk to defined rings verifies the heart.

After a successful morning duck hunt, boil or slow cook sliced cabbage palm heart and a whole gutted, plucked and singed duck, together with salt and pepper, in water. The addition of cooked bacon and bacon grease enhances the flavor of this warming winter feast.


SPRING

The allure of strutting toms in spring leads turkey hunters into forage-rich habitats. New spring growth proliferating where turkeys frequent provides excellent opportunities for gathering greens for a fresh foraged salad.

The tender shoots and budding leaves of ubiquitous greenbrier offer a nutty base for a spring mix. Young dwarf plantain leaves, found on open ground in circular clumps haloing their distinguishing flowering central shoot, add texture and variety. Some also enjoy fresh grapevine leaves, but I find them too bitter.

Instead, for additional diversity, include smaller leaves from common dayflower, an abundant short plant covering damp and shady ground. Ripe mulberries or the purplish to red fruits of prickly pear cactus provide sweet and refreshing salad toppings.

Prickly pear pads, or nopales, can also be consumed, but take care to burn away the small, hair-like spines and remove the larger, more obvious spines. Nopales are often grilled as a side dish or topping, but can also be eaten raw. Turkey tacos with grilled nopale topping and greenbrier garnishing are a springtime favorite in our house.

Hunting and foraging seasonal species definitely provides a certain satisfaction. It is also a great way to pique the interest of youngsters in nature and provides a solid foundation for future outdoor enthusiasts.

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