After the season is over, a hunter is left with memories, perhaps a few photographs and, for many, packages of meat in the freezer. Even for trophy hunters, the ideal of "eat what you hunt" is central to the hunting experience, and there is a great deal of satisfaction in being able to literally put meat on the table after all the effort - and enjoyment - that goes into a hunt. For many families, a favorite game dish has become traditional, from wild goose dinner on Christmas Day to venison sausage on the grill in the summer.
Delivering good-tasting game to the table begins well before dinner is prepared, though. Proper handling of the meat, from the moment the animal is taken until it is ready to be prepared for cooking, makes all the difference between a tasty, enjoyable meal and meat that tastes too "gamey." Unlike domestically raised meat that is purchased in the grocery store, game requires much more responsibility from the individual. With a little care and attention, the game meals will taste great and only extend the pleasure of the hunting experience.
Heat is the enemy of good meat. As soon as it is practical, the game should be field dressed to begin to cool down the carcass. For larger game, such as deer, elk, antelope and bear, that's usually done more or less where the animal fell. For smaller game (rabbit, squirrel, upland birds and the like) or waterfowl, the animals may be tucked away in a game pocket or bag while the hunting is still going on. Sooner or later (the sooner the better), it's important to begin the process of cleaning and cooling the game.
If you've never field-dressed the species you're hunting (and the techniques differ), ask someone with experience to give you some lessons or do some reading and/or watch a video. The process is pretty straight-forward and mainly involves removing the viscera in a way that prevents contamination of the meat and cleaning out the body cavity. This allows the meat to begin to cool and prevents bacteria from tainting the meat. It is important to have one or more specialized knives for the task, and you'll also need cotton twine, clean cloths, clean water, bags for holding such parts as the liver, heart, kidneys and tongue, plus, for big game, a larger cloth or plastic game bag. This big bag will allow you to keep the dressed carcass covered while dragging or packing it out of the field and back to the vehicle or hunting camp; it prevent twigs, dirt and other materials from finding their way into the body cavity. Most people do not skin large game while it's still in the field. While the hide does keep the heat in (it is, after all, a fur coat), it provides protection from contamination during transport.
Back at camp or at home, smaller game and birds can be skinned or plucked, washed, patted dry and readied for the freezer - or the oven! - without too much difficulty. For large game, whether you home butcher or take it to a processor, there are some extra steps that should be taken. Now is the time to skin the animal and remove the hooves/paws/feet and the head. Trim off any layers of fat from the meat, since it can quickly become rancid and become a source of contamination. (Even if you are a firm believer in the value of bear fat, for example, it should be handled separately from the meat.) Trim off any edges from incisions made during field dressing and any interior damage caused by the bullet or arrowhead. Use fresh, clean water to wash and wipe off the body cavity and the exterior of the carcass. If you plan to transport the carcass to a commercial game processing plant, be sure to use a clean, new game bag to cover it.
Now, you're ready to begin cutting, grinding, wrapping and making the sausages and jerky you've been dreaming about for the past year. The meals you'll enjoy are just part of the enjoyment of hunting, something you can share with family and friends. It honors the animals you hunt to treat their gift to you with care and respect.