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Author: Brian Koch

Hot Drunk Dates and Broken Hearts

Game Bird Recipe, Upland Hunting

Decided to take a lot of my favorite things from the camp pantry and do a quick, simple recipe in classic country song style. Here’s to eating beak to feet.

Hot Drunk Dates and Broken Hearts

Game birds hearts should never go to waste. Great, lean protein for camp appetizers. 

Course Appetizer
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • Game Bird Hearts As many as you can collect
  • 2 cups Your Favorite Bourbon
  • Pitted Dates 1/2 per collected heart
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Salt
  • Orange Marmelade (or similar)

Instructions

  1. Cut pitted dates in half and cover with bourbon, the longer the better. It takes a while for dates to soak up the alcohol, 6 hours or even overnight might give you the best results. 

  2. Clean the hearts by removing the arteries entering the top and any blood which may have coagulated inside. 

  3. Using a small knife, carefully open the inside of the heart forming a "pocket" for stuffing – smaller game birds will pose more difficulty – just take your time.

  4. Remove the dates from the bourbon and sprinkle them with the cayenne pepper. The more you use, obviously the hotter they will get. If you prefer less heat, be conservative with the amount. A pinch goes a long way. 

  5. Season the hearts with salt. 

  6. Carefully stuff a cayenne seasoned date into each heart.

  7. Stab the hearts on skewers with a bit of space between each so that they can evenly cook. 

  8. Place skewers on the grill over medium heat, turning occasionally. 

  9. You're watching for the date centers to get hot and hearts to be cooked through. At the very end, a quick glaze of marmalade (or even pepper jelly) will add a sweet grilled note. 

Recipe Notes

In this version, we've used Sharptail hearts which are some of the largest of upland birds making the assembly fairly easy. The smaller the bird, the more intricate the assembly. 

An alternate option: Sweet Drunk Dates and Broken Hearts - if you are not one for heat, replace the cayenne with brown sugar for a classic bourbon pairing. 

heart glaze

Upland Bird Recipe

 

Two Mountains Offer Different Views

Colorado Mountains

Sitting here in camp staring at these two peaks in Arapaho National Forest. In the last week the dogs and I have visited both. It seems somewhat surreal, not that there is anything particularly outrageous about either. They aren’t the tallest or most dangerous. But the scale is so incredibly different from this low vantage with lungs no longer on fire.

Though significantly taller, the mountain on the left has a defined trail to the summit. The one on the right, no trail and the final mile offers extremely vertical climbing, often in excess of 35 degrees over deadfall until above the timber line.

Lots of people climb the mountain on the left, likely because it’s more recognizable, a bit more majestic, a known quantity with assurances many have accomplished the feat prior based on the well-worn path to the top. There’s also a good chance that there will be others on the mountain while you climb and very little chance to get lost. Because of the crowds, it’s likely not the best mountain to find birds. But there is a satisfaction to hunting amongst hikers and people less familiar with game birds and the opportunities that National Forests offer. From what I gather conversing with many on our descent, most have never seen an upland hunter, much less talked to one.

On a similar descent on a mountain not far from here, the dogs and I closed the distance on a group of women who eventually let us pass at Rio the setter’s insistence. As I always do when passing others on trails, I broke open the shotgun and placed it over my shoulder. I find this to be the least threatening configuration; keep in mind that many of these folks are not accustomed to firearms whatsoever.

When I got even to these ladies one asked what I was hunting, I slowed my stride, responded “birds” and added a couple quick details about Blue Grouse and Ptarmigan. Obviously this didn’t exactly sit well with another who quipped, “Your gun is huge. Is there anything left when you shoot one”? On that note, I slowed even further, removed a shell from this “huge” 20 gauge and explained the basic makeup of a shotgun shell. I’m not sure I won them over, though I heard them continue to converse as I stretched legs and lead down the trail. I was tired from a long hike and probably dehydrated. I wish I would have spent more time talking about the dogs, shooting birds on the wing, eating everything we shoot, offer to teach them to shoot or give them a tail feather or two – now added to my bird vest for future encounters.

