Hunting Tips for Beginners
There are plenty of reasons to learn to hunt. The most ancient and trendiest modern reason for hunting are actually the same: it’s a great way to secure lean, free-range meat for yourself and your family. Wild game meat reduces your reliance on the commercial food chain and helps you know exactly what you’re eating in our age of processed foods. Hunting is also a great way to learn more about the natural world, and to support wildlife habitat and conservation in the U.S. Best of all? Hunting is fun.
But getting started isn’t always easy. Hunting is a commitment that takes time, interest, specialized gear, and lots of leg work. But it’s worth it. That’s why we pulled together this step-by-step guide to help you navigate all the essential stages and skills of becoming a hunter, from signing up for a hunter safety course to cooking your hard-earned venison, and everything in between.
Hunting is a highly regulated activity, which means you’ll need a license to hunt wild game like deer, turkeys, squirrels, and more. Before you can purchase a hunting license, however, you need to take and pass a hunter education course.
Do I really need hunter ed to buy a license?
Each state has different requirements for this: Some states only require hunter education if you were born after a certain date; others require all license buyers to hold a valid hunter education certificate. You can find your own state or province’s requirements here.
No matter your state’s requirements, it’s still a good idea to take the course. Hunter ed teaches safe firearm handling, ethical shot placement, your state’s regulations, and more. In-person courses also give you the opportunity to ask experienced hunters questions and get to know other new hunters.
Can I try hunting before I take hunter education?
You certainly can, though this is easier in some states than others. This also requires you to know someone who hunts and is willing to take you. The first way to do this is to purchase an apprentice hunting license, which allows you to legally hunt and harvest an animal under the supervision of a licensed adult hunter. Apprentice licenses are only available in certain states, but they’re a great way to gauge your interest in hunting.
The second option is just to tag along on a hunt with another licensed hunter. With a few exceptions for non-game species (like coyotes and hogs), you won’t be able to pull the trigger yourself. But you’ll learn a lot, and get a pretty good idea about how you like that particular style of hunting.
Where do I sign up for hunter education?
Go to hunter-ed.com and click on your state. Most states allow you to take an online course through this site, and will note any additional requirements like in-person tests or field days. If your state doesn’t participate in the online course, check out this map to go straight to your state’s hunter ed page.
How much does hunter education cost?
Hunter ed courses range from $0 to $30, depending on your state and whether you take the course online or in person (usually free). There’s a service fee for online courses, though some states require you to pay up only after you’ve passed the class.
Where is my hunter education certificate valid?
You can use it to buy a hunting license in all 50 states and many countries. This is another reason why it’s important to take hunter ed even if your state doesn’t require it: If you ever want to hunt in a different state, you’ll likely need a hunter ed number to buy a license.
How long is my hunter ed certificate good for?
Once you pass, you’re certified for life.
I passed my hunter ed course. Now what?
Congrats! You should have been issued a temporary or permanent hunter education card—go make several copies of this before you lose it, and file them in a safe place. It’s also a good idea to save your hunter ed number in your phone so you have it handy when you need to buy a hunting license. If you ever lose your card, you can print or request a replacement from your game agency, but it can sometimes be a hassle.
2. How to Find a Hunting Mentor
Hunter education classes are critical, but there’s no way around it: learning to hunt from one is like learning to drive by reading a driver’s ed manual. The only way to get good at either is to practice, and to do so with guidance. That’s where mentoring programs and other hunters come in.
If you already know someone who hunts, start there. This might be a friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor. Depending on your relationship with them, you might just be able to ask them to take you hunting sometime. If you don’t know them as well, ease into it. Ask them questions about what you need help with the most, like finding a good archery shop or buying the right hunting license.
Work your way up to asking them to join you for an in-person project. Maybe you need help picking out a deer rifle at Cabela’s, or navigating your first trip to the shooting range. Eventually you should know each other well enough that you can ask to tag along on a hunt. Better yet, your new mentor will hopefully invite you to join them.
