deer hunting cleaning eating
Matt’s deer.

Recently, I accompanied my son Matt deer hunting on a friend’s lease in Arkansas. Matt hunted. I watched.

Luck was with us. We had just gotten in our stand when a doe appeared. Matt made a clean shot. Ten minutes after the hunt began, it ended.

It is always pleasing for me to be beside one of my sons when he kills a deer. There is a shared excitement that comes from such an experience. And because Matt and I hadn’t hunted together for a while, this hunt was special.

The friend who invited us to hunt, Alex Hinson, soon arrived. We loaded the doe in his truck and took it to his house. Each deer we kill here is hung from a gambrel in Alex’s yard and skinned. Some are then taken to a meat processor to be prepared as hamburger, steaks and sausage. Others we take home and butcher ourselves. On this day, because the hunt ended so quickly, we decided on the latter course of action.

It is this part of the hunting experience — skinning the deer and butchering it — that prompted me to write this story. I know I would be better off not saying what I am about to say, because some will misconstrue what I say and take offense. Despite what others think, however, I wanted to say something about this part of the hunt — the blooding of one’s hands and the emotions that evokes — because it is an aspect of our sport no one says much about.

There are reasons for this, I suppose. We live in a world where a person who enjoys getting their hands bloody is immediately thought to be unbalanced in some way. Saying you enjoy skinning and butchering a deer makes you nothing less than a pervert in the eyes of many people who buy all their meat at the Superstore neatly packaged in plastic and styrofoam. That’s a shame, for there is deep satisfaction gained by killing what you eat and preparing it for the table. One need not feel guilty for enjoying that contentment.

I felt that sense of satisfaction when we began skinning Matt’s deer. And I won’t hesitate to tell you I always enjoy that feeling, for it’s a wonderful sentiment I gain from nothing else I do. It’s not a feeling of joy at the death of the animal we are preparing to eat. It is not elation or happiness. It is rather a sense of fulfillment because the hunt has been successful, and there will be venison to eat later. The crimson stains on my hands symbolize that success. As we skin the animal and gut it and butcher it for the table, I feel very pleased, much as I believe our ancestors did long ago when the preparation of an animal this way often meant the end of a long hunger spell.

deer hunting cleaning eating
The author and his friend Alex Hinson prepare Matt Sutton’s deer for eating.

For my family, food is at the core of hunting. Although none of us would starve if wild game did not reach our tables, we would not live as comfortably. Game provides many meals for us, and we enjoy the rich flavors found in meat from nature’s larder.

We eat game for other reasons, too. In her cookbook, Eat Like a Wild Man, Rebecca Gray notes, “One of the very best reasons for eating what you’ve caught or shot is that it conjures up an event, a nice memory, the time and place of when you caught the fish or shot the critter.” That, too, is part of our incentive. A taste of venison conjures visions of running deer, beautiful woods and good friends.

In A Rough-Shooting Dog, author Charles Fergus said it best: “We kill the game to eat it. Tasting it, we thank it. Thanking it, we remember it; how we hunted it, how it tested us, how we overcame it, how it finally fell.”

Only hunters can truly understand the compassion of the eater for the eaten.

For my sons and me, and our friends, it is not the shooting that matters, but what we do with this food we gather: how we prepare the game to eat, how we share it with friends and family, how we raise our glasses before we eat and thank the animals for their lives. This is why we are hunters — because we want this kind of intimate relationship with the food we eat. And that is why, as I skinned and butchered the deer my son killed, I was warmed by an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. I am not ashamed of that in the least.