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Care of game meat

It's fall again, and hunters will soon be heading afield trying to harvest any one of a number of big game animals. Whether you are after deer, elk, moose, or antelope a few items are essential. And this does not mean the weapon you choose to use, or where to go, but rather the question of "what do I do now?" once the animal is on the ground. Here the old adage of "the fun is over, now the work starts" has never been truer.

Everything you do or do not do from this point on will affect the quality of the game meat you and your family will ultimately enjoy. Here are a few suggestions that may help both beginners and seasoned hunters alike.

First and foremost, be prepared to handle the meat. Such preparation begins long before you leave home. Remember that your animal will yield the same amount of meat whether it is killed 10 miles into the backcountry or close to the road. Obviously, the first location will require more work, but going prepared is the key, regardless of where you hunt.

Take the time to get your knives, saws and sharpening stones ready and make sure to always take them with you in the field. Rope, twine or parachute cord may be the most important item you can have when it comes to handling game meat because it can be that extra hand you need to hold onto something. However, this is an item many hunters forget to carry with them. Plan to carry enough rope to hang the carcass (either whole or in parts) off the ground and then add another 20 feet.

The secret to having good quality meat is getting it cleaned out, hung up and cooled down, not cold or frozen, as quickly as possible. To do this, the internal organs have to be removed, the hide has to come off, and the carcass placed in a cool environment. Without a doubt, the longer the carcass is on the ground, the greater the chance the meat will spoil. Trapped body heat provides an ideal environment for bacteria to flourish.
A big game animal's body temperature is about 100? to 106? F at the time of death. Under normal conditions that temperature will decrease at a rate of 2 degrees an hour from the larger muscle masses in the rump, neck and shoulders. Twelve hours after death the large muscles of the hind legs may still be 76 degrees or more. Therefore, it is very important to do everything you can to increase that rate of heat loss.

Options that aid in dissipating heat from the carcass include: skinning the animal, placing the carcass in a shaded area, hanging it off the ground for maximum air circulation, and quartering or partial boning. Do not place the meat in any type of plastic because plastic will hold in heat. Also, do not place the meat directly into water. This simply makes an incredibly wet and sloppy mess that is difficult to handle. When was the last time you ordered a waterlogged steak from a restaurant?
During the early seasons, daytime temperatures can reach the 80's or 90's. But the nighttime temperatures in the 40's and 50's are adequate to cool down a carcass. The first night is crucial and will make the difference between saving all the meat or causing it to waste. If skinned, hung and allowed to cool overnight, the meat should be set up enough by the next morning for handling and packing.

As the daytime temperatures rise, your next priority is to get the meat out for processing. Again, temperature is the main concern. Ideally, meat should be held at about 34? F to avoid spoilage. The higher the temperature is over this ideal, the more bacterial growth will occur, increasing the potential for spoilage.

Believe it or not, during later season hunts the problem is snow. While you do not have to worry about the daytime temperatures getting too hot, you still have to worry about meat spoiling. This will happen because snow works as a great insulator. Many hunters have shot an animal and filled the body cavity with snow in the hopes of rapidly cooling it. The next morning, they are surprised to find that they have a bone-soured carcass on their hands. In these cases the snow worked as insulation, trapping body heat and causing the meat to spoil. Rapidly trying to freeze a carcass can cause a similar problem because the outside will freeze solid, trapping the body heat in.

Other factors to consider are insects and dirt. Here again this should be addressed long before you leave home. If you know that there is a good chance you will have to have to deal with flying insects, take along some precautions. Some hunters use black pepper to coat the meat as a way of keeping the flies off. This helps somewhat as a short-term solution, but should not be the only option you use.

The best option is to have good quality game bags that fit loosely around the carcass. Ideally, the fabric should not touch the meat. These bags should be a light to mid- weight cotton or canvas that will act as a complete barrier to flies, dust, and dirt. If cared for, these game bags should last several years. Avoid the "cheese cloth" game bags because they are not worth what you pay for them. Another way to deter uninvited flying guests is to place the carcass in a tent with screens that will allow the air to circulate, but keep the bugs out.

One other point all hunters should remember is the waste of game meat. Idaho law states that: Hunters are required to remove and care for the edible meat of big game animals, except mountain lion. This includes the meat of the front quarters as far down as the knee, hindquarters as far down as the hock, neck meat, meat along the backbone, and the meat covering the ribs. It does not include meat of the head, internal organs or meat left on the bones after close trimming. This law basically means that you have to bring out meat from the carcass that is usually made into steaks, roasts, hamburger and sausage. If you are only taking the four legs and the back straps you are wasting about 30% of the edible meat and violating the law.

One final word of advice, hunt within your limitations. If you go into one of those deep dark canyons that will take hours of hiking to get into, ask yourself a simple question: "If I get something down here, how am I going to get it out?" If the answer is "I have no idea", respect the animal and your sport enough to find an easier place to harvest your animal.

Dane Cook, Sr. Conservation Officer, Idaho Fish & Game


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