How many of you butcher and process your own deer/game instead of taking it to a meat processor?
I grew up on a farm in the Eastern US and one of my first memories of deer hunting was when my dad allowed me to help with butchering a deer my brother had killed. My dad’s basement wood shop was transformed into a processing plant and everyone pitched in to get the work completed. My dad and brother would cut meat while my mother would freeze wrap and run the grinder. It was one of the proudest moments I could remember when my dad lifted me up on the workbench in front of the ribcage, handed me a knife to cut out the meat from between the ribs for burger, and told me “Be careful, and don’t cut yourself.”
During my college years and for a little while after, I took a few animals to the processor my hunting partner used. I was appalled at the conditions to say the least. Flies buzzed everywhere, the bandsaw and equipment was filthy, and how in the world did they ensure that that burger coming out of the machine was from my animal and not some guy who drug the carcass around to show his friends for 8 hours in the hot sun? I thought to myself…no wonder some folks don’t like the taste of wild game!
I figured it was worth my time and effort to get back to my roots. I was living in a townhouse at the time. One of the best things I did was put down that blue tinted epoxy garage flooring. Wow, blood mops up easy from that type of flooring. I had to pull our car out of the garage, set up a folding table, picked up an inexpensive grinder and vacuum sealer, and I was on my way!
I had some funny experiences back in those days. I didn’t have a sink to dump my mop water, so I carried the mop bucket across the street to dump it into the storm sewer along the street. I can remember some concerned looks from the neighbors as a tired, raggedy, arm-stained character poured bloody wash water out… “Has anyone seen the wife recently?”
Then there was the time I opened the garage door and one of the neighborhood city kids saw the skinned carcass hanging from the gambrel and said to his mom, “Mommy, mommy, you should see the size a’dat fish he has in there!” That one got a few chuckles from my hunting buddy and me.
Nowadays, I have a large 3-car garage with my own sizable wood shop in the 3rd bay. I have everything decked out in epoxy flooring, a large wash sink with hot water, as well as space heaters and stereo music at the ready. A cabinet sits in the corner with all my processing gear, and the gambrel swings from the ceiling hook for most of the year.
Sometimes, I’ll take a few moments to run off to the kitchen while the skinning is taking place and cook up a victory meal of fresh deer heart fried with onions to pick at with skewers while we cut. Yum! The morning hunts might have some eggs or potatoes in the mix as well.
Often, after a long tracking job in the evening, we will break up the work. After skinning, I’ll just quarter the meat quickly with a cordless sawzall and put the larger pieces into plastic bags and then into a large marine cooler. Putting the bags over apple juice bottles filled with frozen brine water, the goods stay fresh and cold until after work the following day. I fill the chest with the frozen bottles to make it more efficient until I can fill it with meat. We have the routine down to where, with help, it takes about three hours to process a deer including skinning, vacuum sealing and labelling, grinding, and clean up. Solo, about another hour or two. I also try to keep the large tendons, the tail, skull and antlers, and sometimes the entire hide for future tanning if the fur is nice. I try to utilize as much as I can from each animal.
Sometimes, however things get a little hectic. One time, my partner Mike and I were fortunate enough to kill a deer in the morning and we were happily cutting and retelling stories when the cell phone buzzed. It was our other partner, Brent, who was still in the woods stewing over his “miss” in the immediate post dawn light. “…Um, I climbed down and found my arrow covered in blood and broken in half.” We had two deer to cut up!
What happens when a skilled traditional bowhunter hunts with a rifled shotgun for the first time? Mike wanted to see how easy it really was to kill a deer with a slug gun one snowy January evening. “Everyone always told me when you shoot a deer with a gun they just drop.” Mike snuck up and crested a rise where several deer were milling around. He kept shooting and the deer kept running off. He continued to shoot because he had calculated he was missing. Well within minutes, Mike had four deer down in short order. It took us two days to process all that meat, and we both immediately instituted a two deer per day limit!
I live where the temperatures are warm most of the year, which prevents me from hanging a deer for days in order to age it. With no walk-in cooler available, I prefer to seal and freeze the fresh meat immediately. I will wet age the vacuumed sealed packs of meat in the refrigerator for 7-10 days at controlled temperatures to improve the quality. I find this works out well for me, and I have plans to purchase a second small refrigerator for the garage to remove these packs of meat from the kitchen unit. There may be room in there for a few beers as well, BONUS!
The “chore” of processing has now become something to relish and look forward to. It is a place where my small hunting group convenes after someone is fortunate enough to make a kill. A campfire of sorts, where details of everyone’s hunt and experiences can be retold and reminisced while enjoying a pull, or two, of whatever bottle of “rot-gut” is laying around the shop. The work is fatiguing after a long hunt, but goes by quickly with the extra hands, the stories, the bourbon, and the brotherhood. I consider this success process as part of the hunt itself now, inseparable from the other components; something that brings me even more intimately together with the ancient and primitive ritual that man knows deep in his DNA as “The Hunt.”