By John Bradley
Growing up hunting in Minnesota with my family, we’d avoid bowhunting for deer in September in fear of the occasional 80-degree day that could spoil meat quickly. It wasn’t until I moved out west that I started hunting the early season, when deer are often more predictable. During early season hunts like North Dakota’s archery season, it’s critical to be cautious with meat spoilage. After all, you’ve likely spent far more money on your hunting trip than a trip to the grocery store after you add in gear, gas, time, and effort. The last thing you want is for that lean, wild meat to spoil. So here are a few tips and tricks to help you beat the heat and get the most out of your harvest.
Go into the hunt expecting to notch the tag on your animal and prepare your equipment and plan accordingly. Whether you are bow hunting antelope in Montana, or chasing velvet mule deer bucks in the badlands, have a plan for when you kill that animal. Know your limits and know how far you can hike with a weighted pack. If not doing the work yourself, know where the closest meat processor is and always have a cooler stocked with ice in your truck no matter if you take care of the processing yourself, or rely on a butcher shop.
If you are hunting with a partner, talk through the different scenarios for packing out. If you are hunting solo, be prepared to send a message asking for help packing out or have a plan on how you are going to shuttle your meat alone. Find a shaded area at camp to build your meat pole if you plan to pack the meat out over the span of a few days. This will not only buy time, but also prevent scavengers from robbing you of your precious cargo.
Know Your Process
If I’m hunting far from home, I prefer to debone the meat in the field for several reasons. First, it allows heat to escape and saves weight for the pack out. If I am hunting in an area without many trees, I always bring some rope to hang meat if needed. Some folks prefer packing out meat with the bone-in for more structure in their pack. While it works, it is extremely helpful to hang the meat in a shaded area to allow for convective heat loss.
Second, avoid setting the meat on the ground. You want as much of that surface area open to allow heat to escape. The rope will allow you to hang the meat from just about anything while you continue butchering in the field. Do not forget that direct sunlight is your enemy. If you can drag the animal to shade, take advantage of that. If not, find shade nearby to stash the meat as you work through the quartering process.
Finally, Good game bags are a critical piece of equipment at this point, as well. They not only allow airflow but also make it easier to suspend meat from a tree. I’ve used a variety of reusable game bags but have had more success with sturdier bags that still allow for plenty of airflow. Avoid using trash bags during early season hunts since they restrict airflow and can spoil meat quickly.
Prepare your Cooler
The golden rule of getting your meat out of the field is to keep it dry and cool. Before departing on a hunt, I prep my cooler by using a 10lb bag of ice to chill the inside of the cooler. On the morning of the hunt, I dump out the melted ice and replace it with gallon jugs filled with water which I have frozen ahead of the hunt. The meat needs to stay dry, so avoid placing the meat in a cooler with melted ice or standing water in the bottom of the cooler. Naturally, when the meat comes in direct contact with ice, it will cause the ice to melt because of the temperature difference. Contact with the resulting water can cause bacteria to grow on the meat, spoiling all your hard work before you get a chance to enjoy it.
While today’s high-quality coolers keep ice for days, any cooler or set of coolers will do. Even with a high-quality cooler I replenish ice frequently when hunting the early season, like during Montana’s archery antelope season where temperatures routinely end up in the mid-90s.
You’ve prepared in every other way for your big hunt this fall, so always have your pack out planned and be prepared to come out heavier than you went in. It’s our responsibility as hunters to take care of the meat we harvest. There’s no worse feeling than losing meat to spoilage, especially right after the hunt. Plus, we can all agree there is no better feeling than biting into a medium-rare steak and knowing exactly where that meat came from.
Featured Photo: The Long Way. Know how far your hunt will take you, to be prepared in packing out any tagged animal. DEO Photo by John Bradley.