Gone Huntin'

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Joe Malafy of Malafy’s Meat Processing in Milan, New York prepares to hang a doe in his cooler, one of almost 1,000 deer he expects to process this hunting season. —Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Two weeks ago, my wife and I traveled to Taghkanic, New York, at the invitation of friends, New York city residents with a lovely country house set at the top of a steep driveway and overlooking farmland and distant hills. I was their first visitor to ever arrive with a Summit climbing stand and a Mathews Switchback compound bow.

Laurel had often described all the deer on her property and how much damage they did to her plants. I casually mentioned I could help with her problem. My wife, Norma, well attuned to my ulterior motives, suspected something when I suggested we take our first off-Island trip in more than four months. She was not surprised to learn that the New York state bow season opened two weeks before the Massachusetts season, which began Monday.

Ed and Laurel are not hunters. Not even close unless I widely expand the definition to include finding a specific item on a crowded shelf at Zabar’s, the wonderful specialty shop in Manhattan. But they are wonderful and relaxed hosts.

After all, how many people would put up with a house guest who began the dinner he said he would cook, and left the stove only to return a few hours later splattered with deer blood and gore?

I had planned to cook venison shanks, the remainder of last season’s harvest. Cooked slowly with carrots and onions in beef broth and red wine with spices and herbs, it is delicious. I braised the shanks, but when I realized that dusk, the time when deer tend to emerge from the woods, was fast approaching, I asked Laurel to take over at the stove and dashed out of the house.

My biggest concern as I sat in my tree stand on the edge of a small grassy field overlooking a fire pond that is a magnet for deer in the area was that I not miss a vital area. Every bow hunter knows it happens. On the Vineyard I could call on help from fellow hunters to find a deer. Not in New York, and I did not want to have to spend hours tracking a deer alone in unfamiliar woods crossing private property and encountering stray rottweilers.

Out of nowhere I heard a crunching sound to my right and saw a big doe eating acorns. The doe came closer. When she stepped behind a tree I drew my bow. My shot appeared to hit the deer well. I watched her direction of travel closely as she ran off.

It is always best to wait before tracking a deer. Unpressured, a deer will most often lie down and expire. I waited as night fell and the woods quieted.

“I shot a deer and I need to go find it,” I told Ed and Laurel after I returned to the house where everyone waited patiently for dinner. Up to then the notion that I might actually kill a deer on their property had been a vague concept. “But it’s dark,” Laurel said.

The deer had travelled only about 80 yards. I field-dressed the doe and dragged it out. I returned to the house about 45 minutes later. Four feet protruded above the bed of my pickup truck

Joe and Sallie Malafy have built a successful business on quality and hard work. —Photo by Nelson Sigelman
Joe and Sallie Malafy have built a successful business on quality and hard work. —Photo by Nelson Sigelman

I had done some research before we left the Vineyard and discovered that I would be only a 20-minute drive from Malafy’s Meat Processing, owned by Joe Malafy, a man Frank Miniter, executive field editor of American Hunter magazine described in a story as the best butcher he had ever met.

Joe is not the most willing conversationalist you will ever meet. He does not stand around and listen to hunting stories. Thin, wiry and all business, he is in perpetual motion. “Got to keep moving,” he told me when I stopped by to take a look at his operation and got him to pause long enough for a photo with his wife, Sallie.

“My husband is a hard worker,” Sallie told me as we walked through their facility set on an open piece of land off a country road in the small town of Milan. “He built the business slow and steady.”

In a part of America where it still matters, his hard work had paid off. Malafy’s is a modern, clean facility with large coolers, freezers, and a commercial smoker. One section is devoted exclusively to deer, another to domestic animals. The family home, a large contemporary country house, is set on a nearby knoll.

Joe began butchering deer when he was a teenager working for an area supermarket. He later went into business for himself. Strict Federal regulations prohibit any sharing of space or equipment when processing domestic and wild animals. Last year, the Malafys completed the demanding process of becoming a USDA inspected meat processing facility for resale. Malafy’s now provides custom butchering services of cattle and hogs for local farmers and farmer’s markets.

