November 14, 2022
By Brad Fenson
Antler tips teetered back and forth as the big buck walked toward me over a ridge. I could feel my heart rate increase instantly, and I took a deep breath to stay calm and focused. It was late in the rut, and the wise, old buck had let down his guard in search of one last doe that may need tending. The buck was oblivious to his surroundings and used his nose to guide him down the active game trail. I slowly lifted my bow and aimed it toward the trail. The buck stopped at 32 yards to smell some tracks, and my arrow zipped clean through him.
The buck staggered and tried to head for cover but fell to the ground 12 yards from where he stood when I shot. The moment seemed surreal, and I could not believe the deer was down in view of my stand. The encounter took seconds, but being ready and focused ensured a good supply of venison would fill the freezer.
After The Shot
Having the buck fall less than 50 yards from my stand made it easy to deal with in an expedited manner. Most archery-harvested deer are given time to expire before taking up the trail, but when they fall over in plain sight, it makes things pretty easy. Field dressing and cooling an animal as soon as possible has always been a priority. We process our wild game at home and enjoy the quality control it provides.
Is it essential to field dress as soon as possible? When an animal hits the ground, the skinning and dressing begins immediately. Butcher shops and abattoirs that deal with domestic meat are held to a set of standards to ensure quality. Following the same principles for wild game, an animal is always cleaned and cooled as quickly as possible.
There are some tricks to field dressing to ensure the high quality of meat. I recall the advice an old farmer gave me when I took my first deer. I pulled out my knife and was going to start at the back end of the deer. However, my mentor provided a tutorial in managing hair in or on the carcass. He pointed to the sternum and told me to pay attention to how the hair was growing. Always cut with the hair, as cutting against it means releasing hundreds of follicles. During skinning, the hair was followed down the legs and not up. The attention to detail greatly impacted how clean the carcass and meat were when the tasks were completed.
Game bags can be an asset to keeping dirt, hair, and leaves off the meat. If insects are around, an antimicrobial spray or treated game bag will ensure bacteria will not grow.
Regulated meat handlers are required to cool a carcass and keep it maintained at approximately 34 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Aging is drying, so humidity can play a role, along with airflow preventing mold from growing on the meat. Using a fan to keep air moving over the meat will make a difference.
Hunters do not always have access to a walk-in cooler; taking the right gear will mean you always take the best care of your meat. It is preferred to keep water away from the meat, as it can grow bacteria. However, if you are hunting in a hot climate, an ice water bath in a cooler will work. A cooler with ice in the bottom, a layer of cardboard, or even a towel, then the meat will work to cool an animal fast. Cutting it into smaller pieces or muscle groups is a consideration.
Another option is to field dress a deer and pack the cavity with bags of ice. The bones radiate the cold through the animal, and the hide provides insulation to keep the cold in. Skinning can still be done as soon as possible, but it does buy some time.
When an animal is field dressed and skinned, it is easy to see where contamination may occur. Stomach contents or blood clots should be cleaned from the carcass as soon as possible. Get a pail of water and a clean rag, and proceed to wash the spots that need it. Do not take it to the carwash and spray it down, as it will splatter the contamination over the entire carcass. Change the water often until everything is clean. Cleaning the broadhead wound will also prevent bacteria from growing.
If you have skinned an animal and still have some hair on the carcass, there are several ways to clean it. When fresh, the back side of a knife can be used to scrape the hair off. Keep a paper towel to clean the blade as you work. A nylon-bristled brush is ideal for scrubbing the hair off if it has dried to the meat or bones. The brush should be dedicated to meat handling and can be washed in the dishwasher between uses. When all else fails, use a propane torch to burn the hair off and wipe away any residue with a clean paper towel.
To Hang or Not To Hang?
Aging can change the flavor of the meat for the better but will cause the meat to dry. The process can tenderize the meat, but most deer are already quite tender. So, hunters need to experiment to decide if they want to age the meat and if there is a noticeable difference.
One option is to wet-age the prime cuts. On larger animals like elk, moose, or bison, wet aging the backstraps or top sirloins will make a noticeable difference. The prime cuts will need to be vacuum sealed while fresh. Place the bags of sealed meat in the fridge or a temperature-regulated cooler for 20 to 40 days. It is critical to ensure there is no air in the bag. Handling is important to prevent poking small holes.
