Sheep Balls, Barnacles, and a Whole Lot of Backstrap: Welcome to the Country’s Greatest Wild Game Cookoff

At the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers annual Rendezvous, teams competed for field-to-table bragging rights

At the 2018 Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Rendezvous in Boise, Idaho, thousands of outdoors enthusiasts gathered to trade stories about tough elk and remote trout streams and plan for ways to fight for public lands. Then they watched as BHA-chapter teams from across the country locked horns in the Wild Game Cookoff. Included in the list of rules for the competition: The main ingredients must be representative of the chapter's state; no pre-cooking or prep work was allowed—the teams had one hour to cook their dish; and no domestic meat allowed. The judges scored each team in the following categories: hosting, dish presentation, flavor, how well the meal represents the chapter's state, and creativity. Each category could earn a maximum of 10 points for a perfect-score total of 50. These are some of the most aspirational wild game dishes on the planet, and while you might not be able to plate a butter-poached sheep nut very often, you'll no doubt be inspired. Enjoy the pics.

The 5 Cs of Arizona

Team: Arizona BHA
Cooks: Mandy Nelson and Amy Ortega

butter poached bighorn sheep testicles
Butter-poached desert bighorn sheep testicle served with a chile-verde sauce.Alex Kim

We represented the 5 Cs of Arizona in our dish: cotton, copper, cattle, citrus, and climate. We kicked it off with an appetizer of butter-poached desert bighorn sheep testicle served with a dollop of chili-verde sauce. For our main course, we made a deconstructed javelina tamale. It started with a fried masa cake, followed by a potato and pablano hash, melted Monterey Jack cheese, javelina chorizo patty, all topped with a sunny-side-up egg and pico de gallo. Shredded javelina chili-verde sauce surrounded the tamale with a splash of crema. Everyone washed it down with our signature AZ Mule made with homemade prickly pear simple syrup, local jalapeño infused vodka, ginger beer, and fresh squeezed lime.

Editor's Note: Spoiler alert—this team won first place in the Cookoff.

deconstructed javelina tamale
A deconstructed javelina tamale.Alex Kim

Sgt. Wilkings Buck on a Board

Team: Minnesota BHA
Cooks: Dan and Mairin Born

corned venison and morel whiskey sauce
Corned venison with a morel and whiskey sauce on Minnesota wild-rice toast.Alex Kim

The inspiration for this dish came from the chipped beef on toast, a.k.a. “SOS,” that my grandfather, an Army cook, used to make us during deer camp at our family farm. It wasn’t the most visually appealing dish, but darn tasty! We thought we could dress it up a bit for the contest and used thinly cut corned venison and a morel mushroom and whiskey sauce on Minnesota wild rice toast. You’d be hard-pressed to get more locally sourced than this. The meat came from a deer one of us shot with a bow last fall and died in the same ravine the morels were picked from the previous spring. We served it on a slab of elm from the tree that shaded the morels.

morel mushroom whiskey cream sauce
The morel and whiskey cream sauce simmers before the dish is plated and served.Alex Kim

Great Basin Faux Thai with Elk Sausage Jalapeño Popper Spring Rolls

Team: Utah BHA
Cooks: Dave Terrion and Josh Lenart

elk sausage spring roll
Elk pho with an elk-sausage spring roll.Alex Kim

The dish is inspired by the Vietnamese soup, Pho Thai. Our version included homemade elk broth with sautéed onion, served boiling hot, and seared elk tenderloin. The popper spring roll is made of homemade elk sausage, cream cheese, jalapeño jelly, cilantro, shredded carrot, and cabbage, served in a Thai spring roll wrapper.  The whole tenderloin and broth came from a 5x6 bull that Dave’s wife, Trina, took with a muzzleloader in northeastern Utah. It was her first bull elk and quite an exciting hunt. She watched the bull for over an hour, bugling and chasing his cows, before she was able to make the shot. Trina is as passionate about conservation as she is about passing on her family’s hunting tradition to her two young daughters.

Flash-fried Barnacles & Fresh Egg Noodles with Chopped Bay Clams

Team: Oregon Chapter
Cooks: Conlan Murphy and Mary Patzel

flash-fried goosneck barnacles
Flash-fried gooseneck barnacles from Oregon.Alex Kim

We have 362 miles of public coastline in Oregon, from the Columbia River to the redwood forests on the California border. We wanted to showcase the fresh resources our coastline provides in the springtime, and thought shellfish was the perfect way to go. Gooseneck barnacles are an underutilized resource. They grow on rocky outcroppings and can be accessed on a negative tide. They have a hard shell that is easily visible, but there is a beautiful morsel of meat that attaches them to the rocks. We used butter clams from Netarts Bay, and incorporated them into a pile of fresh hand-made egg noodles with a fermented black bean sauce.

oregon fresh egg noodles
Fresh egg noodles with chopped bay clams.Alex Kim

East Meats West

Team: Washington Chapter
Cooks: Ryan Los and Adam Neff

chukar satay venison sausage and duck morel pot stickers
Chukar satay, vension sausage, duck and morel pot-stickers, Asian slaw, and sautéed squid.Alex Kim

Our home state has a large cultural influence from Asia, and this inspired our dish of combining local game and foraged ingredients on the east side of the Cascades with the seafood of Puget Sound. Our dish was grilled chukar satay, Hmong venison sausage, duck and morel pot-stickers, and Asian slaw salad with sautéed squid. The birds, deer, and morels were all taken on public lands just outside our town of Wenatchee. Accompanying the dish was a locally produced hard apple cider.

