By: Sam Kohler
There are few moments in life that evoke as much joy, elation, and sense of accomplishment as the moments of gratitude when admiring a game animal you have just harvested. But, once the adrenaline subsides and you are faced with the reality that your next few hours, if not days, are going to be revolved around breaking down, packing out, processing, and then transporting your harvest out of the field and to your freezer; many hunters don’t know where to begin this process to ensure that their meat gets back home in the best condition possible. Here at Shoshone Adventure Consulting, we understand that for a hunt to be successful, the work doesn’t end for a hunter after the shot rings out, it only just begins. In this article, we shall delve into the critical components of ensuring that your game meat comes home in the best condition possible and understand the fundamentals of what makes your wild game, regardless of the species, taste great when it gets home. I have previously worked in the consumer meat industry, and more specifically, in the wild game meat industry where I managed a consumer direct wild game meat company. This experience provided me with the knowledge of knowing the ins and outs of what makes your wild game great to eat versus tough and gamey. Through this article, I hope to provide you with the foundational insights that will help you ensure that on your next DIY or guided hunt that your meat comes back in the best condition possible.
3 Main Factors That Impact the Quality & Taste of Your Meat
Though there are a multitude of factors that play into how your game meat tastes when you take your first bite of it out of the field, there are three main components that, as hunters, we have the power to control to the best of our abilities. Though you often can’t control what your target animal eats on a day to day basis, you can control how the meat is taken care of and managed after the shot.
Quality of Shot
The quality of the shot may seem like a “No Brainer” when it comes to factors that affect the taste of your game meat, but often this aspect of the hunt does get overlooked when it comes to how much it truly impacts the flavor and quality of your game when it hits the dinner table. As you can imagine, the better the shot, the better the game will taste. For most big game hunting situations, the tried and true, ideal shot is right behind the shoulder in the vitals. Now, I know this isn’t always the case when it comes to certain game animals in certain situations, but for the most part a high quality shot in the lungs and/or heart often will most assuredly bring the animal down the fastest while damaging the least amount of meat. This being said, when hunting game like mountain goat where an anchoring shoulder shot is ideal or when you hit the occasional spine shot on a moving animal by happens chance, there are situations that will cause you to damage more meat that you may desire, but these situations are ultimately still great shots as they bring the animal down the fastest and in the most humane way possible. The faster the animal drops and the less minutes, or hours, it spends wounded the better. When an animal is under duress while wounded it has a strong impact on the flavor of the meat. This is due to the impact of adrenaline on the muscle glycogen in muscle tissue. When an unstressed animal dies the muscle glycogen in the meat is converted into lactic acid, which keeps the meat tender, pink and traps in the flavors of meat that we enjoy on our pallet. Conversely, When an animal is under duress, adrenaline burns through the available muscle glycogen in an animal meaning that less, if not, no lactic acid is produced, which in turn causes meat to become tougher, less flavorful, and ultimately have a higher pH which can cause the meat to spoiler faster. Furthermore, gut shots and multiple shots not only can damage the meat of the game animal further, but also can cause stomach acids and other bodily fluids to compromise the meat of the animal making your total yield less than optimal. Ultimately, when it comes to being a hunter, it is our responsibility to do our part in ensuring that our weapons and marksmanship is to the best of our abilities before every hunt. Of course, things happen in the field that are outside of our control and by no means will any hunter, if they hunt long enough, avoid the inevitable fact that they will wound, lose, or put a less than ideal shot on a target animal in their lifetime. This is the sobering fact about hunting that makes it the difficult pursuit that it is, but due to this fact it further drives us to do our part in trying to ensure, to the best of our abilities, that we make the most ethical and high percentage shot we are capable of in the moments that count.
