I have half-heartedly hunted for a few years now, but I finally put some real effort into it, and with a lot of luck, it paid off.
Firstly, I had to find a likely place to find deer in the woods behind my house. At first I sat in a deer stand on the dirt road through the woods because I had seen them pass through on perpendicular game trails. I had no luck here even with bait, so I moved on to a better place where many thousands of acorns were on the ground and the creek was only one hundred yards away. I thought that with the proximity of both water and food that deer would almost have to show up here eventually.
And at 8:30 AM a deer did finally reveal himself looking for acorns. He was probably fifty yards away from my hunting blind when he gave me an excellent broadside shot. I fired my 7mm Remington Magnum a touch behind the shoulder and he took off. At first, I thought I had missed because I could not find the bloodtrail, but after ten minutes of searching, I found the carcass not twenty yards away. Clearly, he did not get too far with his wound, which I later discovered was a lung shot.
If you are a little squeamish, do not bother reading any further, but if you are an actually mature adult the following is an overview on the absolute basics of deer physiology.
Killed animals must have their digestive organs removed in order to prevent bloating and otherwise tainting of the good organ and muscle meats. From esophagus to anus, the entire digestive tract must be removed without damaging any of it. Here is the process in outline:
With a sharp knife, cut around the anus, but not too close so you do not nick anything. The idea here is to “loosen” the anus and the connected entrails from the rest of the body. Once the anus hangs freely from the entrails alone, you are ready to move on.
This is the riskiest part: pull the hide on the belly up with a free hand and cut it. Then, very shallowly, cut the abdominal wall. The animal will practically deflate like a balloon if it has begun to bloat. Open the cavity from sternum to pelvis. For ease of cutting the esophagus later, you may use a small saw and cut the sternum as I did; then you just pry it open by hand.
There are many sinews holding the entire gut package in place that will need to be cut or torn with the fingers. Use your hands to find where these tissues are.
Cut the esophagus. It is between the gut package and the mouth of the animal.
This part is a little tricky and you have two options: remove any other connecting tissue holding the lower end of the digestive tract to the body and pull the anus through, or for ease, cut the pelvis to do the same. The latter is terribly difficult without a decent saw so I opted for the former.
At this point, you should be able to pull the entire gut package out of the carcass, but there are a few organs worth saving. Locate the liver, a large dark red organ and sever it from the package. Do the same for the kidneys which are a little smaller than a fist. And lastly, get the heart which is larger than a fist. You may also remove the tenderloins from within the carcass’ cavity at this point.
It is a dirty job, but it must be done. Because there are many deer processors in my area, most people I know just take the carcass there immediately instead of gutting it themselves, but if a processor is further away, you are going to have to do this to prevent contamination. Be sure to watch this video to see it done before even attempting to hunt in the first place.
At this point, it makes sense to take the carcass to a local processor, but if you like doing things yourself, deboning a deer can teach you a lot about the basics of butchery. The process is less defined as gutting so I will not detail it. It mostly involves cutting a very large slit in the hide, peeling it way back so the muscle meat is clearly exposed, and running the knife through sinews and following bones. You will absolutely need to watch this video to get the picture, and understand where each cut is and how to separate it. The beauty of deboning is that the deer does not even have to leave the woods; you take your meat, and leave the rest for scavengers. This obviates the need for a processor altogether. Alternatively, you could set up a gambrel and pulley system at home.
Deboning yields huge chunks of meat, some of which will be tough. You could follow recipes on what to do with these cuts, or just hamburger them as I did since my family uses lots of hamburger anyway. I estimate my deer dressed out to thirty-five or forty pounds of usable meat.
Experiments in Cooking
Firstly, I would like to say that none of this deer meat has tasted all that “gamey.” It is an extremely red meat that tastes somewhere between beef and pork, though without nearly the fat of either meat. I season most any meat with the same three spices: lots of salt, a moderate amount of black pepper, and a fair bit of garlic powder. It is not creative, but it makes just about any cut taste good.
The first item I cooked was the liver. The liver is very large and will need to be cut into meal portions. I seasoned it as above and cooked it in a cast-iron pan with butter over medium-high heat in order to sear the sides as I would a steak. I also diced an onion with it. It was a little chewy and not quite as good as beef liver, but I still enjoyed it. Also, liver is one of the healthiest things you can eat on earth, so do not discard it!
Next up was the dear heart. This was my first experience with cardiac muscle, so I played it safe. I removed all the “plumbing” within the heart and then sliced it into small steaks much like the liver. I cooked it just as I did the liver, and it was delicious. It reminded me of a slightly chewy, very lean steak, but the taste was excellent. Again, do not discard this precious cut!
The latest thing I have done so far is smoking one of the backstraps (a cut that runs along the side of the spine). Again, it is a very lean cut with a little chewiness, but it was more flavorful than any pork tenderloin I have ever had.
I have mixed up a deer sausage that turned out pretty good as well, though it could be better. I should note that for hamburger or sausage, you need to mix in a fair amount of fatback (aka salt-pork) or other fat, otherwise it will not have enough fat to satisfy.
Trophies… The Wrong Focus
You will notice I have not spoken of the sport of the whole endeavor and that is for a good reason. I do not care about mounting a buck’s head, I do not care whether or not he was huge, and I do not care what others think of this kill. He was not anything impressive, but he has proven himself delicious, and it was not irresponsible to hunt him.
Of course I believe in good sportsmanship, ideas like fair chase, not shining deer, nor using dogs. The animal deserves the same respect due to any of God’s lower creatures, much like a milk cow should not be pumped full of hormones to force lactation in absence of calfing. But the “trophy” hunters and fishermen, who have only a passing interest in the flesh, merely take pleasure in the kill and pomp of having killed something impressive. I want food to sustain me and my family, and I thank God that He provided this deer for us. This deer was no vainglorious object, but as wonderful as a bountiful crop during harvest.
Further, practically speaking, deer hunting is a cheap way to get quality meat. You do not have to worry if the animal was fed antibiotics and vaccines its whole life either. A little camouflage gear, high-caliber rifle (for a beginner such as myself), and a blind or tree stand and anyone can hunt. Of course, get the legal stuff out of the way like hunter’s education, permits, tags, and whatever else, but it is entirely worth it.
Hunting is a fine reminder that agriculture is not the only way to get meat. Sure, agricultural beef, bison, pork, and other meats are better in some ways due to selective breeding, but hunting does not require the start-up costs that a farm does, nor does a game animal have the contamination that cash-cows have like drug cocktails, hormones, vaccines, and other junk.
A Little Romance on the Woods
Now I will say, hunting is horribly boring. If you cannot sit still for several hours in the wee hours of the morning or late afternoon, you will have a hard time. But the payoff is so good that it is worth the boredom. Besides, I got to absorb some nature even on my unsuccessful hunts: the rustling of the trees in the fall, the squirrels playing, burying acorns and calling for mates (I assume that is what that awful noise is), and the birds singing. Many a modern bugman could benefit from the real world of the woods instead of the fabricated world of modern life if they were reprogramable (alas, not all can be saved). Hunting connects us with our most ancient ancestors; they may have used spears and bows, but we accomplish the same goal in different ways. On that note, most deer seasons begin early for primitive weapons so by all means, get a bow and hunt the old-fashioned way.