Ruffed Grouse Dumplings with Wild Huckleberry Sauce

Team: Montana BHA
Cooks: Dane Rider and Jared Frasier

Our dish consisted of ruffed grouse, foraged king bolete and oyster mushrooms, and wild rice dumplings. These were pan-fried in wild duck fat, with a quick flambé in alpengeist (a homemade ponderosa pine schnapps), steamed in elk broth, and finished off with a wild huckleberry-honey-soy dipping sauce. The inspiration for our meal was to highlight how the changing seasons offer us different options. Starting in late spring, the cones of ponderosa pines were used to create the alpengeist. The mushrooms, wild rice, and berries were gathered from across Montana through the late spring and into the summer. With the fall comes flocks of migrating ducks, and we were fortunate enough to shoot a few just north of Yellowstone Park. Not far from there, we packed this elk out after a long pursuit through falling snow. And the sweet topper to the dish—the wild huckleberries—have a special significance to the Montana Chapter in that they were harvested on the western slopes of the Crazy Mountains where we are working diligently on some complex access issues.

Editor's Note: We apologize, but we were so busy eating that we forgot to take a photo of this dish. Trust us, though: It looked, and tasted, great.

Sea to Summit

Team: Alaska BHA
Cooks: Steve Shannon and Patti Picha

alaskan bowhead whale
Bowhead whale from Utqiaġvik, which the judges each sliced with the provided ulu.Alex Kim

Our chapter represents the nation’s largest state, with a third of our country’s public lands, so it would be impossible to represent Alaska with just one dish. We prepared three dishes that cover our state from north to south, and from sea to summit. We prepared bowhead whale from Utqiaġvik, our northernmost city. Judges cut their own piece of muktuk with a traditional ulu with a handle made of Dall sheep horn. From the Arctic Ocean, we went to the Gulf of Alaska for halibut ceviche and garnished it with wild Alaskan blueberries. From our mountaintops we prepared herb-crusted Dall sheep loin. Between dishes we offered vodka from Fairbanks distillery Ursa Major with muddled wild blueberries.

alaskan halibut ceviche
Halibut ceviche with wild Alaskan blueberries.Colin Kearns
alaskan herb crusted dall sheep loin
Herb-crusted Dall sheep loin.Alex Kim

Idaho Happy Hour

Team: Idaho BHA
Cooks: Ethan Crawford and Merritt Horsmon

idaho blueback rillettes and whitetail wellington
Blueback rillettes and Inside-out Whitetail Wellington.Colin Kearns

We were part of the first round of cooks, so the “happy hour” theme seemed natural. We tied this into an often overlooked and unique aspect of Idaho—the fact that the state has the second-largest population of Basque Americans in the U.S. (Only California has a larger population.) We built our menu as tapas, or “pinxtos” as they are called in the Basque region of Spain.

"Whole Lotta Dark" Huckleberry Manhattan: A chapter member infused the sweet vermouth with North Idaho huckleberries. The name comes from a deer hunting buddy, who proclaimed en-route to our camp this year, “There's gonna be a whole lotta dark.” So true for a North Idaho whitetail camp in mid-November!

Blueback Rillettes: Kokanee may be the most harvested gamefish in Idaho, and often have very liberal limits—up to 25 per person per day. We used kokanee from Dworshak Reservoir.

Inside-Out Whitetail Wellington: Essentially a “deconstructed” venison Wellington. We used mustard-crusted backstrap, rehydrated black morels, and shallots for the duxelle and served it on a local baguette.

Hells Canyon Chukar Roulade: 2017 was a great year for chukar, and Hell’s Canyon is one of the most iconic places in the state. Chukar breasts were pounded thin, loaded with prosciutto, sautéed asparagus and feta cheese, rolled up, and seared on all sides.

A Little Bit of Tongue: Who doesn’t like a little bit of tongue? Ours was smoked elk tongue served on a baguette with horseradish cream and some locally foraged dandelion greens.

hells canyon chukar roulade
Hells Canyon chukar roulade and smoked elk tongue.Colin Kearns

Elk Carne Asada

Team: University of Wyoming BHA Club
Cooks: Connor Bailey and Chris Cain

elk carne asada tacos
Elk carne asada tacos.Colin Kearns

We chose this dish because it represents our student chapter. Being broke college students, we are experts in cooking large amounts of food for cheap, while making it taste great. We also chose to keep the dish simple, because that is how we cook and sometimes simple is best. While we didn’t win the competition, we were excited to be a crowd and judges’ favorite. The elk was taken by our vice president Chris Cain and processed by the president Connor Bailey. All of the vegetables for the Pico de Gallo were purchased from the University of Wyoming’s organic green house.