Malafy’s processes about 1,000 deer annually, Sallie said. The basic charge is $120 to skin, cut, wrap and vacuum seal all basic cuts. For an additional charge a hunter can also order from a variety of products that includes all manner of sausages, salami and a whole, ready-to-eat, smoked leg of venison.

Joe has a well-earned reputation built on high standards that he applies to the animals brought to his shop. The Malafy’s website makes it clear that he will not accept deer that have not been properly cared for in the field.

“We have some very unhappy people,” Sallie told me. “A regular customer just cursed out Joe because he would not accept his deer.”

For my money, I would rather know my butcher sticks to high standards. The hunter’s permit and a tag that describes the type of cuts the hunter has selected follow the deer through the process from cooler to cutting room to freezer. “Our business is based on what we do with the deer,” Sallie said. “We process a lot and take it very seriously. And it starts with how the hunter harvests the deer.”

The key is a clean kill, and a hunter who knows how to field-dress a deer. It is also important to immediately begin the cooling process. Bags of ice inserted into the deer’s body cavity will help cool a deer down when it must hang overnight in warm weather.

The first thing Joe did when I drove in with my doe was inspect the body cavity. He smelled inside it for any sign of deterioration as I waited anxiously for it to make the grade.

I thought it was a big doe and pretty good shot. There was no chit-chat. Joe had my order tag and was filling it out. Did I want all the hindquarters made into steaks or just the best parts, he asked. I pondered too long. “That’s a yes or no question,” Joe said. He had to keep moving. Another pickup truck with another deer was waiting.

On Friday, Ed and Laurel called excited about the big box of steaks and sausage they had just picked up at Malafy’s. Laurel said she has found a good recipe for venison scallopini and wondered when we would return for another visit.

Hunters on Martha's Vineyard took a significant number of deer last season.
Hunters on Martha’s Vineyard took a significant number of deer last season.

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Julia Crocker of Edgartown got to go hunting with her dad and took her first goose. — Photo by John Crocker

Eons ago, when men grew hair for warmth, not fashion, and their chief responsibility was to hunt game with a spear or bow to put meat on the slab, women were expected to remain at home to tend the cooking fire and raise kids. Hunting was an activity that determined survival, and it was a man’s world.

Nowadays, when the feeblest spear thrower among us can purchase a steak nicely trimmed and wrapped in plastic and so large it might have come from a mastodon, people still hunt to put food on the table, but the chief motivation is recreation — and it is no longer a man’s world. Increasingly, on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere across the country, women are discovering the fun, excitement, and value of the hunting lifestyle. For many, the introduction to hunting often begins with a boyfriend, husband, or, in the case of 13-year-old Julia Crocker, an eighth grader at the Edgartown School who shot her first goose this season, her father.

Best experience ever

Julia’s dad, John Crocker, assistant Tisbury harbormaster, is an avid hunter. Originally from southern Connecticut, he moved to the Vineyard more than 20 years ago. Julia and her brother often accompanied him on hunting trips and were familiar with weapons but had never shot an animal. In December, her dad took Julia’s twin brother to South Carolina deer hunting. The plan, he said, was to take Julia next year, but she did not want to wait.

“My dad had always done it, so it’s always been part of my lifestyle,” Julia said about hunting. “My brother went deer hunting in South Carolina, so I wanted to go and hunt too, because he had a really good time and I wanted to try it.”

Her dad made a plan for January 11, the last day of the season. “The evening before the hunt,” John said, “I handed her a 20 gauge, double barrel gun. We discussed how to check to see if it was loaded and how to load it. We discussed how the safety worked, and reviewed the rules for safe gun handling.”

The next morning they arrived at the field by 6:15 am. “We talked about the birds needing to land and takeoff into the wind, and the proper configuration of the decoys and where to put the blinds,” John said. Julia helped set up the decoys and ground blinds.

