In my opinion, the ability to properly care for wild game in the field
is one of the most important tools a successful hunter needs in his toolbox. If you’re serious about hunting and putting quality meat in the freezer, you need to know how to care for the animal once you have it on the ground.
While there are several different ways to field-dress wild game, the
suggested steps to preserve and care for the meat are essentially the same. Regardless of your hunting skill level, any hunter should expect to be successful in the field when they head out and should plan accordingly.
There’s really nothing specialized about the gear required to break down
an animal into manageable parts. In fact, most of the battle is making sure you have it when you need it.
BE PREPARED – It doesn’t matter if I’m headed out for big game, small game or upland birds, I make sure that all my meat-processing gear is packed in the same tote and loaded in the truck before any trip.
I carry plastic bags in several sizes, disposable gloves, paper towels, paracord, rope, a tarp, meat bags, an axe, garbage bags, Havalon knives, spare blades, a cutting board, several headlamps, several pens, a roll of tape, zip ties, large and small meat carrying packs, and several bottles of water.
At the hunting grounds, I can determine what I will need for the day
and pack it into one of the carrying packs and then head out to start
hunting. I would rather be overly prepared in the field, especially when
time is a factor.
As soon as the animal hits the ground, the clock starts. Cooling the
meat quickly to avoid spoilage is your primary concern. With big game, I’ll look to drag the animal into any nearby shade if possible to keep from having to work in direct sunlight and to keep the meat a few degrees cooler.
If that’s not an option, be prepared to start cutting sooner than later.
Once the animal is where I’ll be processing it, I lay out a clean tarp in the shade as well. I have two goals when the knives come out: remove
the meat quickly to cool it down; and keep the meat clean. Having a place to lay the meat out without worrying about dirt and leaves sticking to it will make the final processing a lot easier.
GETTING STARTED – Over the last decade or so, I have been processing all my big game using what is known as the gutless method. Rather than opening up the gut cavity and removing all the insides, we start by skinning all four legs and removing them at the hip and shoulder joint. The skin is used as a working surface as we fold it down around the animal.
We then remove the backstraps and neck meat without ever exposing the meat to the entrails. We find this method cleaner and faster. Before I start cutting, I make sure the animal is cleaned of any debris. I remove leaves and dirt and wipe away excessive blood with paper towels.
Taking this extra step will keep the meat cleaner. I also make sure that I make my cuts with the growth of the hair. This minimizes hair cutting and will keep it from sticking to the meat.
The backstraps are two long cuts of meat that sit on each side of the
spine. They are considered the choice cuts, and once the hide is off they can be removed by cutting along the backbone from the neck to the rump.
When removing the front and back legs, remove the skin and spread the
legs open as far as they’ll go. Make a cut in the armpit (for the front legs) and the groin (for the back legs) until they are free of the animal.
PARTING SHOTS – If you’re familiar with animal anatomy, parting out an animal can be accomplished with little more than a sharp knife. I really don’t like bone fragments in with the meat, so I’ll avoid hacking or sawing through bone if I can. The super-sharp processing knives from Havalon are all I ever use. They come with replaceable surgical blades and can be used for skinning, parting out and deboning meat.
If you’re unfamiliar with exactly how to part out an animal, go with
someone who has done it before and can show you the specifics. When
training my daughters, I had them watch me do half of the animal and
then I had them do the other half as I watched and gave instructions.
As the legs or hams are removed, I place them on the tarp to cool. Since
most tarps are not breathable, it’s important to turn the meat during the field-dressing process. I’ll usually turn over each piece and cool both sides when I add another piece to the tarp.
It takes me about 30 to 45 minutes to part out an animal. This means that some pieces will have been cooling longer than others. It doesn’t matter if we’re close to the truck or we have a long hike ahead of us, I will continue to let the meat cool. At times, weather permitting I’ll even hang the meat in meat bags to assist in the cooling process.
A mistake I see a lot of hunters make is putting meat in meat bags as
soon as they cut it off the animal and then loading them right into their packs.
The meat should be cool or cold to the touch before you load up for the hike out. During the entire field-dressing process, you should do your best to keep the meat clean and free of dirt and debris. Clean tarps, meat bags and taking your time will all serve you well when processing the meat later on.
COOLERS – Care should also be taken when you transport the meat from the field to your home or processor. A high-quality cooler that’s designed to keep ice for several days is a must-have item.
The market is flooded with high-end coolers that are heavily insulated
and designed to stay colder longer. They’re pricey but built far better
than your weekend Igloo and, in my opinion, well worth it.
A cooler is an insulated box. This means even the expensive coolers will
heat up if you just leave them empty in the back of your truck while you’re out hunting. Placing cooled meat in a heated cooler and then adding ice will accelerate meat spoilage. Take the time to place ice in your cooler before you head out.
I have several gallon jugs I keep in the freezer specifically for cold-charging my hunting coolers. The night before a hunt I’ll place the
ice blocks in the cooler and shut the airtight lid. This keeps the inside cold and ready for anything I’ll add from the field the next day.
PROCESSING – I process all my field meat myself. Over the years I have acquired all the necessary meat-processing equipment; I seriously enjoy this part of the process. I’ll move the meat-filled cooler into the kitchen and keep everything cold as I work.
The kitchen is where I carefully clean the meat and prepare it for
vacuum-sealing. Careful field-dressing and proper handling in the field
will benefit you in the kitchen. If I encounter dirt or debris on the meat, I’ll use a damp paper towel to remove it. I don’t rinse big game meat with water, as I prefer to keep the meat as dry as possible prior to packing.
Understanding how my family utilizes our protein, I’ll usually cut the backstraps into single steaks and vacuum-pack these two at a time. I’ll
cut out two slow-cooker roasts and package those separately. The rest
of the meat will be ground up and packaged in 2-pound portions. We
use the ground meat for tacos, chili, spaghetti and meatballs, sausage
and hamburger patties. I’ve processed antelope, wild pig and deer
in this manner, and for us it’s the best way to package our wild game
meat. Nothing goes to waste and we use every piece of meat between the
hooves and the antlers.
It doesn’t matter what type of wild game I’m processing, I vacuum-pack
all of it. It preserves the meat longer, and if you’re processing and packaging your own wild game, it really is the only way to go. They’re easy to use and inexpensive.
MORE THAN THE HUNT – For me, the activity of hunting doesn’t end in the field. My enjoyment extends into the kitchen, and the day isn’t over until the last piece of meat is cut up, packaged and placed in the freezer. What may seem like a lot of work for some is a true labor of love for me.
I like knowing where our meat comes from and when dinner is served, I’m very proud to know that I’ve been involved in every step of the process from the field to the plate. AmSJ
By Tim E. Hovey