November 30, 2022
By Mark Eis
As a kid in upstate New York, deer hunting was a sort of autumn background noise that I generally ignored, a ritual undertaken by the kids still living on farms in the semi-rural ‘burbs of Schenectady where I grew up. But circumstances converged about ten years ago that unexpectedly drew me into the activity that I now look forward to with a certain reverence and gusto each November.
I have a close friend and colleague who had purchased a home in Stone Ridge with his wife that was at first their weekend retreat and then became their permanent residence. His wife is an avid gardener, both of ornamentals and of edibles, and they were dismayed by the damage the lovely white-tailed deer population could do. This friend, the son of an FBI firearms instructor, invited me shooting with him and taught me the basics of firearm safety. I pointed out to him that with a minimal investment of time and effort he could “take matters into his own hands” on the deer damage front, at least for two weeks of every year. He took my advice and had a successful first hunt, taking a beautiful buck practically out his back door. The next year I joined him, and we have been regularly getting out together ever since for some portion of big game rifle season, which in New York’s southern zone lasts for 23 days beginning the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Subsequently we have hunted on his property in Stone Ridge, in Kerhonkson on his friend’s small beef farm, and a few times on a much larger farm (all with permission and regular communication with the landowners). We have even assisted his friend on the beef farm by obtaining “nuisance tags,” which allow licensed hunters to take a certain number of antlerless deer outside regular hunting season to mitigate agricultural damage from the deer.
For me, fishing, hiking, skiing, canoeing, etc. have long been excuses to get out and interact with the natural world. Deer hunting has enjoyably broadened my outdoor experience. We get out in the pre-dawn darkness and try to be settled into our deer stands (which you’ve probably seen in the forest—a metal ladder to a small perch, usually with a seat) at least an hour before sunrise, when hunting legally begins. I settle in, chamber a round so I’m ready, and listen. I sometimes hear deer or other animals passing by in the darkness. When I’m lucky, I can see the stars overhead beyond the bare branches, perhaps a waning crescent moon. The cold slowly starts to pry at me, finding any breach in my clothing. I try to shift as quietly as possible. The light comes up slowly as the birds become active. Jays call. Chickadees come and check out the weird things in the tree. I crane my neck in all directions, look through my binoculars and scan out to the edge of visibility. Maybe a mink saunters by along the babbling stream to my back. The babbling brook reminds me that my bladder has woken up, a perennial battle for those in our late 50s and beyond.
And then maybe I see one, or maybe more than one, off in the distance between the trees. A small patch of white moves furtively, a tail flicks, maybe I catch sight of their lovely liquid brown eyes. Make no mistake, I love these animals. I think they’re beautiful, majestic, and integral to the environment. In hunting them, I try to play a small part in managing their population to match the available habitat, to keep them from overrunning suburban yards and, I hope, to reduce the probability of deer/motor vehicle accidents. If I’m lucky enough to spot one from my perch, as I sight up on the animal (I did remember to chamber a round, right?) and push the safety to red (red means fire), I slow my breathing. I wait. My mind goes quiet. I contemplate life and death. When the shot is lined up, though, no thoughts happen. I exhale slowly and at the bottom of that breath, before the tension returns, I squeeze gently, always surprised by the subsequent mechanical and chemical release. If I’ve done everything right, the animal is quickly down. Patience and proper shot selection are my greatest responsibility. More often than not, I sit back. Too far, too young, no good shot. I feel connected to the animals either way.
If I’m fortunate enough to connect, the hard work begins. The animal needs to quickly be field dressed and the carcass cooled. My hunting partner and I work quickly to accomplish our tasks. One usually does the cutting work, one the lifting and holding. Some might call it grisly, but I don’t think either of us feels that way. There is to me a metaphysical component to the entire process, from sighting up and seeing the animal in the scope, through this stage when the animal’s insides are still warm, and on through mindful preparation and consumption of the animal’s meat. Through me, the animal’s energy continues. This personal connection to the life behind my food has led me to consider more deeply the environmental and ethical issues behind all of my food choices, especially meat.
When we first began hunting, we used a local proprietor for butchering. In recent years, especially during the pandemic, we’ve butchered the carcasses ourselves. My goodness, what a lot of work that is. Weather allowing (cool temperatures, but not freezing), we pack the body cavity with ice jugs, truss it up with rope to keep critters out, and hang it. This aging, just as in beef, improves flavor and texture. Otherwise, we quarter the animal and pack it in a cooler with ice to age, then spend the better part of another day cutting it up into steaks, roasts, shanks, ground, etc. The most sought-after cuts are the backstrap (along either side of the spine on the outside of the animal) and the tenderloins, which run inside the body cavity on either side of the spine. Venison can be used almost anywhere you would use beef or lamb. I prefer it marinated (see my go-to recipe below).
My partner and I have made lots of sausage with venison. It makes great ground meat as well. Because venison is so lean, it’s best to get some beef and/or pork fat to process with it for sausage or ground meat. I also enjoy braised venison shanks. These profit from long, low, slow cooking until the shank falls apart and all the connective tissue, of which there is a lot, completely liquefies.
Hunting is accessible to anyone who wants to become involved. For more info see the NYSDEC website. Before you can apply for a hunting license (usually in early August, now online), you must take a hunter safety course. My course had an online section with tests for each chapter followed by a one-day in-person course consisting of review and hands-on activities. Info on safety courses can also be found on the DEC website. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: hunters MUST be educated in firearm safety and marksmanship. Most rod and gun clubs offer all one could need with kindness, patience and enthusiasm.
As I alluded to above, I favor a marinade I found in Joy of Cooking (the first edition circa 1964) on my late mother’s bookshelf many years ago. This marinade is for Lamb or Game and yields about a cup (my advice and substitutions noted parenthetically):
Process into a smooth slurry, pour over meat, then let marinate overnight in a covered dish in the fridge. Bring to room temperature on the countertop and remove most of the marinade from the meat before grilling. This marinade is good on backstrap, tenderloin, and steaks. Don’t overcook venison in general, especially those prime cuts of backstrap and tenderloin.
Happy hunting, and happy eating.