5-Step Plan for Warm Weather Game Meat Care

During warm-weather hunting, what you do during the few hours after killing an animal can make all the difference to ensure high-quality, tasty game meat.
5-Step Plan for Warm Weather Game Meat Care

You know the story.

Maybe it’s unseasonably warm during the first week or two of archery season. It's a season that can begin as early as late August in some places, especially out West, but kicks into full swing in sultry September in most places. Could be that you’re hunting one of the South’s early rifle seasons, or a special primitive weapons hunt somewhere on the early fringe of autumn. Or perhaps it’s a heat wave in October — a common occurrence — and hunting in shirtsleeves seems like you’re overdressing.

But somehow, amidst challenging warm weather conditions like these, you managed to put a whitetail on the ground. It is hunting season after all. And, hunters must hunt. Maybe it happened near a waterhole or creek crossing. Or on the trail to a hay field, alfalfa meadow or food plot. Or deep in a browsing area in shady woods. Wherever you connected, it was probably mighty early or exceedingly late in the day.

So here you are, admiring a sleek whitetail and knowing it’s time to go to work — hard work, efficient work, decisive work — to assure that you make the most of all that prime venison. What you do right now, as well as over the next few hours and day will make all the difference in the quality of the meat you process from that animal.

Meat care is a real issue and a tall challenge during early-season or mild-w​eather hunts, especially if you're ​tent camping in the hinterlands or half-roughing it at a power-free, generator-free backwoods deer camp. Here's the 5-step, do-it-yourself plan needed to ensure whitetail​ venison is perfect despite warm weather.

1. Field Dressing Notes

Pictures with an intact (not field-dressed) deer provide important memories of a successful hunt. But when it’s warm out, efficiency is paramount. Set up quickly, take some good scenes, check them on your camera’s screen and call it good when you have a couple serviceable options. Then get to the real work.

Warm Weather Game Meat Care

Meat care is a real issue and a tall challenge during early-season or mild-w​eather hunts, especially if you're ​tent camping in the hinterlands or half-roughing it at a power-free, generator-free backwoods deer camp. Photo: Tom Carpenter

Field dressing is, of course, the first step. Consider adding these practices to your warm-weather routine:

  • Carry a small bone saw (mine is just hand-sized but and highly effective) and saw the chest cavity open all the way up to the neck. If your intent is to mount the buck, be sure to cape accordingly. This speeds up cooling versus a closed chest cavity.
  • Use your knife to cut up the neck right to the throat, and remove the gullet and windpipe; they hold a lot of heat.
  • Use your saw to split the pelvis between the back legs so they separate and get some cooling going faster.

If you choose to put ice in a deer’s body cavity to aid cooling, double-bag the ice so meltwater doesn’t leak onto the meat. Wetness breeds bacteria, and water leaches out blood and juices that make meat taste good.

2. Skinning Secrets

Deer skin and fur insulates as whitetails develop their winter coat in autumn. Even if you’re not camping out or roughing it, quick skinning is essential. Consider doing it right away, right there in the field, where regulations allow; other than field dressing, there’s no better way to release as much heat as possible, as quickly, from that deer. And, the skin will never come off easier than when a deer is warm. In addition, breaking down the carcass (next step) is desirable to further aid cooling of the meat.

Everything you need for skinning and breakdown can be transported in a small daypack: hunting knife, deep-bellied skinning knife, small boning knife or fish-fillet knife, small block and tackle with folding gambrel stick to hoist the deer up in a tree for skinning, and some rope.

You can also skin a deer on the ground on a tarp or sheet of plastic if no trees are available. But the preferable method is to raise that carcass up and off the ground where working on it is both a cleaner and less backbreaking proposition.

To start the skinning process, use the block and tackle to hoist the deer by the hind legs. A portable, foldout gambrel works best for this because it spreads the back legs apart for skinning.

To start, make cuts around the top of each back leg and down the inside (white part). Break through the base of the tail. Roll the skin backwards and pull downwards, using the knife to work it off the legs as needed. Pulling the skin off a warm deer is quite easy. The front legs take additional cuts and work.

3. Carcass Breakdown

Meat is going to cool faster in smaller chunks, and it’s easier to fit into a refrigerator or cooler(s) to chill. Know all state regulations to make sure that taking the carcass apart in the field is legal. Also, follow all tagging and registration requirements, including evidence of sex rules.