The right hand mountain better represents the way we have primarily approached these last few seasons; solitary, no path, a physical challenge with a level of peril. We have been pushing our boundaries in search of more and more extreme upland tests. I haven’t put much thought behind it; just go bigger, farther, higher. For some time I thought it was just to test myself and the dogs. But something else has been driving this. And it finally hit me.

When things come easy they are rarely valued. Easily accomplished, easily forgotten.

I treasure these birds and these moments with dogs so much that I’ve developed an aversion to the notion of lack of effort. I keep going bigger because I have convinced myself that others will see that exertion and somehow appraise this pursuit, these birds with the value I place on them.

And I’m not sure that is working. I’m not certain it’s even possible. I don’t know if I can go big enough, long enough, beat myself up enough to convince the public of the esteem and worth of upland birds.

Which brings me back to these two mountains.

As much as I like sitting at the top of the solitary mountain on the right, worn out with worn out dogs, that effort may only serve to harden my own views of those who cheapen this upland pursuit. While the majority of people have no frame of reference to even begin to relate.

Talking to all these people on the way down the well-travelled mountain on the left feels like more progress in a 3,000’ descent than three years of struggling uphill alone trying to demonstrate a point that may be impossible to prove.

I round a corner near the end of this trail and come face-to-face with a group of six hikers. When the bird dogs are this tired they make great ambassadors. Their questions make me smile, especially when one of the hikers asks, “Are pheasant in season?” I explain that pheasant wouldn’t normally be an alpine species. He responds, “That’s really weird because there were a bunch of them right along the trail in the next switchback”. I may have laughed a little and then describe the Dusky Grouse whose identity was confirmed. The dogs and I had just hiked 10-miles to high elevation without seeing a single game bird.

I wish these adventurers well and give some encouraging words for the climb to come. The dogs and I cut onto the next switchback as I snap the shotgun closed. Ida’s tail begins to helicopter and I know we are tracking that elusive species, the Alpine Ringneck. But being on the trail of a new theory for upland outreach may be bigger than the coming flushes.

Lab with Grouse

Bird Hunter Near Peak

Resting Lab

Blue Grouse


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On the Eve

Bird Hunting Colorado

I’ve been accused in the past of trying to make every bird hunt a “religious experience.” I laughed it off when first cast. But the truth is, that jab has stuck with me.

I’m unsure why.

But in the interest of being utilitarian and simple: I set up camp at the base of some mountains I intend to hunt tomorrow. I’ve had a few camper-temp drinks while I seer a thick-cut ribeye just long enough to be warmed through. The extra fat most would say adds flavor. The bird dogs will need to confirm this because I shared it with them. I felt like I needed to add something healthy to the meal so I forced myself to eat a half-can of lima beans. Those are healthy, right? And now I’ve poured another glass of wine while testing the new Camp Chef stove’s proficiency with peanut butter cookies. I think I can use the energy boost tomorrow.

Rain has moved in. There’s a voice in the recesses of my noggin that suggests I formulate a different plan for tomorrow’s hunt given the conditions. But the Shiraz and cookies overrule the recesses and I am left little concern.

The setter, Rio, is curled in the corner of a sleeping bag. She’s out, well aware that the dark hours are no concern for a bird dog. But Ida, the lab, just embarking on her second season refuses to allow more than a foot of space between us. Every move beyond the tap of this keyboard prompts inquisitive looks. Either she is jazzed to hunt or she’s hoping the steak scraps are not exhausted.

Many upland hunters await opening day ready to hit it hard at the crack of dawn. The long layoff of summer months builds a tension only satisfied by explosive coveys over fresh dogs and burnt powder. But the past few seasons it seems like the dogs and I have eased into the opening weeks, a metered approach. Those who know me well would likely raise eyebrows at that description since reserved isn’t often a term placed in the the same sentence. But, it has worked out better for us. It allows the dogs to get their legs under them. Allow this hunter to get his legs under him and prepare for a long, slow burn.

I no longer look forward to the season. Looking forward seems an affirmation of not living in the moment. I want to be a full-time bird hunter. How exactly to define that in the framework of seasons is still a riddle. I while away the off-months thinking of new places to hunt and new tactics to try. I work on shooting and fitness while averting eyes from calendars. I ignore the countdown posts of others, and silently detest photos and posts of previous seasons. It’s too much longing and want, not enough action. There’s a hopelessness to that mentality that I can no longer stomach.