Once you find someone who’s willing to help you, be sure to pull your own weight. Never forget that this hunter is doing you a favor, and that helping you learn to hunt cuts into their own schedule. Absolutely ask them for advice, tips, and to hunt with you, but take initiative, too. If they take you to the range once, go back on your own next time. If they recommend a public-land spot, go check it out. Don’t count on them to hold your hand for years to come, or to hunt with you every time you want to go.
Learn-to-Hunt Programs and Community Support
If the hunter you hoped would help seems non-committal, that’s okay too. There’s someone else out there who will be excited to help you, whether you know them yet or not.
This is where learn-to-hunt programs come in. These in-person workshops are usually organized either by your state game agency (like these, in Indiana) or a wildlife conservation organization, like the Quality Deer Management Association’s Field-to-Fork program. Search for programs by state or by the critter you’re interested in learning to hunt. Critter organizations include the National Wild Turkey Foundation, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and more. If you want to talk to a real person who can give you tailored advice, contact the R3 coordinator in your state. It’s their job to help you get started.
A lot of learn-to-hunt programs fill up fast, so if you’re having trouble getting into a class, don’t give up. Keep trying, and in the meantime, do your best to meet people in the hunting community. Go to a Ducks Unlimited banquet or a Backcountry Hunters and Anglers pint night. These are great ways to get to know sportsmen and women in your area, who can offer you the advice you’re looking for, and maybe even take you hunting.
3. Navigating Your State’s Hunting Laws and Seasons
As you probably noticed in hunter education, there are lots of regulations that govern how, what, and when you can hunt. To make things even more complicated, there are two sets of guidelines for hunting: laws and ethics. It may, for example, be legal to hunt deer with a rifle that you haven’t practiced with. But that doesn’t mean you should. You owe it to the hunting community and to the animals you hunt to follow your state’s regulations, and to do so under fair-chase conditions. Game law violations have serious consequences, ranging from tickets to revoked hunting privileges or worse.
The best way to avoid getting into trouble is simply to learn and follow your state’s regulations.
Start with your state game agency’s website. That’s where you can find season dates, general hunting regulations, and species-specific rules. You can also purchase a hunting license there.
Every year, your state game agency releases the dates that determine when you can hunt a certain species. Squirrel seasons, for instance, are usually pretty simple, with dates that typically start in summer or early fall and run through late winter. Deer and other big game seasons are more complicated. As a general rule, these open in early fall and run through December or even later. Season dates are usually broken down by the method of take, such as bow season, rifle or shotgun season, and muzzleloader season, with some overlap. Rifle seasons are the most popular, and you’ll notice the most hunters in the woods then. Your season may be further broken down by the type of deer that’s legal at a certain time (e.g. antlered vs. antlerless). Season dates can also vary by county or, out West, by hunting unit.
Hunting isn’t just a fall pursuit. Rabbit and predator seasons run through late winter, spring snow goose season opens in February, spring turkey seasons run from March to May, many bear seasons open in May and June, and you can often hunt invasive species like feral hogs any time of year.
There are general hunting rules that typically apply anywhere in the U.S. For instance, it’s almost always illegal to shoot an animal from a vehicle or while you’re standing on or beside a road. Other regulations depend on your state: In places like Oklahoma and Texas, it’s perfectly legal to pour a pile of corn onto the ground and hunt deer over it. Meanwhile, this practice (called baiting) is illegal in states like Indiana and New York.
To avoid running afoul of such varied regulations, learn your state’s general hunting regulations by reading the current year’s reg booklet, which you can find online or pick up in a sporting goods store. Know when you need to wear blaze orange, how to transport your firearm to the field, and other essential info.
Then study the animal-specific section. If you’re hunting squirrels, you should know how many squirrels you can kill in one day (your daily bag limit), which squirrels are legal (e.g. gray squirrels and fox squirrels) what kind of weapon and ammunition you can use, and your possession limit (i.e. how many squirrels you can store in your freezer before you have to stop hunting or start eating them).
