From field to freezer: hunters learn proper care for meat

Some of the 16 students in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Field to Freezer meat processing class Oct. 11 had hunted caribou, moose, antelope, grouse, ptarmigan, or whitetail deer before. Some wanted to fine-tune how they care for the meat they harvest. Some wanted to learn a greater respect for the meat they buy at the grocery store.

In the three-hour class, Southeast Wildlife Regional Supervisor Doug Larsen and Wendy Larsen went over everything from knives to freezer paper as they taught students how to harvest a Sitka black tail deer. The Larsens have been hunting together in Alaska for 30 years.

“I think one of the things that makes hunting fun and enjoyable is to have a good understanding of what it is you’re hunting, and to have a good idea how to process it so you can consume it,” Doug Larsen told the class.

He started off with a review of different kinds of knives and ways to sharpen them.

“You can do anything you need (in the field) with a sharp knife,” he said. “The only thing you need a saw for is for cutting the antlers off. Everything you need to do in terms of salvaging meat, you need just a knife.”

Carrying a bone saw is also ideal for taking the ribs, or breaking the brisket (sternum) to make gutting an animal easier.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better; holding his fingers apart, he indicated the optimal knife is around 3 to 5 inches long.

While that’s the case, a filet knife can also be helpful, especially when boning out areas like shoulder blades, Larsen said.

“It’s flexible. It allows you to slice right up against the bone,” he said.

As far as sharpeners go, there are all kinds of approaches: electric sharpeners, a Gatco knife sharpener and a drystone or whetstone you can take in the field for small amounts of sharpening.

A sharp knife isn’t just a matter of ease; it’s also a matter of safety. The duller the knife, the more pressure you’ll need to apply to cut, and the greater the chance of cutting yourself if the blade slips, Larsen said.

It’s easier to skin an animal if it’s hanging; that’s what many hunters of whitetail deer do. When it’s hanging — either from the head or the back legs — the weight of the hide will help you skin the animal. That’s also not necessary, however; many Southeast Alaskan hunters process their animals at their kill sites.

Some of those at the class had experience harvesting other kinds of animals. Scott Barnkow attended the Fish and Game class the week before, but this was the first time he’d seen an animal skinned.

“Wow, that just peels right off,” he commented.

Grace Amundsen is originally from Fairbanks, and has hunted bigger game like moose and caribou, but never a deer.

Neli Nelson said he grew up in Idaho.

“I got an antelope when I was younger,” he said.

But it was a while ago, and he wanted a refresher to make sure he was processing the animal right.

“I’ve hunted here a few times, but I didn’t have any luck. That’s probably a good thing,” he said, smiling.

Whether they’d done it before or not, the students jumped right in, skinning and processing both a fawn that was killed on Juneau’s roads and retrieved shortly afterward by Wildlife Educator Tennie Bentz, and a donated buck an ADF&G biologist shot on Prince of Wales Island.

Fish and Game does not discourage people from shooting fawns, Larsen said, as their chance of surviving the winter is not as strong as some other deer demographics.

“There’s no shame,” he said.

Of course, fawns have much less meat than a fully grown deer.

The second-most vulnerable group during the winter is males, because they’ve gone through the rut and haven’t been thinking as much about food, Larsen said.

The third-most vulnerable group is pregnant females.

The most likely to survive are females that aren’t pregnant.

After they’d finished harvesting the meat from the deer, students processed the scraps into hamburger, which they wrapped in plastic wrap. They wrapped the steaks in freezer paper, labeling them along the way — then divided them up at the end of class.

They saved some meat for a future Alaskans Afield class, which will teach how to cook wild game.

Wildlife Education and Outreach Coordinator Kristen Romanoff said ADF&G has been doing Alaskans Afield classes all over the state, and it has been “heartwarming” to see people’s interest.

Brenon Littlefield, age 12, attended with his mother, Noelle. He was one of the youngest hunters in the class, but that didn’t mean he was the least experienced.

He has hunted deer, moose, grouse and ptarmigan since his first hunt, when he was 10.

“I definitely like the venison I’ve shot and all that,” he said. “I don’t like buying (meat) from stores, because you don’t know what’s in it.”

He requested the hooves of one of the deer to make rattles. His mother, Noelle Kennedy-Torres, held the leg as he separated the hoof. She said the family tries to eat mostly hunted meat.

“We’re very blessed to live in Alaska, where we can do that,” she said.

■ In Southeast Alaska, some bears have learned to associate rifle shots with deer, Larsen said. Watch out for that, especially in bear-dense places like Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands.

■ Instead of completely harvesting a deer in the field, some people make “deer backpacks,” carrying the animal on their backs. Hunter orange is always a good idea for safety, but definitely be sure to wear hunter orange if you do this. You don’t want to get mistaken for a deer by another hunter.

■ When hunting goats or sheep, it’s important to be wary of contagious ecthyma, also known as “orf,” Larsen said. It causes black, scabby lesions around an animal’s eyes, ears and nose. Some goats in Southeast Alaska have had it so badly they’ve gone blind. Gloves help humans avoid it. “Having a few pairs of these is not a bad thing,” Larsen said, holding up plastic gloves.

■ Bloodshot meat (for example, the area a bullet enters) harbors bacteria and goes bad quickly. For that reason, it’s important to cut it out as soon as possible. “Being a little more instead of less liberal is probably a good idea,” Larsen said.

■ After a kill, you want to cool an animal as quickly as possible by removing its gut sack. Take care not to puncture it as you open up the belly. A gut hook — a tool created with that purpose in mind — will help you with that, though it’s not necessary.

■ Larsen recommends you take a post-harvest picture of your kill site and deer, in case anyone ever calls into question whether or not you’ve harvested all the meat.

■ Pork fat may be delicious, but deer fat tends to give the meat a gamier taste.

■ Did a bad job carving out steaks? Don’t worry — scraps of all kinds make great burgers.

■ The Larsens use plastic wrap (instead of freezer paper) to wrap hamburger meat. It makes it easier to force water out of the meat.

■ When you wrap a steak in freezer paper (you place the meat on the plastic-coated side) start wrapping from a diagonal corner. Squeeze out the air as you go, and tuck the ends in.

■ Mark your meat packages with the kind of meat, (venison backstrap, for example, or caribou tenderloin) and the date, so you know how fresh it is.

Legally, hunters are required to harvest all edible meat from an animal. In Alaska, for an ungulate (deer, moose, caribou, etc.), that’s defined as:

■ Tenderloins. These are the only cuts of meat that are harvested from inside the rib cage of the deer. They’re right behind the kidneys, and are prime eating.

■ The four quarters (legs, shoulders, etc.) of the deer.

■ Back straps (the cuts of meat right along the spine. This is also prime eating.)

■ The neck.

■ Flank steak, which is right behind the rib cage. (Some people are familiar with this from cow terminology; deer’s flank steaks tend to be less substantial. “That’s more of a flap than a steak,” one student commented of the fawn.)

■ Rib meat. Some people take home the whole ribcage of an animal; some harvest the meat from between the ribs in the field. It’s up to you, but what’s important is that you don’t let it go to waste, Larsen said.

■ The take-home message is you can’t really do anything wrong when it comes to processing,” Larsen said. “Because if all else fails, you can do what?”

“Turn it into burger,” came the answers.

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