Your Guide to Preparing Wild Game
Hunting is often considered a sport, but one of its greatest values is putting fresh and natural meat on your friends’ and family’s table. Making that perfect shot, whether you are shooting or bowhunting, may be the end of the hunt, but it’s only the start of harvesting your game.
Copper Ridge Outdoors is here to support you through every step of your hunt, whether it’s with shooting targets so you can hone your aim or a sturdy swivel lift to help you bring your prize home. Here, we’ll walk you through all the steps to make the most of the wild game you brought down. Read on to learn more, and find outdoor hunting gear you can trust here at the Copper Ridge Outdoors online store.
How to Handle Wild Game Meat
No matter how comfortable you are with slabs of steak at home, handling wild game requires a whole new set of rules. It can be delicious, but without proper handling, wild game can also be a risk to your health and safety. Be prepared for your next hunt with what you need to know!
Steer Clear of Sick Animals
You should not shoot, handle, or consume meat from any animal that acts abnormally or appears sick. One function of hunting is to help with population control, but while shooting an animal that appears sick may seem like a mercy kill and a boon to the local ecosystem, it can put you at risk, especially if you intend to harvest any meat from your kill. You should contact the local organization overseeing hunting and inform them if you see any sick animals.
Double Check Your Kill
If you’ve been practicing with steel plate targets from Copper Ridge Outdoors, you may feel pretty confident in your kill. However, it’s still in your best interest to approach the animal with caution. A wounded animal is dangerous, and realizing too late that your arrow or bullet was a few inches off can result in deadly injuries, especially if you are hunting a large animal like a bear or elk.
One of your duties as a hunter is to ensure the animal’s death is as quick and humane as possible. If you approach and your target is still alive, then it is your responsibility to finish the kill as quickly, safely, and effectively as you can. For an animal like a deer, we recommend pressing a finger to the corner of its eye. If they blink, then the animal is still alive and you have an extra step to take before you tag them and start the field dressing process.
If you shot well, however, and the animal is dead when you arrive, then you can skip the step of cutting its throat. Contrary to some popular beliefs, this step doesn’t actually effectively help to bleed the body, since the animal’s heart has stopped pumping. We talk more about field dressing below if you’re looking for more guidelines.
There are a number of rules that can apply to hunting, from federal restrictions to hyperlocal additions or exemptions. You should familiarize yourself with whatever rules or regulations apply to the area where you are hunting before you even step foot on the trail. Some regulations dictate where, when, and what you hunt, but – if you’ll excuse the joke – the buck doesn’t stop when you shoot the buck in your sights. In fact, it’s key that you closely follow all rules as you tag and bag your kill or you could face serious penalties, including fines and potentially jail time.
What kind of regulations will you face? A few common examples include:
- Tagging your game immediately
- Retaining evidence of sex and species, such as keeping the head and sexual organs attached to the carcass as you pack it out
- Collecting blood or other biological samples from a fresh kill to submit to for disease testing
- Packing out all edible portions of meat, even if they are affected by shot and low quality
No one wants to bring a rule book with them when they are enjoying the outdoors, so make sure you review all the rules you are subject to before setting off for your next hunt!
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Once you down and tag an animal, your work isn’t done. The next step is field dressing, which is the process of removing the internal organs of your prize. This step applies not only to game like deer, elk, and moose, but also birds, fish, and other animals.
Field dressing can be a long, intensive process, and since it involves a sharp knife, we recommend taking a break before you dive in. Take a seat, drink some water, and eat a snack to let the adrenaline from the hunt fade. You don’t want unsteady hands when you’re handling all that precious meat!
Why Does Field Dressing Matter?
Field dressing serves many purposes. For one, it’s key to making sure the meat you bring home is actually edible, so make sure to remove the internal organs prevents spoiling. Opening up the body cavity ensures a rapid loss of heat, and cooling the meat is essential to preventing bacterial growth and preserving the quality of meat. You want to bring the internal temperature of the carcass below 40°F as soon as possible. An animal’s gastrointestinal tract can also carry bacteria, and removing it from the meat you intend to eat is key to protecting yourself from food-borne illnesses down the line.
What You Need
Outdoor hunting requires no shortage of gear, regardless of whether you like bowhunting from a treestand or shooting from a pop-up hunting blind. Field dressing requires its own array of supplies. Here is what we recommend you pack for your next hunting trip:
- A sturdy knife with a large handle and guard
- Heavy-duty gloves made of latex, nitrile, or a similar material
- A whetstone or steel for sharpening
- Rope or cord
- String or rubber bands
- Paper towels or clean cloths
- Clean water for cleaning the meat if necessary
- Alcohol for periodically cleaning your knife
- Resealable storage bags
- Cheesecloth and/or black pepper to cover the meat and repel insects
- Cooler filled with ice or snow for smaller parts or smaller animals
What to Keep in Mind
There is more than one way to skin a deer, elk, or other game animal. There are also several ways to approach field dressing depending on what animal you are hunting. We encourage you to do your research before your next hunt so you have a good idea of what to do once you’ve tagged your prize. If it’s your first time, or it’s been a while since you last field dressed an animal, we recommend that you print out instructions so you have something to reference just in case.