Pay special attention to tagging and transportation requirements for big game like deer and elk. There are rules about when and how to tag an animal you’ve killed, and how to transport it. You’ll also likely need to report, or check in, your harvest within a certain time period. States like Missouri are strict, requiring hunters to check in deer by 10 p.m. on the day it was killed. Meanwhile, other states may never require you to report your deer at all.
Finally, be sure to pay attention to wanton waste laws. Taking home meat is one of the best parts of hunting, and leaving behind certain edible parts of the animal is actually illegal. You can choose to take or leave the more adventurous parts of a deer, like the heart, liver, and tongue. But you cannot leave, say, the front shoulder just because you packed out most of the meat, and you’re too tired for one last trip.
Buying a Hunting License
Once you’re familiar with the season you want to hunt, you’ll need to purchase a license. Again, you’ll buy this directly through your state game agency online, or you can purchase it in person at sporting shops or big box stores like Cabela’s and Walmart. If you buy a license online you can usually print it out, but some states don’t do this with all their licenses and will mail it instead. Translation: Don’t wait until the night before opening day to purchase a license.
There are two general types of licenses: over-the-counter tags (abbreviated OTC) or draw tags. Draws are more common in Western states, and where the demand to hunt an animal is higher than the resource can handle. To mitigate that pressure, state game agencies only issue a certain number of tags for that species each year. That means you often have to apply for that license, like bighorn sheep in Wyoming or elk in Kentucky. Happily, there’s always something to hunt with an over-the-counter tag, no matter what state you’re in.
It’s also important to know the difference between a hunting license and a tag, and any other privileges or stamps you must purchase to hunt a certain species. Many states require you to purchase a hunting license, which is usually good for small game, and then purchase additional tags for deer, turkeys, etc. If you want to hunt migratory birds like ducks and geese, you must purchase an annual duck stamp online or at your local post office. (You can read more about duck stamps, and why you need one, here.)
Finally, there’s a difference between resident and non-resident licenses. Resident tags are much more affordable than non-resident tags, so you get the most bang for your buck when you hunt in your home state. If you ever travel to another state to hunt, you’ll have to fork over extra cash for the non-resident tag. (Remember: The pricier tag is a lot easier to stomach than the penalties for falsely claiming residency.)
While there’s plenty of shiny (and expensive) gear out there, you don’t need all that much to get started hunting. Different species may require specialized gear, but the basics for every hunt are pretty similar. If you don’t want to invest in a bunch of new clothing or gear right away, borrowing gear from a friend or buying used gear is a great option.
A Note on Camo
While you can usually identify a hunter by his or her camo, camouflage isn’t mandatory for hunting. If you look at old hunting photos, you’ll notice that hunters tended to wear wool coats, flannel shirts, and blue jeans. It’s only in the last 50 or so years that hunters really started relying heavily on camo. More important than any camo pattern is your ability to remain still and conceal your profile (more on that below). Ducks, turkeys, and predators are typically exceptions to this rule thanks to their sharp eyes, though you can certainly kill any of these species while wearing a pair of Carhartts.
Like most outdoor and athletic pursuits, layers are key and cotton is your enemy. The weather on a hunt can range from steamy 80-degree days during early bow seasons to the fridge temperatures of deep winter. Layers allow you to dress for the weather and the type of hunting you’re doing. If you’re going to be sitting in a deer blind most of fall, you’ll need more layers than if you’re chasing elk all over the mountains.
Base layers (long underwear and a long john top) are the best place to start. These should be synthetic or merino wool—wicking fabrics that keep you warm even if you get sweaty then start to cool down. Synthetic or wool socks are key, too. If you need mid-layers, opt for a sweatshirt, a fleece, a down vest—whatever fits under your outer layers and keeps you warm without adding too much bulk. You’ll likely want a camo jacket and camo pants, both dedicated outer layers. If you don’t have camo, wear natural, neutral colors like green, tan, brown, or gray.