Julia Crocker of Edgartown holds a goose she shot while hunting with her father
Julia Crocker of Edgartown holds a goose she shot while hunting with her father

John called in some geese. Her dad told her to sit up in the blind and shoot the nearest bird, but she waited a little too long and missed. A few minutes later, two birds flew into the decoys. Julia sat up in the blind, aimed and shot the first bird.

“My dad was calling the geese and they came right over,” Julia said. “I was kind of surprised. It was really exciting.”

Dad and daughter celebrated her first goose. “She was so proud and happy, but not as much as the old man,” John said. “This was one of the best experiences ever. Julia and I will never forget it.”

Several days later, dinner was goose breast. “It was okay,” Julia said, revealing less enthusiasm for the end result.

Asked if she would continue to hunt, however,  Julia said, “Definitely,”

Beyond excited

In modern media, Martha’s Vineyard is generally associated with celebrity vacations and rampaging white sharks, not deer hunting — unless hitting a deer with a Lexus while returning from Lucy Vincent Beach qualifies. But once seasonal homes are shuttered, a dedicated fraternity of Islanders turn their attention to the Vineyard’s sizable deer herd. Traditionally, the six-week Massachusetts archery season begins mid-October, just about the time the famed Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, the Island’s all consuming month-long fishing contest, concludes. The two-week shotgun season follows and the two and a half week muzzleloader season ends on December 31.

Elizabeth Elwell of West Tisbury used a Savage 20 gauge shotgun to take her first deer, a spike buck, at a distance of almost 100 yards.
Elizabeth Elwell of West Tisbury used a Savage 20 gauge shotgun to take her first deer, a spike buck, at a distance of almost 100 yards.

In the deer gun season just past, Elizabeth Elwell, a Chilmark police officer, traded her uniform for camouflage and went into the woods at every opportunity.

“I just love being outdoors,” Liz, said about her interest in hunting, which began with her husband, Matt Gebo, a West Tisbury police officer and avid hunter. “It was something to get me outside. I never, ever thought I would enjoy it, but once I got out there, I did really enjoy it and I really got into it.”

Liz, 26, and Matt live in West Tisbury. Liz grew up in Reading, Connecticut in a household with no connection to hunting or weapons. “I didn’t know anyone who hunted growing up, so it was all a new experience for me,” she said.

The notion that she can harvest what she eats is a source of pride. “When I shot my first deer it was really rewarding to fill up my freezer with my own food that I didn’t buy, that I knew where it came from,” Liz said. “It was something I had never done before.”

She shot her first deer in the 2012 season under the tutelage of Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi, an experienced hunter and expert shot. Armed with his scoped Savage 20 gauge bolt action slug gun, a weapon with a reputation for accuracy, she climbed up on the limb of a tree overlooking a field in Chilmark.

“It was about 20 minutes before sunset and it was getting dark and all of a sudden a doe walked out into the field, and it was about 100 yards away,” Liz said. “And I got it right in the back and it went down right away. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe that I shot it from that far away and up in a tree. It was the first day I had ever been hunting and I was beyond excited.”

This past season, she and Matt went hunting together, often taking stands in different spots. One evening, she heard Matt shoot. It was almost just as rewarding to hear him shoot and know that he had gotten a deer, she said.

But that magnanimity only goes so far. “When you go out, and it’s 5 am and you’re waiting for it to get light out and finally it’s light and you hear the first shot and it’s not you. it’s a little disappointing,” she said.

Married in April 2012, Liz said it is fun to share a sport with her husband. But as with most hunters, there is a degree of competition.

“He got a deer this year and I got two, and we’ve been eating venison a lot,” she said. “And it’s nice to fill our freezer with something we got ourselves and we cut up ourselves.”

Called on the fact that she managed to slip her husband’s tally and her tally into the conversation, Liz said emphatically, “Yes.”

A good first season

Deer hunter Phoenix Russell drags her first doe out of the woods.
Deer hunter Phoenix Russell drags her first doe out of the woods.

