By Pete Rogers
My heart was beating so hard I could hear it in my inner ear. Breathing was difficult as the buck kept getting closer and closer. Sweat was pouring down my face and into my eyes making it difficult to see the pin on my bow sight.
As he stopped at 43 yards, I settled my pin on his shoulder and gently applied pressure to the thumb trigger of my release. It seemed to take the arrow minutes to cover the 130 feet to the feeding buck. The hold was solid and the flight was true. The arrow buried deep behind his shoulder and in a few yards he was dead.
As I walked over the recover my buck the excitement was quickly turning to panic. It was ninety four degrees with little to no wind, and I knew that if I didn’t do things quick and right, I could lose all of the meat from this buck. Luckily I was on private land and could get an ATV in to retrieve the buck, but time was still of the essence. In this part of the south, yellow jackets and flies can be on a deer carcass before the hunter ever arrives to claim his trophy and take a few pictures.
I sent a text message to my brother in law who was hunting with me and asked him to bring the ATV while I began field dressing the buck. I needed to get the entrails out of the animal fast and allow the body to begin cooling down.
Proper field care begins at the moment of recovery of your animal and mistakes made here can make the pallet pay months later. Taking proper precautions and using some care can make the meat of animals killed in high temperatures just as tasty as those killed later in the year. Not only is it good for proper table fare, but also for illness prevention. As with any perishable meat, raw or undercooked game meat can contain harmful bacteria such as salmonellae and strains of Escherichia coli. These bacteria, often associated with the gastrointestinal tracts of animals, can cause illness in humans when ingested. Contamination of meat can occur through the initial wound as well as during field dressing, handling, and transport of the game from the field. Bacteria will grow and grow fast, especially if the meat is kept at improper temperatures. If the meat is not properly cooked or preserved, there is an increased risk that these pathogens will be ingested, often resulting in foodborne illness. Therefore, proper handling of game meat from the field to the table is extremely important. Let’s look at some tactics of proper field care in extreme heat.
- Field Dressing: It is interesting as I travel across the country hunting how people feel about field dressing. In the Midwest and western states, it is not only accepted it is expected. People frown on hunters who either don’t know how to field dress or who refuse to do so. Hunters in the backcountry must field dress to get the game out of the wilderness. While in the southeast, the opposite is true. Seldom does anyone field dress their game. And when I say seldom I mean seldom. In fact, I am the only person I know who field dresses his deer and pigs. (I will also field dress rabbits but that is for another story). Hunters in the southeast prefer to haul their game out of the field and dress them hanging up. There are many who believe that field dressing will “ruin” a deer stand, regardless of the science to the contrary and tales of hunters killing deer right beside gut piles. Many people in the southeast believe that field dressing will ruin your property. One example occurred several years ago when I was hunting some property in a shared stand. I killed a decent buck and gutted it in the clear cut. The neighbor whom I shared the stand with came to assist and when he saw the gut pile, you would have thought I called his wife a lady of the night! His face turned red, he started cussing and screaming at me about ruining the stand and trying to kill every turkey in the county. No amount of convincing would do. I offered to get a garbage bag and retrieve the entrails. He was somewhat relieved but still said the stand was ruined for at least two years.
Field dressing is basically removing the entrails of the animal. It is done using several different methods, but the most common is to split the belly from the anal vent to the neck (Caution on if you are going to mount the animal, then stop cutting at the bottom of the rib cage) Opening up the animal and removing the entrails. This will allow the carcass to cool faster thereby inhibiting bacterial growth.
It is imperative that when you open up the carcass that you keep it as clean as possible. A typical field dress for me is to remove everything except the bladder and anal vent in the field. I do this simply because I am not very good at it when the deer is lying down. I prefer to do it when I can see what I am doing. Field dressing is important if you are going to be at least a few hours before you can get ice or into a cooler.
- Skinning: Similar to field dressing, removing the skin will enable the carcass to cool down which, again, is imperative. In many places this can and does happen in the field. There are many excellent videos available that show how to field dress and skin animals in the field. If you have the option to skin it later, then do so by hanging the deer. It is often easier and faster than skinning while it is laying on the ground.
- Protecting the Meat: Perhaps the most difficult part is fighting the yellow jackets and files that are trying to feed and lay eggs onto the exposed meat. Some old wives tales have proved to work to some degree or another. Others have not. Spraying a mixture of citric acid and water can deter flies and yellow jackets, liberal amounts of black pepper can also deter flies and yellow jackets. Game bags are essential for keeping flies and dirt off of the game. Contrary to many manufacturers statements, flies can and do lay eggs through cheese cloth bags. The best bags are worth their money and are reusable. Muslin is the best by far. It is durable, lightweight and air moves through them to allow the meat to cool down. Several companies make excellent game bags for all sorts of game. Wild Country Game Bags from Pendleton Oregon, (www.wildcountrygamebags.com) make some of the best bags I have found. Particularly the large bag can hold an entire deer in the bag. Making it easy to cover a deer hanging on a meat pole before butchering.
- Ice – Cooler – Locker: The most important thing to do is to get the carcass cooled down to as near 40 degrees as possible. If you have the ability to get your deer to a commercial processor, often this is the best option since they have coolers and refrigerators to hang the deer to cool down and age.
While I don’t really like putting my deer in ice before it ages, when they are killed in the heat, I have no other choice. Deboning the meat and placing it in a cooler full of ice can preserve the meat. If you cannot debone it, then quarter and place in ice.
If hunting in back country, deboning is a great option. For example a seven hundred pound bull elk will reduce to around 300 pound when deboned. That is a lot less weight to pack out of the back country. If you do decide to debone in the field, make sure to have enough bags for the different pieces or to divide it up for packable portions.
- Dry Ice vs Wet Ice: Dry ice is capable of freezing meat and keeping it cold for an extremely long period. However, everywhere it touched the meat, it will ruin the meat. It must be kept separate from the meat. A good tactic is to divide your cooler and place the meat on one side with wet ice, and dry ice on the other. The dry ice will keep the wet ice from melting and keep the meat colder.
Handling your hard earned game animal in the heat takes some doing, but it is all well worth it when those steaks are simmering on the grill even weeks later. The memory of the hunt will return each time you pull a pack from the freezer and lay it on the grill. The quality of the meal begins at the moment you recover your animal. You owe it to yourself, the animal and everyone who will enjoy eating the animal to take proper care of your trophy.