Featured photo: Bruce Ingram
“That’s a nice, big doe,” announced my wife of 39 years, Elaine, “but when are you going to kill a doe fawn for me?” We were standing in a field adjacent to a Virginia suburban house when she said that after darkness had fallen. Afield with a crossbow, I had shot the doe earlier that evening, watched it run off into a small woodlot, and after tracking for a while decided that my spouse would be a major help in finding the whitetail. Sure enough, Elaine had been the one to spot the downed deer in the dark. As she shined the light in the deer’s cavity as I field dressed it, she gave me plenty of instructions.
“There’s the heart,” she exclaimed. “Careful, don’t get any dirt on it. I’ve got a bag for it. Cut out the tongue next, and I’ll put them in the same bag.”
I love deer heart sandwiches for work-day lunches (brown bread, sharp cheddar cheese and yellow mustard) and deer tongue salad (spinach, cheese, black walnuts, cranberries and French dressing) is just as good for dinner. Put them both in a slow cooker for 4 hours and see for yourself.
“Oh, those are nice bottom loins,” Elaine continued after I had cut out the tongue, handed it to her and rolled the deer back over. “Careful, don’t cut yourself. I’ve got another bag for them. Try not to waste any.”
After finishing with the loins, we discussed the next two items on the agenda: what about the liver that our mutual friend Laura had requested we save for her, and should we begin working up the doe tonight? Once more, I deferred to my spouse as she is in charge of all things venison while the hunt planning is my department.
“Let’s give Laura the liver from that doe fawn you’re going to kill for me, and why don’t we just drop this deer off at our butcher,” said Elaine. “You’ve got to teach school tomorrow, and I’ve got to babysit the grandsons.”
It all sounded reasonable to me, and a few days later I received an urgent e-mail from a suburban home owner, announcing that I was to come over as soon as possible after school because the “fawns were pouring into her yard” early in the evening. The does were following and finally those “awful bucks” were arriving and disrupting everything.
I asked my assistant principal if I could leave at 3:35 p.m. after the last period’s bell rang instead of waiting for teacher dismissal at 3:45, so that I could go bowhunting. She granted my request!
I arrived at the homeowner’s driveway by 3:45, donned camo and was aloft in a stand by 3:55. Always wanting to please my wife, I arrowed a fawn at 4:20. The young doe ran only about 40 yards before collapsing within sight of my hang-on stand. Elaine was thrilled to have venison from what she considers to be “the best tasting kind of deer.” And Laura received her deer liver two days later and also asked when was I going to come over and hunt her backyard — the deer were eating all her shrubbery. It was a good week of deer hunting.
Every year in summer, I plan my deer hunting agenda. My lineup of places to go in Virginia and West Virginia (I live near the border of the two Virginias and own land and have permission to hunt at farms in both states) includes neighborhoods with an abundance of deer, farmers who are suffering agricultural damage from deer and, generally, any place that has too many whitetails. My goal is to kill 10 does in the two states through a combination of regular tags, bonus tags and kill permits. My wife Elaine and I do not buy red meat from the store and haven’t for years — we depend on venison for all our red meat needs.
Living this way and hunting this way is good for the environment and wildlife habitat, good for our health and a service to those urbanites, suburbanites and farmers plagued with an abundance of whitetails. I am often amazed when my fellow hunters complain about not having anywhere to go afield. Knock on enough doors of people with backyards or the proverbial back 40, offer up yourself as a problem solver if deer overpopulation is an issue and promise only to shoot antlerless whitetails if that’s what the landowner wants. You may well find, as I have, that you will have so many places to hunt that you can’t possibly visit them all every season.
Responsive Management, a natural resources survey research firm in Harrisonburg, Virginia, has found some very interesting things about how people feel about hunting. The firm found that 85 percent of Americans approve of sportsmen who go afield “for the meat.” Sportsmen know that keeping deer numbers in check is good for the environment. So does the general public as 83 percent approve of hunting for animal population control and 81 percent approve for wildlife management.
Elaine and I feel so strongly about hunting for food that we wrote Living the Locavore Lifestyle, a how-to and recipe book about hunting deer, turkey and small game for food, fishing for food, gathering wild fruits, nuts and mushrooms, and growing a garden, fruit trees and chickens. We have been amazed and gratified about the number of adults who have bought this book so they can start being hunters. After all, there is something uniquely and traditional American about venturing out into the woods to provide food for ourselves and our families.
Hunting for Food
I approach hunting for food a little differently than I would if I were pursuing big bucks. For me, hard- and soft-mast sources and browse items are paramount, specifically if deer droppings and heavily used trails accompany these menu items. Buck sign, such as rubs and scrapes, are nice but they really don’t influence where I will position a hang-on treestand. I also use ladder stands, but they are almost exclusively placed in funnels — places that whitetails will travel through year after year regardless of the food situation.