Phoenix Russell, 24, of Tisbury makes wampum jewelry and is a massage therapist for horses and people (I asked — she prefers horses). Over the hunting season that just ended, Phoenix shot deer during the bow, shotgun, and muzzleloader seasons for a season-long harvest of four — a total that any veteran Island hunter would envy.

Her interest in shooting deer began with Joe Rogers of Oak Bluffs, an avid fisherman and hunter. “I started dating Joe and it was Derby time, and of course, the day after the Derby ends hunting season begins,” she said.

Their dates took on a distinctly Island character. Joe bought Phoenix a camouflage coat and she joined him in a double tree stand during the 2012 bow season. She sat still as a stone as a doe walked within range, then walked out of range and returned once more when Joe shot it.

“It was really, really, really intense,” Phoenix said of that first experience. She helped Joe gut the deer and drag it out of the woods. “I enjoyed that whole process,” she said. The rest of the season was spent sitting with Joe without a weapon and gaining the experience she would need to take her first deer.

In March, Joe bought her a bow — a Bear Archery women’s model named the “Homewrecker.” Phoenix bought bright pink arrows and began practicing. That spring she took a  Division of Fisheries and Wildlife hunter safety course provided at the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club, a prerequisite for a hunting license.

New hunter Phoenix Russell holds her first doe, taken during archery season.
New hunter Phoenix Russell holds her first doe, taken during archery season.

Every good hunter knows that patience, and the ability to sit quietly in the woods hour after hour is critical to success. “The first three weeks of archery, I didn’t get anything,” Phoenix said. “It was frustrating. I wanted to give up a hundred times, but I didn’t until that one morning, I was sitting in my stand, it was raining and a doe came out of nowhere. I didn’t hesitate and set my pink arrow into her.”

The deer ran off. Phoenix felt her heart sink and she was unsure what to do, so she decided to consult with the many people who had offered her advice, using a technology that Natty Bumpo could not have dreamed about. “I sent like a million text messages out to everybody letting them know that I had just shot one,” she said. “And everybody said, get out of your tree stand and go to work. Don’t go look for her.”

Experienced hunters know that in most cases, a deer shot with an arrow and not pursued will quickly lie down and die. How close and how soon depends on the quality of the shot. “As much as I wanted to go after her, I got down out of my tree stand and went to work for three hours,” Phoenix said.

The rain had started to fall and she was concerned that any blood trail would disappear. She returned with three older men, all experienced hunters who knew how to track a deer and were happy to help a novice. Within 20 minutes, she heard Roy Hope call her name. The doe had traveled less than 30 yards from where she shot it.

She was elated. She had shot her first deer by herself. And in a ritual as old as hunting itself, the men offered advice but left it to Phoenix to clean the deer and drag it out of the woods on her own. “Which I totally appreciated,” Phoenix said.

As the season continued, she shot her first buck with a classic American shotgun, a 20 gauge Remington 870 pump she had bought that fall, and doubled up with two does in one day with a muzzleloader.

“So I think I had a good first season,” Phoenix said with a laugh.

Last Saturday, Joe and Phoenix ground 80 pounds of cubed venison. “Watching the meat I harvested be ground into burger was a proud life moment,” she said.

Asked what she would say to other women considering the sport, Phoenix said, “Do it. Because it’s something to be passionate about. It’s healthy, it’s active, it gets your heart going, and there’s absolutely nothing better in the world than sitting in the woods. Even if you don’t even see a deer, there’s something absolutely amazing about going into the woods.”

She added, “I think the deer hunting community on Martha’s Vineyard is really amazing, and it is really something to be part of.  I couldn’t have done much without their support.”

Keira Mercier, 17, of Edgartown with pheasants shot at Waskosim's Rock preserve in Chilmark last fall while hunting with family friend Matt Gamache of Tisbury. Keira also shoots competitive skeet.
Keira Mercier, 17, of Edgartown with pheasants shot at Waskosim’s Rock preserve in Chilmark last fall while hunting with family friend Matt Gamache of Tisbury. Keira also shoots competitive skeet.