Maybe I am making this upland pursuit more than it needs to be. Maybe I have become so consumed that I am no longer able to be simply objective. It’s just shooting birds, right?

But I can’t help searching for religion while following the dogs in the solitude of wild places. I want everyone to see that divinity and feel the perfect moments we share in the field. Otherwise, it IS just shooting birds.

Bird Dog in Colorado


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Tough Old Rooster Cakes

Pheasant in Brine

How do you know when you’ve harvested a three-year-old rooster? When you have to chew it until the next season to swallow it.

Tough old birds are challenging and fun to chase. But part of that challenge is making them fit for the table. On principle, most hunters will choke down just about anything they shoot — ethics require it. But how do you get that old bird tasty enough to serve guests?

Last year I noticed the birds I harvested lacked the pristine, market-fresh appearance of many of the game chefs filling social feeds with haute cuisine photos. Between my average shooting skills and a young dog with tendencies toward plucking and too much teeth, I was lucky to have birds returned to hand in one piece, let alone pristine. The truth is, some birds just aren’t that pretty when they enter the freezer.

So I started thinking about recipes that might redeem the old, shot up roosters that reside in the back corners of the freezer.

Brining is an easy way to improve quality of an old bird. For this recipe we brined pheasant breasts overnight in the refrigerator in a solution of equal parts salt and sugar with a few lemon slices.

Wild pheasant meat tends to be very lean which can make it tough and dry once cooked. The addition of mayo and bacon adds moisture and flavor as well as binding the cakes.

Pheasant, Bacon and Green Onions

Tough Old Rooster Cakes

Reviving less pristine birds into a dish fit for family and friends. 

Course Appetizer
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Servings 6 pheasant cakes

Ingredients

  • 4 pheasant breasts
  • 4 strips of bacon
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 cup green onions
  • 1 cup Panko bread crumbs

Instructions

  1. After brining overnight, dice pheasant breasts into half inch cubes

  2. Pre-cook strips of bacon - you want to stop prior to crispy stage. Let it cool and then chop into small pieces. 

  3. In a bowl combine the diced pheasant, bacon, half of the green onions and half the Panko with the mayonnaise. You're looking for a texture like tuna salad, depending on the moisture level of your birds you may need to adjust the mixture with more/less bread crumb or mayo. 

  4. Add a dash of salt and pepper, then form the mixture into patties. 

  5. Press those patties into the remaining half of the Panko to cover both sides. 

  6. Add just enough oil to cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet. We're not shooting for super-high temps, so olive, peanut or vegetable oil should work just fine, possibly even butter .....  

    Place over medium heat. 

  7. Once the oil is heated, place your pheasant cakes in the skillet. The trick here is to not fuss with them. There isn't much filler or binder in these cakes, so you're going for a single flip of each. Otherwise, you risk them falling apart. 

  8. Allow the crust to form, 4-5 minutes per side. 

    The small cubes of meat along with the high moisture content let these cook quickly. 

  9. Garnish with the remaining diced green onion. 

  10. If you have more birds, it's easy to adjust quantities. One strip of bacon per breast.

Recipe Notes

The crisp outsides of these pheasant cakes add a great texture note. 

We tried a couple of options for serving.

Simple and lighter: place cakes on a bed of green with a couple slices of avocado and a squeeze of lemon. 

OR

Seasonal and decadent: place cakes on wild rice and smother in morel cream sauce (recipe below). 

Pheasant Cakes


For those fortunate enough to live where morels are available in the spring, they are a great compliment to these cakes and can make this appetizer a decadent seasonal treat. I made a morel cream sauce separating the fungus in half – reserving the nicer shrooms for frying.

morel mushrooms

Diced Morels

Morel Cream Sauce

So simple and good. Tough to think of anything that morel cream sauce won't improve.