For example, on a mountainous West Virginia property I own, I have a ladder stand situated in a funnel through a mountainous cove. A creek bottom lies below and a clear cut above. The deer cross the creek every morning and meander right by the stand on their way to the cutover. The daily migration simply reverses itself in the evening. Well over half the time that I am aloft in this stand, I kill a deer.
At the aforementioned suburban lawn, I annually place a hang-on in an ash tree in the middle of a funnel — albeit quite a bit different from the West Virginia highland one. The ash grows in a tiny sliver of woodlot with the a house in front of me and a field behind. On fall evenings, the neighborhood deer amble from backyard to backyard, feeding on shrubbery, flowers, and backyard gardens until they funnel by me, usually beginning about 90 minutes before dark.
This hot spot becomes even better when the two red oaks and three persimmon trees in the backyard are dropping their bounty. Then I am able to take advantage of the classic food-within-a-funnel scenario. I hunted the backyard three times this season and arrowed deer each time.
All this emphasis on wildlife food has other advantages for Elaine and me. By early autumn, I usually know the food situation on a dozen or so hunting destinations. During the middle of the afternoon when deer aren’t usually active, we visit my hunting spots to gather persimmons, wild grapes, black walnuts and paw paws. Persimmon and wild black walnut bread is simply the best bread I have ever eaten, pleasingly tart wild grape jelly goes great with homemade bread, and paw paw cookies with shagbark or mockernut hickories mixed in are scrumptious.
There was a time when some who pursue deer used the term meat hunter in a negative way. Well, I’m proud to be a meat hunter, and according to Responsive Management, most people who take up our pastime today, especially females, do so for the meat. I have no qualms about killing does and, yes, doe fawns, especially in those places where whitetail numbers are out of control. On evening drives through the Virginia suburban neighborhood, which covers about a mile via the road, we have counted as many as 59 deer in the backyards.
Every year after I have killed eight or nine deer, I consider holding out for a trophy buck. But then some doe comes walking by, and I start thinking about grilled tenderloin, slow cooker roasts, baked deer burgers, deer heart sandwiches and other delights, and, well, I mount my bow, crossbow, muzzleloader, or rifle. If you feel the same way, then you know what I mean.
Note: To purchase a copy of Living the Locavore Lifestyle, contact the Ingrams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proper Care of the Meat: From the Shot to the Table
After I have killed a deer and removed the heart, tongue and bottom loins, the next thing I do is wash out the insides. If I’m in a suburban backyard, I merely use an outside spigot to do so. Most of my other hunting is in the highlands of the two Virginias, and I almost always have to cross a creek on my way back to the vehicle. A cold, swiftly flowing highland rill is a great place to wash away blood and debris and begin the cooling process. If I happen to be afield in the flatlands, I will bring several jugs of tap water to wash out the carcass. Because of bacteria being more active in warmer water, I don’t recommend washing out a carcass with warm water from a pond, lake, or sluggish stream.
Once back to a vehicle and if the weather is warm and/or the journey to home or a butcher is long, I will take out ice packs from a cooler and stuff them in the carcass. All these acts result in a cleaner and cooler body cavity — and better meat on the table.
When Elaine and I butcher a deer, we use the standard quartering method. Next, we place the four quarters (with the meat still on the bones and all fat, hair, and debris removed) in dry plastic bags, seal them tightly and put them in an ice chest for a day or two. Elaine feels meat is much easier to “work up” if it has been chilled for 24 to 48 hours, and we feel it tastes better, too as enzymes have had a chance to break down the muscle some.
Recipe: Venison Sweet Potato Soup
2 Tbsp. olive oil
¾ lb. ground venison
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup yellow onion, chopped
½ cup celery, chopped
½ cup red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup cubed sweet potato, roasted
3 cups vegetable broth
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups fresh spinach
1 cup garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
½ tsp. dried basil
¾ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried thyme
¼ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
Before beginning soup, roast sweet potatoes until tender. Peel and cube sweet potatoes and spread on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil and bake in a 400-degree oven until tender, about 50 minutes. Reserve one cup for soup.
To make soup:
Heat oil in a cast iron pot or Dutch oven (we use a Camp Chef) and add ground venison and onion. Sautee until meat is browned and onion is tender. Add garlic, celery and red bell pepper. Sautee for another 4-5 minutes.
Next, add broth, sweet potato cubes, garbanzo beans, and herbs. Simmer until heated through.
Add spinach and heat until spinach wilts. Season with salt and pepper.
Serves 4 to 6.