Scott Perkins, owner of Jerry's Meats, holds a custom game processing card in one hand, which each customer completes with butchering selections, while handling the rib cage of a deer in the cooler of his store.
A saw at Jerry's Meats makes an easy task of cutting apart ribs and making bone-in steaks.
Story last updated at 12/5/2012 - 2:13 pm
Southeast Alaska hosts an array of accessible and eatable flora and fauna species. Sitka black-tailed deer are a commonly harvested animal in the region, upon which many residents rely as a primary food source. This is the fourth of a four part series focusing on the process of safely, ethically and efficiently harvesting the animals for food.
After a killing shot, the first thing a hunter must do is punch his or her deer tag. The next step is to dissemble the deer.
Local hunter Laurie Cole bought a video on field dressing when she first moved to town, which she refers back to from time to time. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has an informative section on field dressing on their website. Whatever resource you use, it's important to understand how to adequately address a dead dear before going out on a hunt.
The first step in this process is to take out the insides of the animal.
Riley Woodford, an Information Officer with the Fish and Game Division of Wildlife Conservation, explained that you want the animal to cool down as fast as possible.
"The longer it lays there with the guts inside of it the quicker it will spoil," Woodford said. "You can taste the difference."
How you remove the insides of the animal depends on where you've killed it. It's easier to do this if the deer is hanging, tied up to a tree, aided by gravity. If it's not possible to bring the deer to a tree, processing is performed on the ground.
Bringing some heavy plastic, contractor bags or a tarp, aids this process, allowing for a clean workspace. Many hunters will first remove the musk glands, which can smell during the rut season. They are located on the hind legs of the animals. Some hunters will keep the glands if they plan on continuing to hunt, as the smell may attract more deer.
Next, an incision is made along the underside of the deer. The larger the cut, the easier it is to remove the internal organs, though the smaller it is, the cleaner the deer remains. This is important, as, after removing the inside of the animal, many hunters may then haul the animal to a boat or vehicle, and a smaller cut means less potential for the animal to be exposed to hair, dirt and other unwanted material.
If the deer is hanging, the stomach and intestines basically fall out. These are the first things to remove. One hunter I spoke with, who would like to remain anonymous and will be referred to as Dale, said he then likes to find the bladder, and note if it contains much fluid. If it's full, he tries to pinch it off before removing it. Dale also checks for the presence of fecal material.
"You can tie a knot in (the lower section of the intestine), or cut a ring in the tissue around its anus and pull the whole thing out," Dale said. "Then if it's a lung shot, there's blood, so you cut around the diaphragm and use the blood to wash out stomach stuff. You're trying to be careful not to rupture the stomach."
Dale said that the diaphragm is edible, often used best as burger meat. He puts the organ material, once rinsed off, into a bag separate from the one he uses for the rest of the deer meat. Next, he said, you reach into the animal and remove its lungs, easy to remove by hand, and also occasionally saved to eat.
The heart and liver of the deer are other organs that many hunters find palatable. Some hunters will put their hands around the heart and pump out any blood from it before removing it. The heart has to be cut out, as it's attached to many arteries and blood vessels.
Greg Germain, a local hunter with decades of experience, summed up the dressing process this way:
"Take out everything from the esophagus to the anus," he said, with the maximum of a one-foot incision. Germain stressed the importance of preventing the deer hair from touching the meat.
"The hair on the meat gives it a gamey taste," he said. "No matter what, I don't let the hair touch the meat. I've had guys tell me I'm too anal, but it does change the taste of the meat."
Once the deer cavity is empty, many hunters will cut out the tenderloins, located inside the animal on the inside of its spine.
At this point, the location of the kill becomes a determining factor. Most hunters prefer to finish the butchering process in a more comfortable environment, like a garage. This would require hauling the deer out to an accessible area, which isn't always an option.
"There's a threshold," said local hunter Steve Hill. "If you're within walking distance with ease, I'll grab the sucker out and come do it in the garage. But most of my hunting here is in the alpine, packing four or five hours in."
Regardless of where the deer is killed, skinning the animal is the next step. According to Dale, this is easier to do when the animal is warm.
"You run a cut down the inside of the leg," he said. "Just cut away at the connective tissue between the muscle groups and the hide. It comes apart pretty easily."
Most hunters will then remove the back straps of the animal, a choice cut of meat. Then the animal is quartered, that is, each leg is removed from the spine.
Germain hangs his animals from their hind legs, and starts the butchering process from the bottom up.