A good pair of boots can make or break your hunt, so it’s wise to invest in a pair of these. Again, these don’t need to be camo, but many good hunting boots are available in camo patterns.
The type of boot you choose will depend on where you live and what you want to hunt, but it’s hard to go wrong with a durable mid-calf leather boot. Something similar to the classic, ever-popular Danner Pronghorn is a good place to start. Hiking boots can work well for early-season hunts across dry terrain. If you want to do a lot of backcountry hunting that requires packing heavy loads, you’ll want a sturdier boot built for that kind of weight. If you live in swampy country or you’re planning to turkey hunt (which often coincides with heavy spring rains), you’ll probably want a pair of knee-high rubber boots. Pay attention to whether your boots are waterproof, and what kind (if any) insulation they have.
Big Game Gear
If you’re going to be hunting deer from a treestand, invest in a safety harness. Think of it like a helmet for your bike: You probably won’t need it, but if and when you do, it could save your life. If you’re planning to hunt whitetails in the timber on public land, you’re also going to want a climbing stand. If you’d prefer to hunt on the ground, opt for a collapsible ground blind. Other important gear includes a pair of binoculars, a hunting pack, a bottle of wind indicator, and a haul line to raise and lower your bow or rifle if you’re hunting from a treestand.
This is one of the most gear-intensive types of hunting, which often requires lots of decoys and, frequently, a good duck dog. For new hunters, your best bet is to tag along with an experienced waterfowler, who can hopefully lend you a pair of waders (which aren’t cheap). If you’re field hunting, you can skip the waders and wear regular hunting boots or, better yet, a pair of knee-high rubber boots. You’ll also want to bring along ear plugs or electronic ear protection, especially if you’re hunting in a metal pit blind. Without them, fast shooting by multiple hunters can damage your hearing and give you a ringing headache in short order. Bring a camo hat to conceal your face from sharp-eyed ducks. If you already have a pump or semi-auto shotgun, bring it; if not, ask to borrow one.
Camo isn’t important for hunting rabbits and upland birds like pheasants, quail and grouse. This style of hunting involves covering lots of ground and combing heavy brush to flush animals rather than hiding from them. Wear a pair of sturdy pants that can protect you from thorns and cacti. Don’t forget to layer, too. Even if it’s frigid out, you’ll warm up quickly. Good boots are critical on an upland hunt, and you typically want something lighter-weight without too much insulation. Hiking boots with good ankle support are a fine option if the terrain is dry or steep, but sloppy and snowy conditions call for a waterproof or warmer higher-profile hunting boot.
If you’re having a hard time finding hunting gear that fits you well, you’re not alone. Sporting supply stores are normally your best bet.
Don’t forget blaze orange (if required), a beanie or ball cap, gloves, and a camo face mask for bowhunting or turkey hunting (though you can use face paint if you prefer.)
Camo is your friend when it comes to turkeys. You’ll want a face mask and thin camo gloves, and a box or friction call to get started. If you’re really intimidated by calling, try a push-button call. Many turkey hunters prefer to wear a vest with a built-in seat cushion, but a small camo hunting pack is fine if you don’t have one. You’ll also need decoys. If you only have the budget for one decoy, get a hen deke; if you can afford two, opt for a hen and a jake. A small pair of binoculars on a bino harness are handy, too.
5. Guns, Ammo, and Shooting Practice
If you’re a recreational shooter who’s looking to get into hunting, this part will be pretty easy for you. Just make sure you’re getting plenty of practice, you choose quality hunting ammo, and you keep shots at game within a comfortable distance. But if you’re totally new to firearms, this can be one of the most intimidating aspects of getting in to hunting.
The first thing to know is that most folks in the firearm world are nice, friendly people who are usually more than willing to offer some help to a beginner. That’s even true if they may seem a little rough around the edges at first.
