Cheap Deer Hunting
I’m often amazed at the people, deer hunters included, who tell me they just don’t like venison. That statement is usually followed by a qualifier: it’s tough; it’s gamey; it’s dry. And so on.
I’ve eaten a lot of good deer meat. But I’ve eaten some really bad deer meat, too. I’m only a self-trained butcher, but I process five or six animals each fall, and have been doing so for a decade or more.
Some things consistently make venison really tasty. And some things will ruin the flavor, too. Here are a dozen of the worst offenders.
1. Poor Field Care
In the real world of hunting, things happen. We all make bad shots on occasion. And while we know not to “push” a deer that’s been hit marginally, realize that the longer it takes for the animal to die and the farther it runs, the more adrenaline and lactic acid builds up in the animal’s system and muscles. Ever had a glass of good-tasting acid? I didn’t think so.
The faster a deer hits the ground and can be field-dressed, the better the meat will be. Some of the best-tasting deer I’ve ever had have been shot in the head with a gun. The animal is killed instantly, and the meat is uncontaminated by blood and entrails from the chest cavity. That said, head shots are risky. The lungs remain the best place to aim.
2. Failure to Cool Quickly
Internal bacteria rapidly takes over after death, expelling gases and causing the animal to bloat. That’s the first step in decomposition. This process is accelerated in warm weather. Learn how to field dress a deer, and get to it ASAP. Removing those organs is the first step in cooling the animal down.
On a cold night—in the mid-30s or lower—a deer can be left hanging skin-on overnight. In especially cold weather, some hunters like to age a deer in such a manner for several days (more on aging in a bit). I live in a warm climate, and most of the deer I shoot in a season’s time are during early bow season, so I don’t have that luxury. When I find my deer and get it field-dressed, I plan on having it skinned, quartered and on ice within the hour.
3. Shot the Wrong Deer
Modern deer hunters are in tune with deer herd management. We’ve learned of practices that contribute to the health of a herd, including which deer to shoot. Given the chance, most of us want to shoot a mature buck with big antlers. Me included.
Old bucks are perfectly edible, but rarely the best. Muscles get tougher with use and stringy with age. An old buck that’s spent a full autumn fighting, rubbing, scraping and chasing does will be lean. Expect chewy steaks. Same thing goes for an old doe that’s burned all her summertime calories producing milk to nurse fawns. I usually make hamburger, sausage and jerky out of such animals.
For steaks, you can’t beat a young, crop-fed deer. Deer that spend a summer munching on corn and soybeans have an easier life—and more fattening food sources—than those that spend a lifetime wandering the big timber in search of scattered mast and browse.
The tastiest venison I’ve ever eaten came from a 1 ½-year-old fork horn shot through the neck near a picked corn field during early bow season.
That young deer had nothing to do all summer except get fat. Am I saying to forgo everything the QDMA is teaching and whack every young buck that walks by? No. But I am saying if a deer for the freezer is your goal, young bucks from the early season are usually good eating, and have more meat than does to boot. If you want to shoot one and it’s legal, go for it. You don’t owe anyone an apology.
4. Failure to Age / Purge
I’ve been told that aging venison on ice is a mistake, but I don’t buy it. The mercury rises above 50 degrees on most days of deer season in my area. That’s too warm to let a deer hang, so icing them down is my only option. I line the bottom of a cooler with a layer of ice, add my deer quarters on top of that, and then cover them with more ice.
I keep the cooler in the shade with the drain plug open and on a downhill incline. That’s very important. The idea is to let the ice slowly melt and drain from the cooler. This not only keeps the meat cold, but purges an amazing amount of blood from it. Do this for at least two days, checking the ice a couple times per day in especially warm weather. (Note: if you do this without a drain plug, you’ll get the opposite effect; deer quarters that are essentially marinated in bloody, dirty water. Does that sound tasty? Didn’t think so.)
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