Are Mergansers Good to Eat? I Cooked Them Two Ways to Find Out

Read the hunting forums about hunters that have eaten mergansers and you’ll find a wide array of answers. Some hunters think they’re one of the best eating ducks (yes, mergansers are ducks), some feed them to their dogs, some won’t touch them, and others like them but say they smell like fish when you cook them.

All mergansers are members of the Anatidae family which includes ducks, geese, and swans. So contrary to some information, mergansers are scientifically classified as ‘ducks’. Mergansers primarily eat fish, crayfish, crustaceans, small amphibians, and insects. Based on their diet composition the claims that mergansers taste ‘fishy’ seems to make some sense.

Mergansers are quite common and they are one of the easier waterfowl species to pull into a decoy spread or to jump shoot.

One morning I was stalking a big group of ducks on a small finger of a local lake. The big group of mallards flushed when I was just outside of shotgun range. But a few minutes later a pair of Hooded Mergansers swam into the area. I took up and took a couple of quick steps forward, the birds flushed over the water and I was able to knock them both down.

The next step was to clean and cook them to find out for myself how mergansers taste.

Merganser Preparation

I prepared each bird in a different way so I could determine if preparation affects taste. I cleaned and plucked the male, leaving the skin on.

For the female, I cut off the breast fillets and legs. I left the skin on one fillet and removed it from the other so I could compare how keeping the skin on changed the taste of the meat.

When the mergansers were cut open they smelled very similar to fish.

Cooking Mergansers Two Ways

I soaked the breast fillets and legs in saltwater for 3 or 4 hours to help firm up the meat and draw out any blood. This also helps the meat stay moist while it cooks. Then I seasoned the meat with salt and pepper, heated butter in a skillet, and fried the breast fillets and legs to about medium-rare.

This very basic preparation gives a good sense of how the meat tastes without added flavor as a mask.

Outside of merganser breasts and legs after frying.
Cross-section of the inside of merganser breasts after frying.

For the whole bird with the skin on, I created a simple brine that contained only water, salt, sugar, and pink salt #1. I soaked the merganser in the brine for about 10 hours. Then I removed it and let it dry in the fridge until the next day.

To cook the whole merganser, I smoked it over applewood for about three hours. Halfway through the smoke, I covered the skin with a glaze of balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. I removed the merganser from the smoker when the temperature of the breast meat reached 160 degrees (F).

Smoked and glazed merganser
Cross-section of smoked merganser breast

How Did They Taste (and smell)?

The fried merganser tasted great. I thought it tasted quite a bit like venison. There was no fishy taste at all. My kids really liked it and the meat only lasted a few minutes before it was gone.

I did not like the meat as much when the skin was left on. It didn’t taste fishy, but it did have a different, less pleasant taste.

The mergansers let off a very fishy smell while they were frying. By the time they were cooked my kitchen smelled about the same as it doesn’t when I’ve finished filleting a pile of bluegill.

The smoked merganser also tasted great. It was more cooked-through than the fried version and that made it just a little dry, but it was still very good. The skin on the smoked bird also tasted fine. I’m not sure if it was the brine or the smoke, but the flavor was just fine.

We ate the smoked merganser and venison for dinner to get a side-by-side comparison. The smoked merganser didn’t taste as similar to venison as the fried merganser, but the whole family liked and the entire bird was consumed by the end of the meal.

I didn’t notice any fishy smell while smoking the merganser.

Overall, I preferred the fried preparation. Next time I get a merganser I think I’ll sear it to medium-rare on the grill with salt and pepper for seasoning.

Are Mergansers Safe to Eat?

Because mergansers eat fish it’s possible for them to accumulate contaminants (like mercury) in areas where contaminant levels are high. The same thing happens with predatory fish species (it’s quite common in bass, catfish, pike, etc.). State and federal health departments usually do a good job keeping track of where contaminant levels may be high for certain species and give a recommendation for the amount of meat that is safe to consume.

It’s a good idea to check the websites of state and federal health agencies before consuming mergansers.

Would I Eat Merganser Again?

I think mergansers get an unfair reputation for tasting bad. After eating two mergansers I would definitely eat them again. Even with simple preparations, both of the mergansers I ate tasted very good. The only downside was that there wasn’t very much meat on the birds.

The mergansers I tried were Hooded Mergansers and they tasted great. It’s possible that other merganser species (like the Common Merganser) are not as palatable. Sometime I hope to find out.

Konrad Hafen

Konrad is a natural resource scientist who spends much of his free time hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking on America's public lands.

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