Course Side Dish
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 mess foraged morel mushrooms the more you find, the better
  • 1 pint half-n-half
  • 4 TBSP butter
  • 4 TBSP flour
  • Salt

Instructions

  1. This part of the country, we soak our morels in saltwater for an hour after finding to kill bugs, slugs and the like. 

  2. Split your mess into nicer morels for frying and smaller, older, dryer morels for the sauce. 

  3. Put a rough chop on the morels selected for the sauce. We probably had two dozen total mushrooms for this recipe, so we chopped a dozen. 

  4. In a saucepan on medium heat, melt the butter and add the chopped morels and a pinch of salt. Allow them to cook until you see the edges begin to brown. And the morels have now flavored the butter. 

  5. Add the flour while stirring which coats the mushrooms and soaks up the butter making a roux.

  6. Slowly add half-n-half while stirring. As it heats it will thicken. Add until your sauce reaches the desired thickness. 

  7. Slice the other morels in half, dredge in equal parts of corn starch and flour and begin frying them in a skillet with butter. Across much of the Midwest this is the standard preparation, though we've just recently found the corn starch seems to make them a bit crispier. 

Recipe Notes

For those not lucky enough to find large quantities of mushrooms, this simple cream sauce can stretch that morel flavor to anything you put it on. 

The second half of fried morels make a great texture contrast and attractive garnish as well. 

Rooster Cake with Morel Cream

You Can’t Spell Hypocrite without REI

REI store

The Federal Aid and Wildlife Restoration Act, known throughout most of the hunting and shooting community as the Pittman-Robertson Act (P-R), was created in 1937 by congress to reverse the damages of market hunting and ensure the longevity of wild places and wildlife for future generations. Details and amendments of the act are extensive but to summarize: a 10% excise tax is levied on all firearms, handgun accessories, ammunitions and archery equipment. The funds generated are dedicated, they do not go to the U.S. Treasury but to a trust managed by the Department of the Interior. The money must be used for conservation and is divvied-up to states using a formula of land mass and population. For most state wildlife agencies, Pittman-Robertson along with the funds generated by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses is the core of operating budgets. Since inception P-R has generated over $11 billion for the maintenance and management of wild places.

Hunters and anglers fund the outdoors at the state level for the enjoyment of all. Hikers, bikers, campers, kayakers, climbers, skiers—there are no equivalent license fees and no excise taxes on these pursuits. Why does this matter?

Last week a retailer of outdoor equipment, REI, suspended all purchases of Vista Outdoors goods. Vista is the parent company for many brands you might normally see in outdoor stores including Camp Chef, Giro, Bell, Camelbak and Blackburn. Vista is also well-known in the shooting sports industry for brands such as Federal Premium Ammunition and Savage Arms.

“REI does not sell guns. We believe that it is the job of companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of violence that happened in Florida last month.” (read REI’s full statement) The apparent underlying logic is that Vista Outdoors should be policing customers and fighting crime should be part of gear maker’s business model.

Corporate social responsibility is becoming a more prominent feature in business. There can be tangible and true results from such initiatives. But maybe the goals of that social responsibility need to be more closely scrutinized. Attempting profit from promoting divisiveness seems counter to the spirit of positive social change.

REI sells outdoor gear, so let’s take a look at something directly in their wheelhouse. Since 1976 REI has donated $77 million to conservation. Last year they donated $9.3 million to the outdoors. Those may sound like big numbers until held up against annual sales of $2.56 billion. This means that REI donated just one-third of 1% of sales to support the wild places from which it garners mountains of money.

In 2017 alone Vista Outdoors’ brands generated $87 million for the Federal Aid and Wildlife Restoration Act—more money in a single year than REI donated in 42 years. Hunters and target shooters are paying a premium on products in support of the outdoors. REI is profiting from shooting sports’ investment, then pointing a scolding finger with the hand opposite the one clutching cash.

Until REI and other outdoor brands begin paying their fair share in support of wild places and wildlife from which they profit, consider purchasing directly from the brands that do support the outdoors. A great place to start is 2% for Conservation—www.fishandwildlife.org—which asks businesses to contribute 1% of their gross sales and 1% of their employees’ time. REI is $16.3 million short and would need to provide 252,000 hours of time to meet this basic level of outdoor stewardship that other hunting and fishing companies are leading.