If you have a friend who is a hunter or shooter, ask them to introduce you to shooting with either an air rifle or rimfire rifle. The low recoil will allow you to practice good shooting form without taking a beating and potentially developing bad habits like flinching or jerking the trigger.
If you don’t know any shooters, find a nearby range that offers a course or class for beginners. Letting someone walk you through safe firearm handling and good shooting form will help you immensely. (Pro tip: Check your eye dominance before getting started.) You’ll get a little bit of this instruction in hunter’s education, but not nearly enough to make you a competent shooter in the field.
Your First Gun
Once you’ve got the basics down and have a little experience under your belt, it’s time to get a gun of your own. Choose a gun based on your hunting need and the regulations in your area. When you’re looking for a rifle or a shotgun, remember that you get what you pay for. If you’re looking for an affordable rifle or shotgun, you’ll be able to find a solid gun in the $500 range. Call a few gun shops and explain what you’re looking for. If they start trying to talk you into a gun that costs $1,000 or more, take your business somewhere else.
When you’re starting out, lighter calibers and smaller gauges are the way to go. Think .243 or 6.5 Creedmoor for rifles and 20 gauges for shotguns. Getting rocked by recoil on your first few trips to the range is going to slow your development as a shooter.
Once you’ve got a gun, there’s plenty to consider: safe storage, getting it sighted in, buying ammo, and cleaning it. Besides the safety aspect, your main job now is to practice with it and get comfortable handling it. This means spending as much range time as possible, which is good, because once you get comfortable, you’ll find that shooting is pretty damn fun. Just wear good hearing protection and eye protection, and follow all the range rules. And if you don’t know what the rules are or have questions about them, just ask!
Make sure your practice replicates what you’ll see in the field as closely as possible. When it comes to rifle shooting, that means practicing from field positions (after your rifle is zeroed, of course). If you’re trying to get into bird hunting, consider signing up for a sporting clays or skeet league, or even a wingshooting clinic. This will sharpen your skills and give you the chance to meet other shooters.
Just remember: The primary goals here are 1) to get comfortable with safely handling the gun you plan to hunt with and 2) to become competent with that firearm so you’re able to make a quick, clean kill in the field.
Making Shots on Game
Shooting a game animal is more challenging than shooting targets at the range. This is because you will be excited and there will be additional variables that affect the shot. This includes a moving animal, brush obscuring part of the critter, cold fingers, or wind swaying your treestand. Because of this, it’s extra important to only shoot at animals that are well inside of your comfortable range. For many first-time big game hunters, that means inside 200 yards with a rifle and well inside 100 yards for with a shotgun or muzzleloader.
Each hunter must decide his or her own ethical maximum range. But here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: you should be able to hit a target the size of the animal’s vitals 100 percent of the time. If you can’t, you need to move closer. Also, your maximum effective range may change depending on field conditions. Maybe you can’t get a steady rest, or the wind is ripping across the canyon. If you have any doubts, don’t take the shot and move closer, or wait and let the critter move closer to you.
6. How to Find a Place to Hunt
There are two versions of hunting ground—public and private. Many diehard hunters rely on a mix of private and public hunting land and there are pros and cons of each. But the goal when you’re starting out is to find land that is relatively easy for you to get to, has a good population of the game you’re targeting, and isn’t overloaded with other hunters.
In an ideal scenario, you already have access to private land to hunt on. Maybe your family owns land or you’ve got friends who hunt and will give you access. This isn’t the case for many folks, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck on private ground. It’s definitely possible to get free access to private hunting land, but you’ll have to do some leg work. Identify nearby landowners (using a digital mapping app like HuntStand or onX Hunt) who have properties that look promising and simply go ask them for permission to hunt.
A couple important tips: It’s easier to get permission for small game or turkeys than it is for deer; get permission before the season starts; don’t stop by late at night or when the landowner might be eating dinner; cash crop famers are more likely to grant permission; be nice and courteous no matter how the landowner responds.