Mississippi Flyway Melting Pot

Team: Southeast Chapter
Cooks: Jeff Jones and Chad Rischar

fried duck boudin balls
Deep-fried duck boudin balls with stone-ground grits, pimento cheese, and pickled vegetables.Alex Kim

This entry represents the bounty from one of the great Southern public hunting resources—the Mississippi Flyway. To be uniquely Southern in every respect we used a Southern protein served alongside a Southern staple—grits. The dish is made of deep-fried duck boudin balls, a south Louisiana staple, served over Mississippi stone-ground pimento and cheese grits.  The cheese came from the Mississippi State University creamery. We focused attention on the pickled accouterments, a nod to our grandmothers and their chow-chow. The ingredients were foraged, grown, and canned from members of our large, diverse chapter.

Three Forks Surf 'n' Turf

Team: Montana State University BHA Club
Cooks: Gavin Pirrie and Austin Adams

venison and rainbow trout with huckleberries
Venison and rainbow trout with wild huckleberries.Colin Kearns

This dish was inspired by two core elements of Montana—wild things and public land. The whitetail, rainbow trout, and huckleberries were all harvested on public land. While it is easy to see that both the whitetail and rainbow trout were harvested in the wild, huckleberries are unable to be produced domestically, thus they are inherently wild in themselves.

Flavors of the Silver State

Team: Nevada BHA
Cooks: McKinnon and Jenny Chappell

braised spiced chukar
Braised spiced chukar and stuffed elk backstrap—both taken on public land.Alex Kim

Many game animals in Nevada use juniper and pinion pine as cover and food, so we found it fitting to use these two humble plants as the inspiration for our dish. We used juniper berries that we crusted on a stuffed elk backstrap and also used them to pickle the red onions on top. We used pine nuts to accent and top our braised spiced chukar. The elk and chukar were both taken on public land in Nevada. We love sharing the amazing flavors and stories with first-time hunters, and this event completely embodied that spirit.

Whitetail Backstrap with Goat Cheese Risotto and Maple-Apple Chutney

Team: New York BHA
Cooks: Kevin Koehler and Garrett Burback

venison backstrap
Balsamic Marinated Venison Backstrap with Goat Cheese Risotto and Maple-Apple Chutney.Alex Kim

The backstrap was cooked whole in rosemary and garlic-infused olive oil and was taken during the 2017 archery season by Kevin Koehler on New York state public land. The maple syrup used in the chutney came from Garrett Burback’s sugar maples, which happens to be New York State’s official tree. The inspiration for the dish comes from a desire to share the joys of wild game with others. We enjoy using food as a medium to share the experiences of the hunt and our gratitude towards nature.

Michigan Land, Air, and Sea

Team: Michigan BHA
Cooks: Jared Walker and Tom McGraw

surf n turf platter
Michigan surf and turf: squirrel thigh, Canada goose breast, steelhead, whitetail, and asparagus and wild rice.Alex Kim

We wanted to pay homage to the diversity of game this state has to offer. We saluted the early roots of small-game hunting with a Korean barbecue squirrel thigh. The Pere Marquette steelhead was cooked with Kosher salt and Amish pepper, then finished with pure Michigan maple syrup. The Canada goose was sliced and served as a steak medium rare. The whitetail was the way it should be with just salt and pepper letting the natural flavors pour through. To complement these, we served foraged Michigan wild rice cooked with chaga mushrooms and asparagus. The dish was presented on a handmade cutting board in the shape of the lower peninsula that was made by Jared’s father-in-law. Our maple beer was from board member Bob Busch’s Mountain Town Brewery.

Taste of Montana

Team: University of Montana BHA Club
Cooks: Mateen Hessami and Ashton Bates 

elk, deer, whitetail, morel, arugual
Montana elk, mule deer, and whitetail served with morels, arugula, Yukon gold potatoes, and pine nuts.Alex Kim

We pan-seared elk, whitetail, and mule deer chops in a Dutch oven skillet with a garlic-rosemary butter wash and a balsamic huckleberry reduction infused with morel mushrooms. This was served with smashed baby Yukon gold potatoes and a Flathead Valley apple arugula salad garnished with toasted Montana pine nuts. We accompanied our dish with a huckleberry Mon-tini, made with locally distilled Aquavit and fresh mint grown in Missoula. The elk and whitetail were taken within an hour of Missoula, and the mule deer was from central Montana. The huckleberries come from the Cabinets in northwest Montana, and the morels come from the Lookout Pass area. The apple came from an orchard in the Flathead Valley, and the pine nuts came from Spanish peaks in southwest Montana. Since we were the first BHA collegiate club founded, we wanted to cook an all-Montana lineup!