If we held REI to the same standards hunters have been held to for decades, they should be donating $256 million annually. A sizable chunk of this could be accomplished by asking members of REI’s co-op to donate the dividends they receive annually to support wild places. That could account for $194 million and might offer more sturdy footing for preaching to shooting sports manufactures.



 

 

The Streak

Shooting Streak

Rio the setter is holding just below a lip of pitted volcanic stone a few paces up this 60 degree slope. We’ve climbed for over two hours to get to this point. The entire trek from the bottom the dogs have been trailing and repositioning. I can tell by Rio’s stature that she has trapped birds that have outrun us all the way uphill. She refuses to even sneak a glance my direction or acknowledge the young lab, Ida, beginning to close in on her find. I’m able to reset my feet on nearly level ground and catch a few deep breaths as Ida moves in to flush. A large covey of Chukar launches off the lab’s nose and begins to glide down the slope from right to left. For anyone else watching it all must appear a blur, a span of maybe three seconds. But for me these moments are as slow as time has gotten this season. Seeing every wingbeat in the vivid detail of elastic time, I pick a big bird and bring the bead to meet the dark mask expecting the fold on the snap of the trigger. But this red-leg never flinches. I follow with the second barrel again with no effect.

Time regains standard pace with my muttering a few choice words as the group sails hundreds of feet below us and around a point. I’m disgusted by the blemish on this perfect moment. But it’s something I’ve become painfully accustomed to this season.

I’ve always been a streaky shooter. Doesn’t really matter how much practice or repetition, I’m either hot or cold. Normally the streaks come and go without much warning or fanfare. I opened last season as deadly as I’ve ever been. The shotgun felt weightless and swung in a harmony with flushing birds that would fall as if by another’s hand. For much of the year, with a few breaks, that magic was uninterrupted.

During the summer months of training and shooting the hot streak continued, testing gear and breaking clays with good effect. Between shooting with friends, instructing and training with the new puppy the amount of off-season powder burnt was exponentially higher than most years. I started to believe that I’d finally broken through, ended the streakiness, become a shooter.

But I will always remember the start of this year as the season the broad side of the barn wasn’t even big enough.

No matter whether it was five yards or 50, straight away, straight up, quartering….. birds would not drop. I was seeing flushes well, picking out individuals, the gun mount felt the same as it always had. Yet no feathers could be cut. It was as if the birds were pulling Matrix moves and flying between shot. No matter the terrain, open mountains to dense woods, no matter how fair or foul the weather, there were no conditions that could cure this malady.

I’m already somewhat superstitious. So, when a piss-poor shooting string like this happens I start wondering which crack I stepped on, or which undisclosed rule I’ve broken to anger the bird gods to a level of disdain that they’ve chosen to armor plate all birds in my path.

This kicks off iterations of exorcism that truly start sounding insane. During hot streaks I don’t clean my gun because I don’t want to wash any good mojo off of it. But when a streak this cold arrives I break it down to the elements, clean everything.

Cleaning didn’t work.

I started shuffling choke tubes with ADHD fervor. No effect.

I switched ammo from favorite shells to alternate brands and loads…… three times. This is ill-advised during the midst of a hunting trip but desperation calls for extreme measures. No effect. At the conclusion of the trip I took this rainbow of shells and a stack of paper plates, measured out different distances and began shooting them with each load and each choke. Then I hired child labor to count the number of holes in each plate — easiest $20 my niece ever made. She’s likely hoping there are more cold streaks in the future. It’s not like I haven’t patterned this shotgun before but I’m at the end of my rope.

It’s not the gun or the ammo, though I elect to tighten chokes from my standard setup in order to make it more difficult for armored birds.

Then I start thinking my eyes are failing me. Am I actually seeing birds differently? I start closing alternating eyes, trying to read road signs at different distances while driving. I manage to convince myself that there’s pressure building up in my eyeball and there is potential for complete blindness at any minute. I start raining drops into eyes trying to prevent the coming darkness.

There’s no resulting bird lethality but at least my eyelids feel super slick from four different kinds of eyedrops.

I order new shooting glasses just in case the microscopic scratches on this used pair are distorting my view. Of course that’s not it either.