Timing to Dressing and Cleaning
Savoring the moment after you finally lay your hands on the game animal you have been chasing for days on end is one of the greatest moments of satisfaction one can experience. As a hunter that is the time where you reflect on the hunt, the stalk, the shot, and the moment as a whole as that entire experience is encapsulated in the animal itself. After you soak up the moment and take a few photos, field dressing is the next and one of the most vital steps when it comes ensuring your game meat comes out of the field in the best condition. Timing of field dressing is by far one of the most critical components of ensuring your meat will be tasty at the dinner table. I have seen many hunters not immediately field dress or break down their game animal in the field in attempts to bring it back to camp to show it to their friends and family and, in a way, I can completely understand this rationale. But, the reality is that the longer you leave the organs in the animal and leave the animal unprocessed, the more likely your game meat will come out in poorer quality. Now, I grew up in Wisconsin, where at our whitetail camp we hung the deer from a pole for a few days after the animal was harvested, but we always field dressed our deer as soon as they were recovered from the field. Field dressing not only removes the entrails of the game and reduces surface bacteria growth rates, but at its core helps the carcass cool faster and ensure that your meat tastes better over the long run. As a hunter, if you want to ensure your meat tastes the best you should always, at the very least, work to process your game animal and get the meat chilled as soon as possible. Some people like to debone the meat right in the field and others like to bring the animal back as a whole carcass in order to age it for a few weeks and both options are great as long as the entrails are removed as soon as you can. Where hunters often run into issues is when they leave the deer or game animal in the back of the truck unprocessed for hours on end, which is the equivalent to throwing a steak in the bed of the truck and seeing how it tastes after you left it in the hot sun for 12 hours. This hyperbolic example ultimately serves to highlight the reality that, for the most part, when hunters complain that their game meat tastes bad, that it often has a lot to do with how they treated the animal after the shot. Don’t forget that your harvest game is equivalent your groceries and the way in which you take care of the meat after the shot has a big impact on how it will taste on your plate.
Having worked in wild game recipe creation and in the consumer side of wild game meat sales, I can tell you that I have had more than one conversation with individuals that just don’t like the taste of wild game. I have heard an endless amount of stories about why people don’t like the taste of wild game, but oftentimes they all seem to revolve around the way in which they were introduced to the meat for the first time. Now, I know not everyone is a Michelin star chef that can prepare a five course meal at the snap of the fingers, and frankly, I don’t think you need to be an exceptional cook in order to make delicious wild game meals. But, what I will say is that there are common missteps that people make when cooking wild game that make a huge impact on how the meat will taste. One of the biggest mistakes I see with big game meat and wild fowl is that often hunters overcook the meat. Wild game is not comparable to pork, beef, lamb, or any other domesticated meat or poultry for the main fact that the fat content is drastically different. For example, venison is one of the leanest wild game meats sitting at 1 gram of fat per quarter pound of meat. For comparison, a quarter pound of lean beef tenderloin has 8 grams of fat. This lean nature of most red game meat and fowl means that cooking times cannot be replicated like that of beef and other domesticated meats. Wild game species with red meat, on average, need to be cooked for shorter amounts of time as overcooking the meat can make it tougher, chewier, and drier which ultimately can make your dining experience less enjoyable. My main advice for any hunter or individual cooking wild game is to do your research on understanding the best preparations, cooking temperatures, and cook timing when it comes to the game animal you want to eat and the cut of the animal you want to cook. 10 minutes of research and preparation can go a long way in ensuring that your wild game meal tastes amazing compared to risking the meal over rushed timing and preparation.
Transporting Game Out of The Field
Pack Accordingly: Understand What You Need Before You Go
When it comes to planning and laying out what you need for transporting your wild game meat out of the field it is important to cover all the equipment you need and understand what packouts traditionally look like for the outfitter you are going with or the game you are pursuing. Here we shall detail some of the core bases you should cover before embarking on any hunting trip.