If asking permission on private ground seems too intimidating, you could also consider leasing land to hunt. There are plenty of websites that show which lands are available for leasing. Consider a small out-of-the way property and also splitting the lease with a hunting buddy.
On the flip side, there’s public land. Most state wild game agency websites have maps that show designated public hunting lands. Some states, like Montana, have an incredible amount of public land that is open to hunting. Other states, like Illinois, have a minimal amount of public ground.
Once you get an idea of public land areas nearby, you’ll want to do some basic digital scouting. This means using a mapping app or Google Earth to check out satellite images of the property. Take note of access points, terrain features, and potential habitat. After identifying some likely areas, go check out the properties well before the season (see the “scouting” section below).
There are a couple important things to consider when looking for public-land hunting spots. First, any areas that are a short drive from large towns or cities will likely see a heavy amount of hunting pressure. You can have success on these areas, but the hunting is more challenging (because the critters are conditioned to avoid hunting pressure) and you need to be careful about bumping in to other hunters.
If you are in good physical condition and like to hike, use that to your advantage on public land. Most hunters set up relatively close to parking areas. The farther away you get from roads and other hunters, the more game you will find. Look for signs of other hunters out there. That means boot tracks, glow tacks, manmade trails, and stands or blinds. If you’re seeing a ton of hunter sign, you probably want to move on to a new spot. Also, use terrain obstacles like marshes or streams to your advantage. Most other hunters will not want to cross these obstacles, so throwing on a pair of waders and making the slog can often lead you to better hunting opportunities. —A.R.
7. Basic Tactics for Any Hunt
Every hunt for each different species calls for different tactics. Your hunting strategy can even change based on location, or weather, or season. But there are some very basic tactics that all hunts require no matter what the game or location. Understanding these basics will help you grow into a better, more effective hunter.
Scout More Than You Hunt
The most successful hunters spend more time scouting than hunting. Learn to love scouting—exploring new areas, learning about the species you’re hunting, and spending lots and lots of time outside. The goal here is to find areas that game animals hang out in before you actually start hunting. You can do this by spotting the animals, or by reading sign they’ve left in the area. Before the season starts, it’s a good idea to get out and walk the areas you plan to hunt. This will help you determine if there are critters around, but it will also help you get more familiar with the terrain. As you walk a new property, imagine that you’re a critter trying to travel through an area without getting spotted. Pay attention to the trails you take. Often times they will lead to natural terrain funnels (like a strip of dry ground between two ponds). These are good places to target and if you walk trails back from these funnels, they’ll often lead you to bedding areas or feeding areas. If it’s legal where you are hunting, setting trail cameras is an invaluable scouting strategy.
Once the season begins, keep scouting! Now you must try to find areas to hunt without spooking game. If you’re after deer or turkeys, that usually means exploring new areas midday, when the animals aren’t moving as much (you don’t want to scare them out of the area). You can also scout from your vehicle with binoculars. In more open country, just driving roads in the mornings or evenings can give you an idea of the areas animals are using. For example, if you’re after waterfowl, driving around and watching where ducks and geese are flying and feeding is key.
Animals know when they are being hunted. You’ve probably seen deer in a park or maybe even in your backyard. Those deer might have mostly ignored you, maybe they let you get close to snap a photo with your phone. But deer on public hunting ground (or private ground) won’t let you do this during hunting season. All wild animals have incredible senses and survival instincts. To get close to wild game on their turf, you’ve got to be stealthy enough to slide in under those senses, undetected.
It starts with being quiet. When you are in your hunting area, walk softly and slowly. This helps you avoid that loud crunching march of a hunter tromping though the woods, which wild game recognizes instantly. But it also gets you in the right mind set. It forces you to slow down, think, and watch before you move. Speak softly, too. The human voice carries an incredible distance in the woods. But on top of that, staying quiet will help you hear game coming. The quieter you are, the easier it is to hear all the sounds around you, like a turkey gobbling on a distant ridge, or a deer shuffling through the hardwoods.