Obviously the forces at work here are strong. I’ve been hexed. I’ve angered someone with a story about tailgate photos or talk of Federal Upland Stamps to the point that they purchased a lock of my hair from the barber and made a voodoo doll. Then they stuck that doll’s tiny shotgun in his ass. And there’s nothing I can do about it. The chicken blood I need to break such a curse would require me to kill a bird and I apparently will never shoot another one again. I’m officially cutting my own hair from now on.

I give up.

I’m resigned to my fate as a birder and vegan once my freezer runs dry. I’ll keep carrying a shotgun to give the dogs a pittance of hope.

This streak has been trying. But it isn’t the result of equipment malfunction or even some witch. It’s my own preaching. My sermons always conclude with finding success in the hunt beyond the heft of the game bag. Now that’s come full circle, testing my own faith. But I believe. No streak will convince me that this upland pursuit is dependent on killing birds. The hundreds of miles covered with horrible shooting hasn’t weakened that resolve.

Maybe all it takes is that acknowledgement.

The birds begin dropping again. Hopefully these shots will set off a new era of shooting success. Because honestly the idea of becoming a vegan wasn’t very appealing.

Target plates

Testing shotguns


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Orvis Pro Series Vest

Orvis Pro Series Vest

 

The upland game vest may be the single most-utilized piece of gear in upland hunting. Regardless the terrain, bird species, weather conditions…. the vest is always part of the hunt. Depending on the time of year, it has to fit over different layers, carry different loads, securely stow essential gear. And for me it’s gotta fit like a well-worn glove. The Orvis Pro Series Vest has multiple strap adjustments reminiscent of a backpack, so the game pouch and pockets ride exactly where you want them. No matter your frame size, this vest should adjust to exactly how you are most comfortable busting cover. Zipping pockets to lockdown keys, licenses and phones. An expanding game bag could carry a bushel of birds. The hydration bladder compatibility allows me to carry a gallon for dogs to extend our range on hot days. Beefy buckles and materials, lightweight, solidly stitched — this vest is gonna be a constant companion for the foreseeable seasons – $189 click here to learn more.

Midland X-Talker T75

Midland Walkie Talkie

 

Walkie talkies may not be considered standard upland gear…… but maybe they should be. These Midland X-Talker radios let me check-in with a another remote hunter across miles of mountainous terrain without having to drop elevation to verify safety and location. And if you’re hunting with friends driving multiple vehicles, these radios are faster and more convenient than cell phones. The 38-mile range is terrain dependent, but we were able to stay in touch across 8 miles of forested peaks with no problems. The X-Talkers have great battery life and the Weather Scan is an added safety feature making them a must-have for backcountry adventure – $90 click here to learn more.

Filson Ultra Light Weight Jacket

Filson Ultra Light Jacket

 

Filson may have built their reputation on their indestructible Tin Cloth, but if they keep turning out jackets like this Ultra Light Weight made from ripstop Cordura® the mantle could be passed. For a weather-resistant jacket, the warmth-to-weight ratio is amazing due largely to the PrimaLoft Gold® Insulation which retains it’s insulating capabilities even when wet. Worn under an upland vest the absence of bulk allows you to stay warm without changing the mount or pull length of the shotgun for shooting consistency. Zippered pockets give another place to safely stow important items. And in the event you get too warm in changing weather conditions, the Ultra Light Weight Jacket rolls up and is unnoticeable in the game pouch. Most hunters will probably opt for the Field Olive but the Raven looks deadly with a blaze vest –  $295 click here to learn more.

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Gerber Center Drive Multi-tool

Gerber Multi-tool

 

There are tons of multi tools on the market. Tons. The reason the Gerber Center Drive has made it into my every day carry is one thing, military grade rotatable carbide wire cutters. These cutters give me a level of confidence that if my dogs are ever caught in a snare, I have a chance to free them quickly with minimal injury. Yes, I like the spring-loaded pliers, knife, file, bottle opener, screwdriver and all the other bells and whistles on this multi-tool. But the replaceable carbide cutters are what puts this in my vest and makes it irreplaceable to me – $85 click here to learn more.

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