Big-Game Field Care The Ultimate Guide
By: Drew Myers
Everything you need to know to get prized game from field to freezer in top shape
Standing over a downed deer, moose, or bear in the bush is no time to start thinking about learning how to field-dress the animal. As a responsible hunter, you should have planned for success long before game hit the ground. This means educating yourself in the techniques needed to transform the animal into packages of quality meat for the freezer. The animals we hunt deserve nothing less. The first step to getting great-tasting wild meat is deciding what, when, and where to shoot in the first place. While we daydream about big bucks and huge bull moose, younger animals make better tablefare. Also take care when and where you shoot an animal. Downing a big moose during a warm spell in the middle of some inaccessible bog is not a great plan. Think twice about hunting during warm weather or where meat spoilage is likely.
Once an animal is on the ground, the clock starts ticking. You must act quickly or the animal will soon spoil, especially in warm weather or if the digestive system has been punctured by your bullet or arrow. The primary goals are to remove the contents of the body cavity, cool the carcass as quickly as possible, and keep the meat clean.
First, get the animal to the driest, cleanest area possible. For moose, you might need to use ropes, pulleys, and plenty of sweat to haul the animal to higher ground, as they seem to like to expire in the wettest, muddiest location they can find.
Once the animal is tagged and gutted, get it back to camp and hang it as soon as practical, as this helps cool it and keep it clean. Leave the hide on until you're ready to hang the animal. The hide will protect the meat from insects and dirt, and the hair will help you slide the animal along the ground.
With moose, however, you might need to split, quarter, and skin the animal on the spot in order to move it. The meat will cool quicker and the pieces will be easier to transport. If you skin the animal to quarter it, wrap the quarters in layers of cheesecloth. It will let body heat escape, while keeping dirt, hair, and flies off the meat. Don't wrap the warm meat in plastic of any kind. This traps heat and promotes spoilage.
Another precaution when dealing with quartered game in warm weather is to use black pepper on exposed meat. The pepper, dusted liberally on the quarters, will keep flies off in the short term. Pepper can be wiped off once the meat is away from insect contamination, and any pepper that stays with the meat through processing will only add flavour.
Once your game is back at camp, there's more work to be done. If you haven't skinned the animal yet, you need to make a decision. I believe moose should always be skinned as soon as possible. Moose are so well insulated, their hide will retain heat for hours after the animal is harvested. Skinning is important to help chill the meat. Also, all animals are easier to skin when warm. Moose hide sometimes seems like it's glued on, so skinning promptly makes the job easier. Since bears are often harvested in warmer weather, they also benefit from prompt skinning.
Whether to skin deer right away or not depends on the conditions. If you're hanging a deer outside in cold to frigid temperatures, the hide can help prevent freezing and protect the meat from critters like ravens.
If you have a clean, cool place to hang your deer, skinning them while they're warm is the way to go. Don't worry about the meat drying out. A crust will form in the membrane between the hide and the meat, locking in the moisture for as long as you should hang the animal.
Hanging and aging game is done to tenderize the meat. Game can be tough because they use their muscles more than domestic animals. Aging meat lets the muscle fibres loosen, so the meat is tender. This is especially important for older animals. Keep in mind, though, the aging process also means exactly that, and the meat will start to slowly deteriorate. Age it conservatively for tenderness, but maximum freshness.
The length of time to age an animal depends on a number of factors. Dryden's Brian Anderson, a friend of mine and professional butcher for 23 years, says at optimal temperatures you can hang moose and deer for a week to 10 days. "Four or 5?C is about perfect for hanging," said Anderson. "If it starts getting warmer, though, shorten the hanging time. Better to butcher it right away than to lose it. Also, the longer you wait, the more moisture you start to lose if the humidity is low – you don't want them to dry out."
Anderson adds that having the game clean when you hang it is important. "Droppings, stomach contents, or hair on the meat make it smell ‘off,' and you will have to cut off the parts that don't smell fresh, which means you lose a lot of meat," he said. "A bit of work and attention at the beginning of the process will provide you with more and better meat in the end."
You can butcher the animal or hire someone to do it. Both options have advantages.
Cutting meat yourself is the least expensive, of course, but is the most labour- and time intensive. It also requires you to learn how to do it, if you expect quality cuts. Some people enjoy butchering and it can save money. It's a fine idea, if your plans for the meat are hamburger, sausage, and stew meat. In this case, simply bone the meat, trim fat, gristle, and tendons, and then get it processed. This is a good option for tougher, older animals. Save the younger ones for roasts and steaks.
Butchering a big-game animal, though, takes time. If you're inexperienced, even a deer will take a few hours to cut and package. If you want to do a moose, have some friends give you a hand. For first-time butchers, there are many books, DVDs, videos, and Web sites available to help guide you through the process.
A professional butcher is generally worth the money. Often, butchers make some overtime funds by cutting big game during the hunting season. Some come right to your home or camp to process game, while others require you to bring the game to them. They will cut the animal into the proper roasts, steaks, and chops and wrap them for the freezer in a quarter of the time it would take most hunters.