Understand the Meat Yield From Your Game Animal
One of the most important things before stepping into the field is understanding how much meat you are likely to yield from a successful hunt. It is always better to bring more gear that you don’t end up using in the event that your hunt is unsuccessful compared to being underprepared when you have a bull elk sitting at your feet. One thing that I recommend all hunters do before embarking on a hunt is understanding how much meat you will traditionally yield from an average size game animal or hunt. Whether this is an understanding how much meat comes off of a bull moose or understanding how much meat you will yield from a successful 3-Day duck hunt; understanding how much meat you will likely harvest helps in identifying what gear you will need for the trip. Another key aspect is understanding dimensionally how much space you will need in your coolers in the case that you will debone your meat versus leaving the bones on if you quarter the animal. Often times with big game hunts you will have to debone the meat from the carcass and bones in order to reduce as much weight as possible on the pack out, but for some hunts where you are able to bring a 4x4 vehicle right up to the carcass you are more than likely not going to need to break down the animal beyond quartering it. Understanding how the meat will come out of the field and in what state of processing are key aspects of preparation that will make transporting the meat a far easier task down the road and it helps ensure that you have all the right gear necessary to pack the meat out.
Talk With Outfitter Before You Go
Understanding meat yield leads me to my next key point of taking the time to talk with your outfitter before you embark on your trip about post hunt meat processing. Around the world, every outfitter operates differently in terms of how they deal with harvested game after the shot. Some outfitters will break the animal all the way down to each individual muscle group whereas other outfitters will just quarter the animal or leave it as the whole carcass for you to process on your own. Having a quick conversation with your outfitter to understand what the post harvest field care looks like or if they have any specific gear recommendations is an easy way to better prepare yourself for transporting wild game meat and understanding what essential gear you will need for this process.
Expensive vs Cost Effective Transport Containers: Pros & Cons
Now, once your meat is out of the field and it comes time to pack it in preparation for your departure out of camp there are a few ways to go about finding the best solution for your game meat packing. Right off the bat, the main question clients often have is, “Do I need to spend the money on Yeti coolers or are there more cost effective options?” To this question I say there are definitely pros and cons to choosing what cooler options work best for you on your hunt. When it comes to using higher-end coolers, such as Yeti Hard Coolers, to transport your game meat it is hard to find a con for these coolers beyond the cost and weight of them. When you bring Yeti coolers on any hunt, understand that they can be cumbersome and heavy to carry around and transport through the airport. Furthermore, the weight of the cooler paired with game meat and ice inside can oftentimes force you to have to pay the hefty additional charges for overweight luggage on top of additional checked bags. The major pro I see with these coolers is that if you have a long series of connecting flights to get home or you are not readily around refrigeration for a few days you can rest assured that your meat will stay nice and cool in those coolers. Now, when it comes to more cost effective options to getting game meat home I definitely recommend using disposable boxes or soft bags as long as your meat can get thoroughly frozen before flight. On a recent mountain goat hunt I embarked on, I brought all my meat back using disposable salmon/seafood 2 piece wax shipping boxes. These 50 lb seafood wax boxes are easy to label and with a few rounds of duct tape I was able to safely transport my mountain goat meat and some Sitka blacktail meat back home to Wisconsin from Kodiak, Alaska all in one piece, frozen solid after an 11 hours of connecting flights. These boxes can run anywhere from $15 - $30 per box, but they are a much cheaper option that is far more lightweight compared to heavier, more expensive traditional coolers. I have also seen hunters use storage boxes or totes to transport their game out of the field with great success, making this another more cost effective method for getting your game home. Whether you go with a cheaper or more expensive option for your main shipping container, I always recommend that you line your cooler or shipping box with a heavy duty garbage/contractor bag or sealable bag to ensure no meat liquids or coolants leak from the box. The easiest way to accrue more headaches is having your game meat leak over other passengers' bags during a flight.
