Author: John Sader
Big game hunting doesn’t end the moment an animal is recovered. It ends when you have a quality product on the table that your family and friends can enjoy. Many people do not invest the time and preparation required after an animal is harvested. Every hunter and angler can attest to having a less than enjoyable meal due to “gaminess". Each animal tastes differently than another, but that gamey taste is universally unpleasant (if you've ever tried merganser, you definitely know the taste). The good news is, with a little effort and some know-how, you can drastically improve the taste and quality of your well-earned game.
From all the hunters I’ve met, and all the articles I’ve read, I can safely say that hunters know better than to go running after an animal that was just shot. Adrenaline is one heck of a drug, and a wounded animal can run surprisingly far on adrenaline alone. Recently, my father shot a whitetail deer with his crossbow during the final days before the archery season. Running on one lung, that buck made it almost 400 yards before expiring. That is incredible, but if my dad had chased after that buck, it could have easily gone another 400 more. Not only does it become tougher to track a wounded animal, but that animal will build up a ton of lactic acid in its muscles. That lactic acid is a direct contributor to the toughness and gaminess of the meat come chow time. Be mindful of shot placement, weapon capability, and your own skill. Know your limitations and always strive for clean, ethical shots.
The Real Work
You’ve made that great shot, recovered the animal quickly, now comes the real work. However eager you may be to just dive in and start cutting, keep cleanliness in mind. Assess your surroundings, ideally you will want to begin gutting and skinning some place cool, dry, and with plenty of working room. In the early season, or on warmer days, the most important part of this process is to cool the meat. Spoilage can occur within hours, so definitely get to processing ASAP.
We generally prepare more for the hunt, and neglect preparing for afterwards. In my opinion, there’s no point in putting all that work if you’re not going to properly take care of the meat you’re going to consume. Having everything you need and knowing how to use it is imperative.
- Good Knives
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. A sharp knife is key to making good clean cuts, take your time, be precise and you will waste very little meat. Be sure you have a sharpening or honing tool with you to refresh your edge as it will start to dull during field dressing.
You can do everything with just one knife, no need for a saw. Everything can be quartered out by just separating some joints. When removing the hind quarter for example, you can cut the meat around the hip joint, and pop it out. Anywhere there’s a joint, you can pop it out to separate. Practice on a leg of lamb and watch some YouTube videos. I promise you, it’s easier and cleaner than using a saw.
- Cut up
Most of your cuts should be blade up. This reduces the chances of cutting into the guts, which will spoil meat. Also, when skinning, keep that cutting edge up. Cutting down will introduce a ridiculous amount of hair onto the surface of the meat. Hair that you’re going to have to remove later.
- Torch it
This applies to birds and pin feathers as well as furbearing animals. Quicker than picking off the little hairs on the meat, is a quick pass with a blow torch. This doesn’t need to be done right away, but definitely before freezing.
Often overlooked by many that are new to the sport is the glands found on the hind legs. On whitetail deer during the rut, the tarsal glands on a buck go into overdrive. You do not want this oily, stinky residue on the meat. Keep this in mind, when cutting around the tarsal gland. The good news is that once you remove the hide, you don’t have to worry about it. Cut upwards and eliminate contact between these glands and the rest of the animal.
If you are going to butcher at home, best practice would be to gut the animal in the field. A lot of heat is trapped in the body cavity of a whitetail deer, their core body temperature is around 104F. When driving home is not a possibility, and field dressing is a necessity, then a different approach is needed. Quick cooling is the name of the game, and I like to take with me a good cooler or two, and plenty of ice. You can’t really replace the value on a good quality cooler. I would look at getting a durable, roto-molded cooler like an Iceland cooler. Iceland Coolers are great value for performance and are jam-packed with features and accessories aimed at the serious outdoorsman or woman (like a cutting board that doubles as a divider, how cool is that?). Have them ready in the truck so that when you’ve quartered and bagged your animal, it can go right into the cooler. Ideally, we want to have our meat quartered and in game bags before we pack out. Once we get to the truck, you can break down the legs into manageable parts (it’s as easy as popping some more joints.) Seal the meat in plastic bags to protect it from moisture before putting in the cooler. By the time you get home, the meat should have cooled sufficiently enough to make cutting, packaging and freezing a breeze.
From here, you can sort out how you want the animal broken down. I try to keep most of it in larger pieces, this cuts down on freezer burn, and gives me the ability to try many different recipes. Instead of cutting out say, 4 steaks, cut a larger piece that you can later defrost and cut 4 steaks out of when you want to eat. Vacuum sealing is not an absolute necessity if you don’t plan on leaving the meat in the freezer for more than a year. You can totally get by with plastic wrap and butcher’s paper. Do your best to dry the surface of the meat before placing in plastic wrap, and you’ll be totally fine.
Finally, no hunt is complete until you’ve eaten and shared the product of all this hard work. Burgers and sausages are great, but it’s always nice to try a new recipe every now and then. The internet is full of wild game recipes from fellow outdoorsmen.