I recently found an old elementary school assignment of mine while rummaging through some old things. The assignment asked students a variety of questions about their favorite things, who they would like to meet if they could meet anybody, and where they plan on living when they grow up. One question in particular caught my eye; “If you had a time machine, where would you go?” What didn’t surprise me was my answer scrawled in my third grade handwriting; “The olden day because of prices.” I guess I’ve always been a traditionalist at heart.
As a traditionalist, I find my hunting goals challenge me differently than most of my hunting friends. Our modern hunting culture revolves more and more around trophy animals. This trophy driven approach has drastically changed the hunting experience for many modern hunters. Now to be sure, I’m not against trophy hunters, in fact I admire them. There’s no way I could pass up animals walking near me hoping to hold out for the big one. It’s not my nature. I hunt to carry on the tradition of our forefathers and pass that legacy on to my children. I am a meat hunter and proud of it.
I come from a family where “bringing home the bacon” takes on a whole new meaning. As a kid I remember many cold November nights helping dad package the elk he had just dropped. In fact many of the men I shadowed while growing up provided for their families by trudging into the snow with a rifle ready to make meat. For my family, fall not only represents a time enjoyable to explore nature, but also a time to stock the freezer with quality meat for the upcoming year. Hunting draws its origins from subsistence hunters roving the land searching for meat to fill their empty bellies. If you think experiencing that cycle sounds appealing, or if you are new to the sport and are not sure where to begin, here are some tips for making the most of your meat hunting experience.
Quality tasting wild game begins in the field immediately after locating your harvested animal. Large game animals should be gutted in the field as soon as possible. Removing the internal organs will help facilitate the most crucial step of meat care; cooling. Heat is your number one enemy when packaging meat, especially in early season hunts. While gutting your animal it’s important not to puncture any of the intestines with your knife. Not only will this let nauseating gases escape, but stomach juices could potentially spoil meat as well. After gutting the next question you will have to ask is whether to skin your animal or not. Hides trap heat so removing them should be considered on early season hunts when temperatures stay above the 50’s. However, skin serves as an excellent boundary between the meat and contaminants you will encounter when moving your animal. You’ll need to decide if the risk of trapped heat outweighs the risk of contamination from dirt, flies, and other debris. A final step that can be taken to reduce the temperature of your meat is to remove the meat from the bone. Bones can hold a lot of heat and cause your meat to spoil from the inside out. Basically, you want to do everything you can to reduce the temperature of your meat quickly. One final note when discussing field care is the condition of the animal before it was killed. With the risk of diseases like CWD a greater threat than in the past, hunters should look for indicators of a diseased animal and contact their local game warden if they have any concerns.
So you were lucky enough to find and harvest an animal and you followed proper handling strategies in the field, your next concern lies in your decision whether to hang your meat or not. Hanging meat allows the enzymes in the meat to break down muscle tissue and will result in a tenderer slab of meat on your plate. As with skinning, weather conditions will be your number one variable when making your decision. Ideal hanging conditions are in the low 40’s. Temperatures higher than this create conditions for bacteria to grow, and temperatures below freezing will halt the breakdown of tissue. If your nighttime lows are staying in the 50’s my advice is to skip the hanging stage and get your meat packaged as soon as possible. If you decide to hang your meat the next question is “how long”? You’ll get as many answers to this question as hunters you ask. Some old timers swear by the motto “the longer the better”, while others argue wild game, such as deer, should hang for a maximum for three to four days citing differences between wild game and commercially raised meats in the aging process. In the past I’ve tended to hang my meat for shorter periods of time, generally with weather concerns dictating hanging time more than anything else.
Here is where most guys seem to lose confidence in the meat aspect of hunting. “I don’t know what the different cuts of meat are” is a general lament I hear from guys and scares them away from processing. My advice; you won’t ruin the meat if you cut it wrong. Sure, a well-cut piece of meat is ideal, but not cutting the perfect roast out of a hindquarter shouldn’t deter you from learning. As a general rule the muscles that do the least amount of work are the most tender and should be used as steaks. Look to the tenderloins (on the inside of the spinal column) and backstraps (on the outside of the spinal column) for your best cuts. After removing these choice cuts, next look to major muscles in the hindquarters, front quarters, and neck for roasts. These large muscles will require more care to draw out the delectable taste wild game offers and are better suited for longer cook durations of roasts.
At this point you will be left with an array of odds and ends meat clinging to the carcass. The meat that is left generally has more fat and sinew than other cuts, making it less desirable to eat as a steak or roast. Grinding this meat into hamburger offers a great purpose for these tougher cuts. Once the meat is ground it can be eaten as burger, mixed with more fatty meat like pork and made into a variety of products like sausage and brats, or can be dried to make jerky for your next hunting trip. And while discussing fat, its important to remember that wild game fat should be removed for the best tasting result. Wild game fat tends to give the meat an unappealing taste, and is better to be removed with a sharp knife and thrown away.
If you’ve gotten to this point you should be wore out, tired, a bit cranky, and hungry. Lucky for you, you also have a freezer full of tasty and nutritious meat to help you recuperate. Meat hunting not only provides meat, but also compliments ethical hunting practices and promotes appreciation for the animals we love and love to hunt. Utilize this gift from your hunting adventures and you’ll go a long way to experiencing a more full circle cycle of hunting. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll join the meat-hunting crowd who is proud to bring home the bacon.