Once the skin is off, you’re ready to break down the carcass into six main parts. “Quartering” is the typical word for the breakdown process. But in truth, it involves breaking the carcass down into six easy-to-carry pieces that consist of two front legs, two top-of-the-back loins, and two back legs/hindquarters. Add the small and bonus inside-the-body-cavity tenderloins to that list, too.

Warm Weather Game Meat Care

Use your small-bone saw to remove the remaining carcass. (The author's saw is a small, hand-sized saw, but plenty effective enough.) Next, separate the back legs into two pieces, saw along one side of the backbone.

Take a few moments first to remove those small tenderloins from inside the body cavity. This is easy to do with your fingers and a little knifework.

Now remove the loins or backstrap. Loins are the long, thick “ropes” of meat that run along either side of the deer’s backbone as you look at the top of its back.

Use the small boning or filet knife. Work your fingers between the loin and backbone, and under the loin, and carefully cut/lift it out. A little judicious and patient slicing will yield some extra meat where the loin meets the back legs, and where the loin tucks under the front shoulder.

Now, cut off the front legs. No saw is needed for this task, because there is no socket or joint here. Only ligaments and tendons join the front legs to the shoulder. Just cut along the seam between shoulder and chest cavity and the leg will come right off. With the front leg off, you can cut around the knee joint, break the joint and pop off the lower leg. That’s if you have a pack in which to carry out the meat. Otherwise, the lower leg makes a good carrying handle.

Finally, remove the back legs. First, use your saw to cut off the rest of the carcass. To then separate the back legs into two pieces, saw along one side of the backbone. As with the front legs, you can remove the lower portion of the back legs now, or use the lower legs as convenient carrying handles.

4. Cheesecloth Protection

Warm Weather Game Meat Care

Cheesecloth will protect the game meat from insects and dirt, while also allowing air to get at the meat making it a much better choice than plastic bagging. Photo: Tom Carpenter

Once a deer is skinned, a cheesecloth bag is one way to protect the meat from dirt and bugs if you can get the carcass whole to a butcher.

Whether the carcass is skinned or broken down, cheesecloth will protect the meat from insects and dirt, while allowing air to get at the meat. Do not use plastic now, as it will make the meat retain heat and begin to spoil.

Cheesecloth can also provide some protection against dehydration. Put trim meat in cheesecloth too.

5. Cooling Options

If you’re at a camp with electricity, a refrigerator is the perfect option for cooling meat. A cool night coming on may also start the cooling process efficiently.

But if there isn’t enough refrigerator space at home or camp, you can also age meat in a cooler. Under the tightly closed lid of a good cooler, ice keeps venison at an almost ideal temperature for aging. The cooler route just takes a little more work to keep the meat dry, the water drained, and the ice replenished.

Here are a few guidelines for making sure your meat cools, and ages properly.

  • Chunk up the deer. Follow the guidelines above to break the carcass down into six pieces, plus trim.
  • Placed ice cubes or blocks in the bottom of the cooler. Meat will go on top of the ice with the following rule applied.
  • Keep the meat dry. If you let meat soak in ice water, the juices that make venison taste great will leach out. Instead, place plastic or towels over the ice, so that meat and water never come in contact.
  • Drain water regularly. Drain water regularly, and replenish ice, as needed.
  • Flip the pieces. Rearrange the meat every few hours, at least at the start, so that a different part is in contact with the cold surface of the ice. This will also help meat age at the same rate.

Place any cooler in a shaded place and keep out of direct sun.

Warm Weather Game Meat Care

Photo: Tom Carpenter

Conclusion

Never let warm weather scare you away from deer hunting.

While most of us would prefer cool-to-crisp temperatures for the hunt — to keep deer moving and to make meat care simpler — it’s also true that warm weather offers some hunting advantages: Waterholes, creek and river bottoms, shady woods edges and deep forest browsing areas can all attract whitetails, while the temperatures concentrate movement at the seams of dawn and dusk.

When you shoot a whitetail in warm weather, the real work begins. Go into the hunt with this 5-step plan in mind, arm yourself with the proper tools and plans and enjoy prime venison that will be sweet and wholesome indeed.

Bonus: Aging Venison Notes

Given the right conditions — 36 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a dry and clean environment such as a refrigerator or cooler — aging your venison for three to four days can improve the quality of the meat markedly, as muscles relax and proteins begin breaking down.

You can butcher your deer without aging if you want to or need to, but make sure the carcass is cool before you do, and that rigor mortis has ended.

 

Featured photo: Amy Hatfield

 



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