As an outdoorsman, I have a fundamental belief that harvesting our own food is paramount to some sort of inner paleo contentment. By that I mean, I’m a whole bunch happier deep down to consume meat that I had a hand in capturing, processing and preparing. Because of this, I’ve spent my life in pursuit of “fast food” in the form of fish, big game, small game, and feathered game and I take every step in the process very seriously. Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way that really help when deciding exactly which game or fish to harvest and how to handle it once you’ve been successful in the field. We’ll start with a bit on which to harvest.
I’m a firm believer in selective harvest. Selective harvest is the concept of choosing which fish or game to eat and which to release or pass up based on a variety of factors including the population dynamics, age/condition, stocking, etc. I won’t preach to you; make your own decisions on which fish to keep or deer to shoot. My personal rules are that I generally harvest fish that are representative of the average fish in the system and usually harvest only what I can eat fresh because fresh fish is the best fish, right?
If you are planning to harvest fish, a little forethought goes a long way towards quality table fare. My strong preference is to have my OtterBox Venture or Trooper cooler (which has backpack straps for ease of hauling) with ice on hand, in which case I immediately dispatch the fish and ice it. If it’s a trout or some other fish that I’d cook whole, I’ll remove the gills and entrails prior to icing. In lieu of a cooler full of ice, my second choice is to keep them alive. That’s easy in the big Ranger boat; simply flip on the livewell pumps. Without a livewell of some sort, it’s admittedly tough; a stringer may be your only option but that is not a great one unless the water is cold.
Speaking of cold water, all other things being equal, fish harvested from cold water are the best eating. Trout harvested from 70 degree water will not be as tasty and firm as the same trout harvested in 45 degree water. If I’m grocery shopping, I’ll seek out cold places to fish. Anything harvested from an 80 degree pond somewhere is not likely to taste great or have firm texture unless it is immediately killed, filleted, and iced.
When it comes to harvesting big game specifically to eat, I prefer to hunt does/cows; in most cases it’s better for the population and it will certainly give you more opportunity to harvest. Since this is pure food value, not trophy status, I select mature does that are relaxed and that I know I can kill very cleanly. If possible, I also like to be close to my Tundra to facilitate quick processing. If I’ve got a buck tag, I may be less picky about the scenario because I realize that an old buck is far more rare and much harder to get a shot at period.
Big game that is relaxed and standing still allows for ideal shot placement; in this case I always strive for a heart shot. A heart shot will immediately stop the pumping of any sort of adrenaline or lactic acid even if the animal stays upright for a few seconds, which is highly unlikely. This ultimately yields the best texture and flavor, assuming the next steps are taken properly. Sooo, perfect heart shot, what's next?
I want the guts out and hide off as soon as physically possible. This is always the case but even more so when harvesting does for pure food value. I may bone out a mature buck or take my time photographing and caping, but in those cases I know I’m processing for stew, chili, etc ., and not perfect venison steaks and roasts. The faster the damaged organs and entrails are out of the cavity and the hide is off, the faster the meat can cool. When its above freezing out, I prefer to break the carcass down (possibly even removing the bones) and get it in coolers over ice. Just be sure to keep all water off the meat because soaking in water promotes bacterial growth; I lay Otter Ice packs in the cooler so no water is involved.
For small game and birds, I process immediately. Rabbits are a favorite of mine; I gut, skin and remove the lower legs and head immediately. I then rinse and dry them. The whole process takes about a minute and then they go right in Venture on Otter Ice packs. Same with pheasants, doves, etc ., and as soon as I’m back at the truck, they get processed before we hit the next field. Yes, it’s that important to me.
The whole process culminates with cooking, right? It seems to me that most fish or game are best handled one of two ways; hot and fast or low and slow, nowhere in between. I do both outside, Camp Chef style…hot and fast on the grill box or cast iron skillet, low and slow in the pellet grill or Dutch oven. Keep these few things in mind and you too can enjoy maximum quality real food.