The Weston Mossy Oak Gamekeeper Electric Vacuum Sealer works excellent for sealing the meat and can be used with pre-sized bags or rolls.
Knowing the different muscles of an animal ensures that the prime cuts are identified and given special treatment. If you visit Mossy Oak Gamekeeper Butchery, the price of prime cuts of meat becomes obvious. Most hunters refer to the loin as the backstrap, but the portion of the loin that saddles the hind quarter is a New York strip or striploin, while the portion over the ribs is a rib steak or chop. Leaving the bone in allows for different presentations, like a tomahawk steak with the rib cleaned and attached to the striploin.
There are great videos online to help identify and remove the best cuts of meat for steaks and roasts.
Using proper knives is essential to good quality meat and even cooking. Steaks and roasts must be cut evenly to prevent a portion from cooking faster than the rest of the meat. A steak that is one inch thick at one end and half an inch thick at the other will be challenging to prepare. A steaking knife has a long, heavy blade, allowing the user to make one fluid cut and keep everything even. A larger butcher’s knife is ideal for cutting larger roasts.
A good boning knife will make muscle breakdown easy and allows the user to get close to the bone and prevent waste. A sharpener or steel should always be handy to keep the edge on every blade. Any time you run the blade over a bone, stop and sharpen it to ensure the edge is always there. Quality knife sets are available to provide a complete set of meat processing blades.
Wrapping meat is vital to prevent freezer burn or contamination. Meat wrapping paper has a wax coating to help seal the package and prevent moisture loss. Cut a piece of meat wrapping paper long enough to cover the steaks or roast fully. Set the meat on a corner and fold the edges in and under as the meat is rolled forward. The last corner can be folded over to tape the package shut. The extra fold helps to prevent air from getting into the package.
Plastic wrap can be used first to push any air out and add a second layer of protection. If there is a chance meat could be in the freezer for more than a year, double wrapping is recommended.
Vacuum sealers can be used, but ensure there is no air left in the package, and all are correctly sealed. Keeping the vacuum sealer clean is important for getting all packages airtight and heat-sealed.
There is always a good quantity of trim for making minced or ground meat. A grinder should never strain to do the job. Use a grinder with enough horsepower to mince the meat cleanly and efficiently. The Mossy Oak GameKeepers 2.4 hp Meat Grinder is a good size for home processing.
Keep the grinder blade sharp. The blade is not sharp enough to mince if your ground meat has pieces of sinew or chewy bits. Forcing meat into the grinder with a plunger can dull the blade. Let the grinder work at its speed with a small amount of assistance. Feeding meat into the throat of the grinder is not a time to use muscle to push it through.
For the best quality meat, chill the auger, blade, and grinder plate before use. The motor on a grinder can heat up, and having the components fresh out of the freezer increases the run time without fear of heating the meat.
Burger bags help to store minced meat efficiently and compactly in the freezer. The bags protect the meat from light and are designed to seal tight and prevent freezer burn. A funnel attachment on the grinder will allow the user to fill burger bags as the meat is minced. Specialized tapers are available to twist the top of the burger bag and run it through a taper for the perfect seal.
Consider turning some ground venison into extruded jerky with a Mossy Oak Gamekeeper Jerky Gun. There are Meat Slicers and Dehydrators if you want to take it to the next level and make muscle-cut jerky.
Meat tubs or lugs with lids are a good investment and help to keep your game clean and bacteria-free. Coolers and totes might do the job, but if they store other things and are not cleaned properly, they can lead to problems. Meat tubs are not expensive and can be dedicated equipment for all game processing and sausage making.
Having superb wild game to serve to family and friends will generate pride and satisfaction. Taking care of an animal and fully utilizing it is an essential component of the hunt. Be mindful of what needs to be taken into the field to properly care for meat once on the ground. Proper field dressing, skinning, and taking all steps to ensure excellent table fare quickly become second nature.
Taking care of meat is the ultimate sign of respect for the animals we hunt and put on our table. It is a valuable commodity that should never be taken for granted. A seasoned butcher is proud of his or her craft, and hunters can and should feel the same way about caring for meat from when it hits the ground till it finds its way onto your fork. It’s not just a passion. It’s an obsession.
The Next Step
Being able to process wild game at home will lead to more adventuresome projects, like making sausage and jerky. The Mossy Oak Gamekeeper series of sausage kits will make getting started easy. For more information on processing wild game at home, visit Mossy Oak's blog.