Lori Potter, a 25-year butcher from Griffiths Country Meats in Dryden, cautions hunters not to wash meat before bringing it to the butcher. "Washing only spreads bacteria around the meat, contaminating more of it," she said.
Be sure to secure a butcher before the hunting season starts and try to observe them at work or inspect the premises before you hand over your game. Good references are always the best mark of a top-notch wild-game butcher.
If you butcher your animal, once it's packaged and in the freezer, you need to deal with the inedible parts. ServiceOntario and the OFAH (www.ofah.org) have lists of collection depots where hides can be dropped off for use in traditional native crafts. Bones, waste fat, connective tissue, etc. should be put well back in the bush where pets and passersby won't find them. Many scavengers will benefit from this windfall.
It's a Wrap
Boiled down to its most basic element, big-game hunting's goal is to put meat on the table. Eating the animals we harvest is both our responsibility and a privilege. By taking the time and effort to treat the meat with respect and care, you will be rewarded by many fine meals to share with friends and family.
- Remove the tenderloins as soon as possible. They don't need aging and will quickly dry up. The tenderloins are located on each side of the spine within the body cavity, from the pelvic area to the rib cage.
- If you can, hang the animal head down and prop open the body cavity with a stick. This lets body heat escape faster by preventing it from being trapped in the rib cage.
- Trim damaged flesh or bone from bullet or arrow holes. Damaged areas spoil quickly and contaminate surrounding meat.
- Right from the start, keep the meat as hair-free as possible. Hairs are hard to remove once on the meat – and no one wants to find one in their stew.
- If you intend to make sausages or smokies out of your game, look around for a meat processor whose products suit your tastes before the hunting season starts. You want to know what you are getting. Many game butchers also make prepared meats, so they can be a one-stop butchering and processing option.
- If you're an angler or know someone who makes their own flies, bucktail jigs, or muskie bucktail spinners, cut the tail from your deer and skin out the bone, then salt the skin. Dye the tail or keep it a natural white and brown and use it to make custom lures for the next fishing season.
(In a small fanny pack or daypack.)
- Bright trail tape to use if necessary to help locate a downed animal. Leave a piece of tape as a trail marker at each blood sight while tracking. Should you lose a blood trail, the last marker can be used as a reference to start again in ever-widening circles to relocate the blood trail and the downed game.
- Knife and sharpener.
- Disposable latex, rubber, or plastic gloves to wear while field-dressing for protection against animal contaminants and disease. Arm-length gloves, available at hunting-supply shops, are great to wear when you reach far into the body cavity to remove the windpipe.
- String to tie off the colon.
- Small container of anti-bacterial waterless hand cleaner.
- Gambrels for hanging game head down by the hocks.
- Cheesecloth for protecting quartered game while hanging.
- Tarps for protecting areas from dripping blood.
- Some hunters keep a chain saw, with vegetable oil replacing motor oil, at camp for quartering moose.
- Butcher paper (it's biodegradable after being used), masking tape, and permanent markers for wrapping and labelling the cuts of chilled meat.
- Large basins and water for cleaning tools and meat, if necessary.
- More anti-bacterial soap and towels for washing and drying your hands and tools.
- Several sheets of heavy-duty paper shop cloths or other clean cloths for wiping blood off your hands, knife, and out of the animal's body cavity.
- Meat saw or clean, sharp axe or hatchet for cutting bones and quartering game (large animals).
- Winch, rope, and pulleys or come-a-long to help get the animal out of the bush, if an ATV is unavailable.
Once a trophy buck, bull, or bruin is on the ground is not the time to decide whether or not you're getting it mounted. Cambellford's Robert Goudreault, the president of the Canadian Taxidermy Association (CTA), says you need to plan ahead and act quickly once that trophy is down. He offers the following tips for getting a great mount back from the taxidermist, as well as checking the suggestions on the CTA's Web site www.canadiantaxidermy.netfirms.com.
- Look for a taxidermist before you need one. Go to their shops and check their work to see if it's good. Also ask them how you should prepare game in the field.
- Never cut out the windpipe or slit the throat of an animal to kill or "bleed it." A shot in the lungs or heart will cause the animal to bleed out, and cutting the throat will make all sorts of problems for the taxidermist.
- Leave at least 6 inches of neck muscle attached to head mounts. This helps the taxidermist gauge how thick the neck was and then be able to reproduce this size in the mount. Otherwise, they can only make their best guess, which might not be as you remember the animal.
- Let the animal's head or hide cool completely before you put it in a bag or box or even the freezer. I've had bear hides spoil in the freezer because the bag they were in trapped the heat.
- If the hide is frozen, tell your taxidermist. If the taxidermist freezes it again, the hair will start falling out.
- If the weather is warm and you can't get the animal to cold storage, rub the hide with feed salt from a farm-supply store. You will need about five pounds per hide.
- Give the taxidermist as much hide as possible. Start from behind the legs and work forward, cutting only behind the legs part way along the back, then "tube skin" the chest and neck (skinning the hide towards the head as if you were pulling off a sock).