By Tom Keith, Nebraska Game and Park Commission
-- Many hunting seasons open in September when the weather can range from warm to hot, which makes properly caring for the game you take more challenging. If it is not properly cared for in the field and kitchen, chances are slim the meat will reach the table with its full flavor intact.
How you care for game from the moment you pull the trigger until you pack the meat into the freezer has the greatest effect on its quality when it reaches your table.
Game should be field dressed as soon as possible after the animal is killed. Open the body cavity and remove the viscera quickly. If the animal is taken during hot weather, it is critical that the meat cools rapidly.
Removing the viscera also reduces the animal's weight by about 25 percent, which makes deer-sized animals easier to drag out of the field. Save the heart and liver by placing them in a plastic bag for transport. Some hunters also save the kidneys. When all of the innards have been removed, turn the animal on its side and allow blood remaining in the body cavity to drain away. Then wipe the cavity with a clean, dry cloth. Do not wash the body cavity with water because you risk introducing bacteria.
Prop the body open with stout sticks to allow air to circulate and cool the meat. It is wise to drape the animal with hunter orange while it is being dragged or carried from the field, so other hunters who see it moving through the brush won't mistake it for a live animal.
"Life begins over 40" is the rule for transporting and aging deer and other game. From field dressing to processing, maintaining meat temperatures of less than 40 degrees discourages bacterial growth and meat spoilage.
Hang or store big game in a cool area for 10-12 hours to let the meat go through rigor mortis - the stiffening of muscles after death, which is caused by coagulating muscle protein - before it is frozen or butchered. Otherwise, the meat will contract when thawed or cut and it will be tough when it reaches the table.
A field dressed deer, even with the hide on, can be sufficiently cooled if hung overnight in colder weather. The chilled carcass can even be maintained in camp for several days if it is placed in the shade during the day and hung out of reach of dogs and other predators each evening to provide additional cooling.
Deer hunters are divided in their opinions about the need to immediately skin a deer, but a strong argument can be made for leaving the skin on as long as possible - if the carcass can be cooled quickly after field dressing. The hide helps keep the meat clean, and also helps prevent drying and glazing of meat exposed to the air. The dried, glazed coating is usually removed when butchering, requiring the carcass be "skinned" twice.
In September and October, the temperature often remains too high to safely hang big game outdoors. Many experienced archery deer and antelope hunters quickly have their animal checked through the check station, then butcher the animal and put the meat on ice in styrofoam coolers so it stays cool while being transported home.
Whenever possible transport game inside a vehicle or trailer. If it must be carried in a roof rack or elsewhere outside the vehicle, wrap it. Heat from the sun can be detrimental to the carcass, and the thoughtless display of dead animals is offensive to many people.
Small game animals should also be gutted and cooled quickly. An ice chest in the vehicle will pay big dividends at the table.
Game birds killed in hot weather spoil rapidly if special care is not taken in the field. Cleaning and cooling birds immediately helps ensure the meat retains its flavor and is safe to eat. Opening the body cavity and removing the entrails allows the meat to cool and helps eliminate the chance that viscera punctured by shot will fill the body cavity with blood and digestive fluids that can taint the meat.
Remove the innards and wipe the body cavity with a clean dry cloth. In hot weather hang birds from a strap on your belt rather than carrying them in a game pouch where air circulation is poor. Some hunters carry their birds in a free hand as they walk back to their vehicle. Keep an ice chest in the vehicle so birds can be put on ice as quickly as possible.