Hunting 101 Pt. II

I recently posted that I would be taking a Deer Hunting for Food class over the Thanksgiving holiday. I did and had a blast, here is my report. WARNING**** This post will contain graphic images of a deer being dressed and butchered. You may want to skip it if you’re not “game.”

…I was expecting more blood. When we started to dress the fallow deer Jackson Landers had procured for our Deer Hunting Class, I was worried slightly about about my nerves. Would they hold up? Would I get all woozy when we used the gut knife to peel the skin back like a zipper? Would I barf when we pushed our hands under the skin to separate the hide from the skin? Nah, I was fine, in fact, there was a lot less blood than I expected and I was too excited for the heebie jeebies. I wanted to learn to hunt, harvest, dress and butcher my own food and here I was, experiencing what so few people do, understanding exactly how to procure my own food. Now, I won’t say there wasn’t a smell, but it was very much like a horse, and anyone who spent time on or near a farm would not be put off. But I’m jumping ahead…

Headless Fallow Deer waiting to be dressed

Class began on Saturday morning with a lengthy lecture on deer behavior and anatomy. You’d be surprised at just how clever the beast is…apparently deer are quite the survivors having adapted more than twice in their evolution. At one time, deer had fangs! The lecture went on to focus on various types of ammunition and rifles, which were best in various hunting situations. In the afternoon we headed out to a range, about an hour or so drive to a George Washington National Forest. With some basic safety lessons, we set out to practice on a variety of weapons rimfire and centerfire, 270, 30-30, 30-08, 30-06 caliber rifles. The 30-08 was a bit too much of a kick for me so I settled on the 30-06. We fired at a range of 50, 80 and 150 yards. It was a first for me, firing a rifle, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. With some careful lessons on avoiding flinching I was able to group several shots on target. There’s really nothing quite like a bolt action.

In order: 30-08, 30-30, 30-06, .22
Getting instruction from Jackson Landers
Fellow Gowanus Noodler Israel lines up with a sniper-style grip.

The following day we continued the classroom lecture on various calibers and basic hunting techniques. I won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say it was thorough. Jackson has an incredible memory and prolific understanding of deer and he often interspersed the lesson with his own experiences hunting in Virginia. Landers spoke passionately about how he came to be a subsistence hunter and the opportunities he’s had to hunt in his own backyard (literally), but the class was eager to move on to the butchering lessons.

Once again–I’ll warn you that the images below are graphic.

We took a drive outside of Charlottesville to a small home of a Jackson’s friend, a primitive hunter, Fergus Clare, who had bagged a deer from a nearby deer farm that morning. As we drove up, we could see the carcass on the ground with several bags of ice over the body to keep it cool. The musky scent was sweet but not overpowering. The head was removed as the killshot was a headshot that pretty much removed the majority of the brainpan.

Proof of concept, cutting forelegs with found flintrock or shale

Pulling back the hide--all that's required is pulling and pushing hard
Cutting through the sternum, ribcage toward the anus
Removing the rumen and internal organs
After removal of fore and hind leg, removing meat from ribcage
A flip, and preparation to remove the haunches
Demonstration of using the hide to pack the meat out

Jackson and Fergus began to slowly break down the animal with a sharp buck knife and gutter. I won’t go into all the details, but they were methodical and practical, dressing the animal on its side and using the hide as a sterile blanket on the ground. They were careful to instruct us to avoid touching the tarsal glands and hair. The advice was straight-forward, to let the knife do the majority of work, avoid puncturing the innards, to follow the contour of the animal’s body. We were shown were to cut to bleed the animal out, how to sever the trachea, to remove the innards from the body cavity, crack the sternum and to cut along the ball joint of the pelvis. I took lots of notes, pictures and video. They even used the butt out tool to remove the anal track. Very thorough. The whole class participated at various stages, removing muscle/meat, fore and hindquarters. I spent time working on the backstraps AND realized my knife skills leave much to be desired. In fact, I’m thinking on taking a knife skills course soon.

Using the whole animal, a good practice.

Well, in less than an hour, we had pretty much stripped this animal down to its bones, not even leaving much for the vultures. We were able to harvest the vast majority of the deer, about 70% of its weight in meat. We took most of the edible organs, the kidneys, heart, and liver. We even took the meat from between the rib bones. Then we headed back to the city to do the remainder of butchering, pop open a few bottles of wine and start cooking.

Removing the "silverskin" or fascia which protected the meat

We got to taste just about every cut of meat, the tenderloin was a bit gamy being so close to the innards, but the backstrap was reminescent of a porkloin in shape and made excellent steaks. We had some of the neck meat which we ground into patties for hamburgers (soooo good). There are 3 muscles in the leg worth eating, two rump roasts and a sirloin tip roast which can also be cut into sirloin tip steaks. Needless to say, I’ve got a long way to go on butchering, a few books to read and a class or two if I can find it, but its something I plan to master. I want to be able to harvest as much of my kill as possible for food. I’m certain that if I get the opportunity, I will donate or give-away some meats, but my brother has dibs because he’s become quite the sausage-maker these days.

Prepping the offal, which is not for everyone, of course.

Overall my experience with class was very enjoyable, and I came away with a tremendous amount of respect for both the animal and the hunter. I realized this would be a lifelong pursuit of knowledge in front of me, but one that could be very rewarding to me and my family, both for our health and beliefs. I also met some very good people who I hope to get out and hunt with in the near future. Meanwhile, I’m planning my first hunt in the last week of December with my brother-in-law. The family has about 400 acres down in Georgia and he’s harvested plenty of deer from there before. Whether we get on the deer or not, I’m really looking forward to going out with an experienced hunter for the first time, and doing a lot of watching and listening and keeping the momentum going.

Hunting 101

After a few false starts, I’m finally beginning my journey to becoming a hunter. My goal is to augment my family’s daily living with partial subsistence hunting. I’m aiming to learn the fundamentals of foraging (mushrooms, wild edibles) and hunting for meat (fowl, deer). I’ve been a catch-and-release angler for a while, but I’m going to start keeping a portion of my limit for the freezer too.

First up–I’m taking a deer hunting and dressing class by locavore activist and hunter Jackson Landers over Thanksgiving holiday in Charlottesville, VA. Landers new book, The Beginners Guide to Hunting Deer for Food just hit the shelves, and he’s working on a geese-hunting guide as well. I’ll be down there with one of my fellow Gowanus Noodlers and a few other guys getting the fundamentals down. The two-day class includes instruction in shooting, stalking, and field-dressing a kill, along with lectures, lunch, plenty of jawing. Jackson’s work has been well-documented in the NY Times and other places, for his desire to help urbanites and folk who didn’t grow up hunting but always wished they did, to get in the game.

I’m excited. If you think about it, hunting for deer is the most inexpensive way to put organic, grass-fed venison on the table. And I happen to love venison. Its taken me a while to find the best way for me to get into hunting, so I hope the trip is rewarding. Obviously, I’ll be getting the basics, but nothing replaces being out in the field with an experienced guide putting those skills to the test. And I still have the class and licensing to do here in NY state. Hopefully in 2012 I’ll be able to report back on a successful hunt of some kind.

By the way, documentary filmmaker Helena Swedberg has been filming Jackson’s work. You’ll see in the clip below, Jackson, an insurance-broker by day, is not your typical mountain-man or redneck–he’s just a regular joe who loves  gooseburgers and wine, who has made subsistence hunting a passionate part of his conservationist approach to life.