If you are hunting big game, your most important consideration is wind direction. The sense of smell is the most powerful survival characteristic for critters like deer, bears, elk, and antelope. The only way to truly beat a big game animal’s nose is to use the wind in your favor. You want stay downwind of the critters, but also downwind of their bedding areas and trails. A simple windicator is an essential tool for any big game hunter. It will help you see how the wind swirls in valleys or drainages and shifts throughout the day.
And you also have to beat wild game’s vision. Camouflage clothing is useful, especially for sharp-eyed game like turkeys or waterfowl, but it isn’t essential. Dressing in earth-tone clothing that is quiet and suitable for the weather conditions works just fine. The real secret is to use the terrain and conditions to avoid being spotted. Don’t stand at the top of an open hill or ridge. This is called skylining yourself, because you stick out obviously against the skyline. Try to keep the sun at your back when possible and stay in shaded areas (animals can catch the glare off you and your gear if you’re in open, direct sunlight). If you are stopping to take a break or maybe do some calling, keep a wide tree at your back. If you’re hanging a treestand, pick a spot where the trunk and branches will break up your outline. Always use the terrain around you to break up your human profile.
A lot of content and advertising around hunting pitches the experience as an action-packed, adrenaline-fueled, adventure. It’s true that those moments exist in hunting, but for most of the time you’ll be sitting quietly, watching, listening, and WAITING.
This in fact, is the hardest part of hunting for many people—establishing the right mindset so that you are happy to go into the woods by yourself and sit quietly for hours on end, while still being focused enough to detect game before it detects you.
The secret is to enjoy the wait. Slow it all down. Watch the natural world come alive around you. Listen to the birds, look for squirrels, stay alert and stay off your damn phone. If you do this for long enough, the critter you are hunting will appear and then the adrenaline-packed showdown can begin. But even if the critter doesn’t show, you’ll have appreciated a different experience—the experience of actually hunting. My general rule is this: Wait until you are totally certain no game will show up, then give it another 30 minutes (or just wait until legal shooting light ends). —A.R.
8. Field-Dressing, Butchering, and Cooking
The plan was a good one, and four years in the making. Tucked into my fanny pack was a laminated card with step-by-step illustrations on how to gut a deer. As a kid, I studied that card far more than I ever had my homework, praying that I’d someday need to refer to it. Although I had cached its words and line-drawings to memory, it brought confidence to a young hunter and I checked to make sure it was in its proper pocket, right next to the dragging rope, each time I went afield. Two days before Thanksgiving in 1977, I had cause to use it. The 6-point buck I shot with my bow only went 30 yards before dropping in a stream.
In the times before headlamps, gutting a deer in the dark meant trying to steady a flashlight on the deer’s brisket while unzipping the hide on its belly. That went okay, but in short order I found that I needed to refer to my instructional card. Once I shined my flashlight into the buck’s guts, I realized there was no orderly compartmentalization of lungs, heart, diaphragm, liver, and intestines, as my card suggested. It all looked intermingled—with lots of blood.
A full hour later—a rather macabre yet clean gutting job completed—I was finally on my way back to the house. I hung the buck to cool and, when I cooked that first piece of meat, the venison tasted better than anything I had ever eaten before. That lesson in wild-game handling would remain indelibly ingrained in my mind. Whether big game, small game, or wildfowl, what you do before and after the shot will have the biggest effect on its palatability.
These are my simple rules for great-tasting game each and every time.
1. Get to the Range
No matter what the hunting implement, becoming proficient with it is crucial for clean, quick kills. You owe it to the game that you are hunting and you owe it to the folks who will eventually be eating it. The only way to do it is to get to the gun or bow range as often as possible to practice. Shoot, shoot, shoot—and then shoot some more. Make certain that your gun or bow functions properly, but above all know your capabilities and avoid taking risky shots at game or birds. The more quickly it expires, the better it will taste.