Temperature and Freezing
When it comes to transporting harvested game meat over a long duration of time it is by far the best option to freeze the meat solid before you embark on a return flight or drive home. Now, sometimes you harvest your target animal at the last minute of the hunt, leaving you with a lot of game meat and short on time to get it all fully frozen before you depart. In these cases, it is best to keep your wild game meat at storing temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the FSIS, raw red meat can be stored at non-freezing temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for a span of 3-5 days, for poultry and fish this time span is shortened to 1-2 days. This means that if your meat is chilled while in transportation and temperatures are maintained it should arrive home in great condition, but this also means that to prevent any issues arising you are going to want to make sure your gear and plan for returning with meat is as bulletproof as possible. If you are at a hunting or fishing camp that has stable power and refrigeration units, it is always a great idea to bring reusable ice packs that can be frozen prior to your departure to ensure that your meat will be chilled during your return flight. These reusable ice packs are great as they minimize fluids and leaking risks compared to ice. A cheaper alternative to reusable ice packs is a 6 or 12 pack of water bottles frozen solid. This is a great alternative to traditional ice as water bottles can be picked up at any gas station or convenience store during your hunt and they also reduce leak risks compared to wet ice, but be sure to empty a little water from each bottle so that they are ~⅘ full, preventing the water bottles from exploding when freezing. Now, if ice is your only option, there are a few things to remember when using wet ice. First and foremost, during any hunting trip, you should always identify and confirm that you have a location that you will be able to buy ice at the proper quantity the day before or on the departure date. Banking on gas station ice can be dicey depending on where you are, so make sure to call ahead or before your trip to a gas station or convenience store to confirm that they have ice available in large amounts. This may seem like overkill, but when a departure flight timeline is tight and you have to drive around from gas station to grocery store to try to find ice it is a hassle that can be easily avoided with a little bit of foresight. Another key point to remember is that insulation for your cooler isn’t just a recommendation, it is a necessity. A cooler liner or insulation liner for the inside of your cooler not only keeps ice longer, but also serves as a second line of defense for leakage. I have used everything from heavy duty trash bags to smaller, styrofoam coolers, and I have found that a solid combination of styrofoam coolers inside of a garbage bag works best for transporting meat and minimizing leakage. Another benefit of using styrofoam boxes inside your cooler is that you can also measure out your cooler and compartmentalize your meat using multiple fitted boxes if you want to further segment out your meat prior to departure. This can be a beneficial step for when you get home as all your meat will be organized based on cut and makes organizing the meat processing at home that much easier. Finally, another key aspect of ice you want to remember when packing a cooler, it’s always better to have more ice than less. The more space you leave in a cooler with air the faster your ice will melt. This means that you should prioritize filling your cooler space with a combination of liners, meat, and ice so that you have as little free space in the cooler as possible. This also further ensures that your meat and cooler contents are not freely moving around during transportation as that can cause further problems such as making the cooler more unstable when transporting it and more difficult to carry.
Securing Your Coolers & Baggage
Once your cooler or baggage containing your wild game is fully packed, it is important to secure your vessels to the best of your ability before transporting the meat. If you are transporting your meat home via car, one thing to consider if the cooler is sitting in the bed of a truck is that it doesn’t hurt to always lock your cooler into the bed of the truck to prevent theft. This may sound excessive, but I have heard stories of people stealing meat out of coolers or stealing coolers out of the bed of trucks more than you would imagine. When it comes to flying I always believe it is best to have your cooler secured either with TSA locks or using duct tape. For higher quality coolers that are designed to be used with locks, locking your cooler up before a flight just helps further ensure that your cooler won’t bust open in transit. If your cooler or meat transport vessel is not designed for use with locking devices, I then always recommend using, tried and true, duct tape or shipping tape to secure your container. A few wraps of duct tape will make a world of a difference when securing your game container, but understand there is a good chance the meat will get inspected by TSA, but after it is inspected they will secure the container oftentimes with their TSA tape.
Ultimately, when it comes to ensuring that your game meat comes home in the best condition possible, it is always better to be over percausious instead of ill prepared. When you cut corners or don’t have a concrete plan for bringing game home, that is when some of the biggest headaches can arise for a hunter. Taking the time to do a little bit of due diligence and preparatory work before a trip can prevent you from spending the last days of your hunt worrying about logistics and instead focusing more on enjoying time you are spending in the field. As a fellow hunter, I hope that this article on field care and meat transportation can provide some helpful insights on key things to consider before embarking on your next hunting trip or fishing trip. Whether you are hunting in your own backyard or on the other side of the globe, taking the proper care of your harvested game meat is vital in ensuring the quality and safety of the food on your table, but further represents the respect that you hold for the game that you pursue in ensuring that the animal’s life is honored in the field and on your plate.