Gone Huntin’: Field care puts quality venison on the table

Butcher Tom Berry displays some cuts of venison. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

There are deer hunters who will pass up a shot on a doe or small buck in the hope that a trophy deer will come along. Although a rack on the wall may provide visible evidence of a hunter’s skill, for many Martha’s Vineyard deer hunters, a freezer full of venison at the end of the season is proof enough.

The deer archery season began on October 21. It will be followed by the shotgun and muzzle loader season, and end on December 31. If last year is any guide, hunters can be expected to take more than 600 deer in the 2013 season.

Unlike hunters in more barren landscapes, Island hunters have the benefit of well-fed deer that consume a wide variety of plant material, much of it provided by landscapers, along with acorns and other available nuts. The quality of the meat is excellent, but ensuring that quality makes it to the table begins in the field once an animal is down.

Tom Berry of Edgartown is a hunter and a professional butcher with more than 40 years experience in the meat cutting business. Throughout the deer hunting season he stores and processes deer brought to him by hunters, and turns their game into professionally wrapped steaks, chops, burger, and stew meat.

He has a small walk-in cooler in his backyard that quickly fills during the hunting season. A work shed contains all the tools of the trade. There is a band saw for cutting chops, a large capacity meat grinder for burger, a cuber for turning out minute steaks and a wrapping table.

Asked what is the biggest mistake hunters make, Tom said they fail to clean and hang their deer properly. “The animal comes in field dressed but not washed out,” he said, “and usually it’s heat stress and bacteria that causes the carcass to degrade.”

Poor care affects the quality of the meat, and can impart the “gamey” flavor sometimes associated with deer. Tom said hunters must be certain to remove all the entrails, and wash the body cavity with fresh, clean water and dry it well.

“The old timers used to put a little vinegar in a bucket with water and just splash the inside cavity before they would let it dry,” he said. “That tends to make it difficult for bacteria to grow.”

He recommends hanging a deer in a cool dry place. Should the temperature climb over 45 degrees, the process of spoilage begins and if it gets into the 50s Tom recommends the hunter skin the animal and cut up the meat as soon as possible and get it into a refrigerator. “Bacteria needs moisture and it needs heat,” he said.

Aging meat requires a controlled environment and a constant temperature of about 35 degrees.

“Once the carcass is clean and properly hung you need to skin it,” Tom said. “And you want to be careful not to get a lot of hair on the surface of the meat. That’s why I skin from the head down.”

For the home butcher, he said the best practice is to cut out any meat damaged by the shot, or clotted blood. “And be generous,” he said, “yield isn’t the key to it. You want a good product that’s going to serve you well when it’s done.”

The hunter who brings a deer to Tom leaves with a box of various cuts of meat wrapped and frozen. The cost is $150 and includes hide removal. Mainland butchers charge between $90 and $120, and not all of whom remove the hide.

Tom said he provides a service to hunters who would otherwise be unable to store or process deer. While some hunters balk when they hear the cost, they do not understand the costs and time associated with operating a cooler, skinning a deer, and disposing of the hide, he said.

He estimates the weight of an average doe is about 100 pounds, dressed. The yield, once the animal is boned out, is about 30 pounds of meat depending on how damaged it is by the shot, he said.

David Vaughn is the owner of Shiretown Meats, a full-service butcher shop on upper Main Street in Edgartown. David also processes deer in his shop.

“We do a lot of it,” David told The Times. “We cut it and vacuum seal it all when we do it for people, so it lasts a long time in their freezer. Most people don’t do that.”

He advises hunters to make sure the animal is cleaned properly. He will only accept a deer with the hide off. The biggest problem comes when hunters do not do a good job of skinning their deer and fail to keep the animal free of dirt and debris. “Some of them do it [skinning] on the ground,” David said. “You need to hang it up.”

David said vacuum sealing the meat will preserve it for a long time. Meat stored for any length of time in freezer bags will develop ice crystals and freezer burn. He processes deer all season long but advises hunters to call prior to bringing a deer to his shop. The cost is $150.

He produces all the standard cuts but advises people not to ask for roasts unless they are prepared to cook it so it will not dry out. “I’m not a big fan of deer roasts,” he said. “To make a roast you’ve got to have fat and deer fat is not good.”

Deer fat is good for one thing, predicting the weather. Years ago, he said, he told Gerry Kelly of The Times he could predict the weather based on the amount of fat he saw on the deer, and he said it would be a cold winter that year. The Farmer’s Almanac predicted a mild winter. With his usual flair, Mr. Kelly wrote the story.

“I said it was going to be snowy and damn if we didn’t have snow every other week,” David said with a laugh. “So then I had people calling me for about ten years after that wanting to know weather predictions. I just happened to hit it lucky, but one woman called up and said, ‘We’re going to build a house and we want to know if we should start on it.’ Oh my God, I said, how’d I get into this?”

Tick precaution

Hunters in the field face a heightened risk from ticks. This is particularly true when handling a deer.

Martha’s Vineyard Productions and the All Island Boards of Health have created a short informative video to help keep hunters safe and thinking about the dangers of tick-borne illness while out in the field, according to a press release. The video includes advice from tick expert Sam Telford, professor of infectious diseases at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, who consults for the boards of health tick task force, on how best to handle deer to minimize the risk of a tick bite.

Meat motivator

According to a recent nationwide telephone survey by the public opinion research firm Responsive Management, hunters are increasingly motivated to hunt for the purpose of harvesting meat. The firm reported their findings in a news release, concluding that the increase may be due to a number of factors such as financial pressure, desire for healthy local meat, and the rising number of female hunters.

Earlier this year Responsive Management conducted a survey of American hunters 18 years and older, asking respondents what they believed to be the single most important reason for hunting. Among the options were spending time with family, being close to nature, for sport and recreation, for meat, and for a trophy. More than a third, or 35 percent of surveyed hunters, chose “for meat” as their largest motivator. In a similar survey given in 2006, only 22 percent of hunters said meat was at the top of their list.