The one rule that applies to virtually all wild game is this: field dress it as soon as you can to ensure healthy, great-tasting meat!
Here are a few of our top tips for a safe and effective field dressing:
- Cut the skin from the inside out to avoid puncturing any of the animals organs and to prevent hair from sticking to the meat.
- If you plan to eat the heart and liver, remove them first to keep them clean.
- Do NOT puncture the stomach, intestines, or bladder, as these can contaminate all the meat you had hoped to harvest.
- Clean your knife frequently with alcohol swabs or clean water to avoid introducing or spreading bacteria to the meat.
- Do NOT cut through any bone if you can help it and do not cut the spinal cord.
- Be especially careful with the cuts you make if you plan to mount the animal’s head or send the body to a taxidermist. You don’t want them to have to patch up any unnecessary holes.
Once you’re done removing the entrails, dispose of them respectfully. (You don’t want a local family dog to come home with unsafe spoils after a romp in the woods, for example.) If you don’t plan to pack out the organs in a trash bag and dispose of them later, then we recommend burying the entrails or placing them in a depression in the ground and covering them with leaves.
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Food Safety in Wild Game
When you shop for meat at the grocery store, you can rest assured that it has been tested, inspected, and determined safe for your plate. When you go hunting, making good choices and mindful cuts is all up to you. We mentioned earlier that you should not kill or harvest from a sick animal. Here is what to look for.
Behavioral Warning Signs
- Stumbling or disorientation
- Excessive salivation
- Aggression or no fear of humans
- Abnormal behavior
- Weakness or emaciation
Warning Signs in All Animals
- Organs that smell bad or have green-colored discharge
- Black blood
- Blood clots in the muscle
Warning Signs in Fish
- Sunken eyes
- Discolored skin
- Loose scales
- White, bloody, or slimy gills
Warning Signs in Birds
- Sores or lesions
- Patches of missing feathers
If you notice any of these signs, you should contact your local Department of Natural Resources or a similar organization to notify them of the sick animal. If you did not notice these signs until after you killed and began to field dress the animal, ask for guidance on what to do with the meat to ensure you avoid any penalties for “wasting” meat.
Be Aware of Disease Concerns
Wild animals can carry a number of parasites and bacteria colonies that can put you and your family at risk if you aren’t careful and informed. Each type of animal comes with unique concerns, so make sure you do your research. Here are a few current wild game concerns to know before you go out on your next hunt.
Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Both Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) are diseases transferred through tick bites rather than ingesting meat. However, working with animals like deer at close range means you are still at risk. Make sure you thoroughly check yourself for ticks after handling a deer carcass, and report any symptoms such as a target-shaped or spotty rash to your doctor as soon as possible.
Chronic Wasting Disease
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a serious disease in the same class as “mad cow disease” that you can be exposed to through deer, elk, or moose. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says there is no current evidence that CWD passes from animals to humans, but you should still take precautions to protect your health and safety, including separating bones at the joints rather than sawing through them, and avoid handling any brain or spinal tissues.
Escherichia coli (E. coli)
E. coli is a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, and in some cases, kidney failure, and it has been found in deer and elk. E.coli can be found within an animal’s digestive track, which is why it is important to separate the intestines from any meat and avoid puncturing the stomach. Your greatest risk of E. coli occurs if you shoot a deer in the abdomen or improperly handle the carcass or meat.
If you’re hunting bear, cougar, lynx, fox, or wild hogs, your major concern will be trichinosis, also called trichinellosis. Trichinosis is caused by the parasite Trichina spiralis, which lives specifically in the muscle tissue of animals and is commonly found in predators and scavengers. There is some evidence that smoking, freezing, or curing wild game meat may kill the larvae, but it isn’t a cure-all. The best way to avoid becoming host to this parasite is to cook your meat until well done. If you’re craving a rare steak, stick to beef.
Rabbits are the most common source of tularemia in the U.S., a disease caused by the Francisell tularensis bacteria. It is a potentially fatal disease, which means it deserves extra caution. Your biggest risk of contracting tularemia is if you improperly handle or eat undercooked meat or your eyes, nose, or mouth is exposed to blood or tissue from the infected game. Avoid exposure by following safe field dressing procedures, such as taking your time, wearing gloves, and cleaning your knife frequently, and, of course, properly cooking your meat.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a small parasite and can be contracted if you eat raw or undercooked meat, especially venison. The best way to avoid this is to practice proper food hygiene and thoroughly cook your meat to an approved internal temperature, which we will discuss later.
Transporting Your Kill
You have shot, tagged, and field dressed your animal. The next step can be tricky: getting your kill to your vehicle. If you’re out duck hunting, congratulations! You shouldn’t have a hard time achieving this. For anyone hunting bigger game like deer, moose, or bear, this step can certainly be a challenge.