"You separate the hind quarters from the pelvis," Dale said, though this depends on whether the deer is butchered on the ground or hung. Dale would first take off the front legs, like Germain, if the animal is hanging upside down.
"A lot of people will carry bone saws to do this, but with enough practice every cut you need to make can be done with a knife. If you're in a rush because of daylight, a saw is a good thing to have."
Once all four quarters have been removed, it's time to sever the head.
"Try and cut the head off way up, at the top of the head and base of the neck," Dale said. "If you're careful you can save a bunch of meat by cutting it at the base of the skull."
If hunters are not butchering on the ground, they will often remove the head while stripping the animal of its hide.
"I strip the hide down as far as I can until I'm right there at the head," Germain said. "So the head's connected to the hide. That's one less way to reduce hair touching the meat."
Some will salvage the tongue for consumption.
Meat can be salvaged from the pelvis and the backbone of the animal before the ribs are removed. While most of the animal - the internal parts, hide, head, hoofs and backbone - can be left in the field, the ribs are required to be carried out. They can be cut or sawed off the back bone.
If a hunter is in the field, he or she may choose, at this point, to bone the meat to decrease the weight load on the pack out. Regardless if the butchering process happens in the field or at a home base, every hunter I spoke to stressed the merits of letting meat age before it is processed. If at home, a hunter would hang the whole animal, with the stomach cavity empty, or if quartered in the field, the sections of meat are hung in bags.
The idea behind this is that as meat ages, the muscle proteins break down, making the meat tenderer. A natural crust should form on the exterior of the meat that will help prevent the invasion of bacteria. Some people will employ fans to accelerate the formation of a crust. Heat is regarded as a threat; you want your meat to stay cool and dry.
"Let it hang whole until right on the edge of stinky," Dale said.
Germain said he generally allows his meat to hang for about a week.
"Some of the best meat I ever tasted had a green slime on it," Germain admitted. After cutting away the slime, "It was the most tender meat I've ever tasted. But you lose a lot of meat that way."
So Dale's approach, hanging it right to the edge of stinky, would allow the meat to tenderize without having to shave off much of the exterior before processing.
Processing a deer is extremely dependent on personal taste. There are natural groups of muscles that are relatively easy to separate. Some people like to keep them whole, for roasts, or cut into steaks. Other people like to make chunks for stir-fries or stews. Much of the meat can't be cut away in sections large enough for steaks or as stew meat, and can only be used as ground meat. Some people will grind all the meat harvested from an animal, especially if it was from a particularly small animal. Cole goes so far as to can some of her meat.
"I put chunks in a jar with beef broth and pressure cook it," Cole said. She then just reheats the meat for meals or uses it in enchiladas.
The simplest processing plan is drop it off at a facility that takes care of everything for you. In Juneau, Jerry's Meats is a go-to place. Scott Perkins, the owner since 2003, said that animals that come to his store have to be skinned, gutted and free of dirt and hair, or the meat won't be accepted. He gives each customer a white card, with boxes to check and lines to fill in about how he or she would like the meat to be processed.
"Everybody wants something different, and we ask you what you want," Perkins said. "You're the one who's going to eat it. We cut it to your orders."
Perkins has a large saw and can make bone-in steaks from the larger sections of the animal. He can add fat, generally beef fat or pork fat if requested, in different percentages to ground meat. He will package all the meat, and for ground meat the customer can request what size of package he or she would like.
Processing can include sausages prepared raw or smoked; in links or in the more girthy form of summer sausage. He has two large smokers, fitted with a hopper that provides a continuous supply of alder pellets. Perkins has over ten selections of styles, including a Country Sausage spice blend, hot or sweet Italian Sausage and Polish Sausage. The smoking process takes eight to 10 hours. He can also make jerky. Many hunters will process the larger parts of the meat on their own, and just take what they want to be ground to Perkins.
If you choose to process your animal on your own, an important step is to adequately package the meat to avoid freezer burn. Several layers of plastic wrap under a layer of freezer paper work well. Then each package should be labeled, indicating the cut of the meat and the year. Though meat can last up to a few years in a freezer if it is properly packaged, it's best to consume within one year of harvest.
Steve Byers, a local hunter and owner of Alaska Survival Products, ensures his meat is eaten promptly by practicing generosity.
"I always end up giving 30 percent away of what I get," Byers said. "There's always more out there. It's just helping out other people. Whatever you give you'll get back twice as much, no matter what you do."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.