Taking care of your wild game harvest


Jim Brittenham pulled handfuls of raw, seasoned deer meat from a small vat and placed them in a tub at Vandevanter Meats.

The delicate pieces of deer meat were then skewered and made ready for the smoker. In a few hours, the deer meat will have finished its journey from the field to the refrigerator, the perfect ending to one hunter's fall harvest.

But getting that meat from the field to here - and in good condition - was no accident. Proper care in the field will ensure that you get the most from your harvested game animal and no meat is wasted.

The archery hunter who shot the deer Brittenham was working on had taken excellent care of the animal after it was killed, making Brittenham's job a lot easier.

Hunters who bring in animals like this to the butcher - those are the good clients. But shop owner Ron Vandevanter has seen it all: the piles of deer and antelope brought in to his butcher shop, tightly sealed in tarps and giving off a malodorous stench; or the hunters who drag animals back to their truck after skinning them out, leaving pieces of twigs and dirt embedded in the meat.

"There's only so much you can do" with meat like that, he said.

With big-game hunting season starting Sunday, there are easy ways to make sure you bring home the best possible meat for your freezer.

Heat is the enemy of harvested game, according to Sonny Carlson, owner of M&S Meats in Rollins. The best way to fight heat is to field-dress and skin the animal as soon as possible.

"Some hunters tend to let the animals overheat and not cool down," Carlson said. Large game animals such as elk and moose tend to overheat fast, especially in the neck, and you can lose a lot of meat there, he said.

But if you have to drag the animal back to your vehicle, don't skin it; wait until it's ready to be hung up.

If you have to leave the animal in the field before you can retrieve it (be sure to tag the animal), get the animal off the ground so that air can circulate freely around all parts of the carcass. Leaving the animal on the ground allows only one side of the carcass to cool, while the side on the ground remains insulated and warm - opening up the possibility of rapid bacterial growth.

This, says Vandevanter, can "sour"

the meat, and if you bring an animal like this to his shop, don't plan on leaving it there. "It has to get cooled off the first night after you shoot it, or it will sour," Vandevanter said. "If it's soured, there's nothing we can do."

"You wouldn't believe how some people treat their game," he added. "We get things that have been shot up every which way.

"But we've seen the other extreme, too. Meat that's been very well taken care of."

If you don't keep your game animal clean, you might not be able to have a butcher take process it. Stricter health regulations are making it more difficult for butchers to accept damaged animals, Carlson said. "It's got to be kept clean. We can't accept dirty meat.

"If hunters don't take care of it properly none of the facilities will accept it."

One of the first temptations with a downed, field-dressed animal may be to clean the meat with water from a stream or with snow. Bad idea, says Vandevanter. That just spreads around the bacteria that are already on the meat.

Only in rare circumstances, such as shooting an animal on an extremely hot day, would you want to cool the carcass down by putting water on it or placing it in a creek. "That will just let the animal pick up all kinds of bacteria that are in the water," Vandevanter said.

Hanging the animal in the field means hunters should carry enough rope to be able to hang their game. This will also help prevent critters such as coyotes getting after the meat. Small pulley systems will help get your animal up in the air. (Another tip: Once you have the animal hanging, if you have to leave it, make sure you know how to find it.)

While it's important to get your animal up in the air - or home - don't be too quick. This is where you might puncture some of the intestines, which can give off an offensive gas and sour the meat.

Once you have your animal skinned and hanging, don't leave it to cure. Get the animal butchered as soon as possible and put it in the freezer, says Vandevanter. Curing game animals is a misconception that many hunters have, and according to Vandevanter the only animals that actually can cure are buffalo and beef.

Game animals such as deer, elk and antelope don't have the enzymes in their biological systems that allow the breakdown of tissue - in effect, aging the meat.

If you're butchering your own game, there are a couple of tips that can help prolong the storage time in the freezer. First, don't put large packages of meat next to each other in the freezer; spread them out so they can freeze evenly. Typical home freezers don't circulate cold air, so any meat that is touching other packages won't freeze evenly, Vandevanter said. "Home freezers are meant to store food that's already frozen."

When the first gunshots of big-game rifle season go off this Sunday, it's the starting bell for butcher shops like Vandevanter's. In years of good harvests, butchers work long hours to get the animals skinned, butchered and frozen. If you take your animal to a butcher, be patient for a timely return in small white packages.

"We only take in what our help can do," Vandevanter said.

Carlson, at M&S Meats, is preparing for another busy season after wrapping up archery season.

"Archery hunters have had good success this year, and antelope was up from last year," he said.

"We're off to a roaring start."

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