What to Do
Dragging the carcass to your car – or ATV, or horse if that’s the case – is likely the best way to get from point A to point B. If you have a tarp or deer cart, even better! Your first step should be closing the chest cavity however you can after the field dressing step. This can mean tying it closed with rope or wrapping the body in cloth. If you have sealed bags of ice or snow to use, pack them inside to further protect and preserve the meat inside as you trek back toward civilization. If dragging the carcass, try to keep its back or side to the ground to further protect the cut you made in its chest.
To load it into your vehicle, we recommend a swivel lift. Copper Ridge Outdoors is dedicated to creating outdoor hunting gear you can depend on, and our swivel lift is one of our most popular products. It attaches to most vehicles with a receiver hitch, it’s made of durable tubular steel, and it can swivel 360 degrees with the quick removal of a simple pin. It also breaks down easily for transportation or storage, so it’s there when you need it and out of the way if you don’t.
If you don’t have a truck bed to use for your big game, then why not upgrade your all-terrain vehicle? Copper Ridge Outdoors sells a wide selection of carefully manufactured, high-quality ATV equipment. Place an order for one of our cargo carriers today to be ready for your next adventure.
What Not to Do
When transporting your kill to your vehicle, there is one big no-no: carrying the carcass on your shoulders. We applaud your strength, but this method can put you in danger by masking any bright hunter orange you may be wearing and making you a target. If another hunter sees the carcass and doesn’t look twice, the consequences can be serious.
Once you’ve reached your vehicle, there is another serious faux pas to avoid. Do not strap your kill to the hood of your vehicle. Some may think it makes you look cool, but it is a bad idea for a number of reasons. For one, it is disrespectful to the animal. The heat of the engine also has a likelihood of spoiling the meat, aside from all the dirt and debris the carcass will be exposed to as you drive. Just don’t!
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Processing and Storing Your Meat
Once you get your kill back home, you have a couple of options. You can try extracting the meat yourself or turn to a local butcher to skin and process the body for you. Trusting a professional butcher is likely the best way to get the most out of your kill and avoid any food safety concerns.
With bigger animals like deer, elk, moose, and bear, there are more than a few cuts you can expect from your butcher. You can walk away with some lovely steaks and roasts as well as more processed options like ground meat, sausage, or jerky. If you are processing deer, elk, or moose, our one recommendation is to request boneless cuts to avoid any possible exposure to CWD.
One question many hunters ask is how much meat they can expect to get back from a butcher. It might be less than you expect, but not necessarily because the butcher shorted you. Even a 200-pound deer buck may only yield about 50 pounds of meat. The skin, bones, and internal organs all carry a lot of weight, and there are plenty of inedible parts that factor into that 150-pound difference that you wouldn’t want on your plate anyway.
There are a few ways you can optimize your yield. For one, make good shots! A little practice with an AR500 steel plate target certainly won’t hurt your ability to save the best cuts. Keeping the carcass clean as you transport it home or to your local butcher is also key to ensuring you don’t accidentally damage or contaminate anything you’d like to eat later.
What Not to Eat
When you hunt to put food on the table, you want to make the most of every kill. However, there are some parts of the animal that just aren’t safe to eat — or tasty, for that matter. This is one reason you need to be informed on the local disease or parasite concerns regarding whatever you’re hunting that season — it can affect what is safe to eat.
As a general rule, we strongly recommend against cutting through the backbone or eating the brains of any wild animal, because many diseases are concentrated in the spinal tissues and brain. The eyeballs, spleen, and lymph nodes are also typically areas to avoid. Especially if you are butchering your animal, make sure you do your research before putting anything on your dinner plate!
If you don’t plan to immediately cook and eat the meat you harvest, then you need to cool it rapidly. Meat should be stored in a refrigerator or freezer below 40°F to slow the growth of bacteria. Properly prepared game meat can typically be frozen for about a year. Keep in mind, however, that cold temperatures slow down bacteria growth rather than kill the bacteria. When you thaw your meat, handle it just as carefully as you would fresh meat and cook it as soon as possible, because bacteria can become active again in warmer temperatures.
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Cooking Wild Game
At last, you get to reap the rewards of your hunt — it’s time to eat! We are sure you can find plenty of amazing recipes out there to make the most of whatever you have waiting in your freezer. You can also swap out ordinary ingredients like ground beef for your wild game, but keep in mind that wild meat is typically leaner, richer, and a little trickier to cook just right.
Just like you would with meat from the grocery store, you should still make sure to follow safe cooking techniques with your wild game. Avoid cross contamination, for example, and make sure to wash anything that comes into contact with the meat with hot, soapy water and rinse well. You also need to cook your meat to the proper internal temperature to reduce the risk of food-borne diseases.
There are plenty of resources online to help you put something safe and delicious on the dinner table! And if you went out hunting with your Copper Ridge Outdoors hunting equipment, don’t forget to show off your gear and your accomplishments on our social media channels. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram — we’d love to see you there and hear about your Copper Ridge story. Happy hunting!