2. Gut It Quickly
Proper field care of wild game should begin the moment the animal hits the ground. If not, the result will be poor or gamey-tasting meat. To avoid this, you need to be prepared with the proper tools. Most importantly, a sharp knife, latex gloves, and the proper means to transport your game. Whether you are gutting big game, small game, or birds, take the utmost care not to puncture the stomach contents, intestines, or bladder during the evisceration process or risk tainting the meat. It’s also important to avoid contaminating the internal body cavity with dirt or debris. If contamination does occur, wipe it clean as quickly as possible.
3. Cool It Down
Next to gut matter and dirt, heat is the biggest detriment to great tasting wild game. It’s, therefore, critical to cool down bird and animal carcasses as quickly and efficiently as feasible. Thorough field dressing begins the process and is typically sufficient if it is not too warm during a day hunt. If not too warm—40 degrees—big game can be hung in a garage or barn for several days prior to butchering, although the more consistent temperature of a walk-in cooler is far more ideal. Game birds and small game such as rabbits can be more quickly butchered and prepared for the freezer.
4. Cut It Up
Loads of information is available on proper game and bird butchering. But no rule is more important than to use the proper tools—a sharp knife, a skinning knife, and meat saw—and to work on a clean surface in order to keep the meat dirt-free. Although butchering your own game might seem intimidating at first, you’ll get the hang of it. If you’re not interested in trying this, you can always drop your deer off at a professional game processor. Plenty of hunters do this, and receive professionally cut and wrapped packages of venison in a few days. This will cost you somewhere between $50 to $120 for deer, depending on how big the animal is and how much your butcher charges.
If you want to try it yourself, here’s how. For big game, begin by extracting the inner loins located on the inside of the body cavity. They run along the spine. Most hunters remove these first, because they tend to dry out quickly. These and the backstraps, which are located along the backbone outside of the body cavity are considered to be the best portions of meat. Halve the backstraps for better portion size. Meat from the neck, front shoulders and legs is often ground and mixed with ground pork or beef fat for the best flavor and consistency, or turned into sausage. To prepare the larger hind quarters for freezing, simply separate the muscle groups by running your knife blade along the seams and lines that are clearly visible on the quarters. Once separated, these larger cuts of meat can be further cut into steaks or roasts to freeze.
Gamebirds and small game are even simpler to butcher. Once plucked, skinned, and washed, they can be either frozen whole or separated into smaller portions. For ducks and other gamebirds, you can also use your hands to tear open the skin above the breast, and then use a sharp knife to fillet the breast meat off the bone.
Much like temperature is the enemy of game in the field, air is the enemy of game in the freezer. So no matter whether using a vacuum sealer or ordinary butcher wrap, it’s important to remove all the air from your packaging in order to avoid freezer burn. If opting for butcher wrap, it’s a good idea to first seal the meat in plastic wrap and then butcher paper. To ensure the best quality results, add several packages of meat to a resealable plastic freezer bag and immerse it into a sink of cold water. The water will force out all the air. Seal the bag, and now your game meat is ready for the freezer.
6. Cook It
Wild game and birds can provide some of the best meals available anywhere—if they’re prepared correctly. Poor-tasting game is almost always the result of having not followed the previous rules. Take proper care of game from field to freezer and it will almost always taste great—with a couple of caveats. Because game is naturally low in fat, it’s important not to overcook it unless you’re opting to use it in a braised dish or pot roast. Although some might disagree, it’s also full of deep, rich flavor making it a minimalist’s dream. Venison loin and steaks, for example, are served best when cooked medium rare in butter, salt, and pepper. Gamebird breasts and small game such as rabbit deserve similar treatment. It’s always fun to experiment with various recipes, but you might want to save that for store-bought meats and poultry.
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