This is the fourth post in a series about hunting for food -- truly meeting your meat. Also check out the earlier posts from the series, An Unsuccessful Pheasant Hunt, Duck Hunting, and Squirrel Hunting with Mom.
I have been deer hunting since I was twelve years old. The first few years, my dad and grandfather would take me along on their deer hunting trips and all I was allowed to do was help walk fields and sit in the truck with my grandfather. I shot my first deer when I was fourteen, and like many hunters I remember the details of that first kill like it was yesterday.
Looking back on it, I am a little embarrassed at how I got my first deer. I was sitting in my grandfather’s Suburban listening to the Minnesota Gophers Football game. It was just before dark and we were waiting for all the others in our hunting party to meet up with us. Three deer came walking out of the woods about 75 yards away from us and I asked my grandpa if I should shoot one, and he said yes. I slid out of the truck as quietly as I could and took aim on the first one I saw. Moments later I was standing over my first deer, a small doe and I couldn’t have been prouder. In my eyes I was one of the guys; I had just done something that all the men in my life had done, and I had now joined their ranks.
It is hard for me to believe that my first deer was almost 24 years ago. I have been going to the same place every year and hunting with the same people for most of that time. My family had cabins on Leech Lake and one of our neighbors at the lake was the Obergs. The Obergs live near Warren, MN, which is about 30 miles east of Grand Forks, ND; they are farmers and let us hunt on their property. Over the years the land has pretty much stayed the same, mostly CRP with a few swamps and stands of trees mixed in. The way we have hunted that land has changed over the years. When I was 13-14 years old, I remember sitting on a large rock pile in the middle of a field. What I didn’t know back then was that sitting on a rock when it is 15 degrees outside isn’t very smart, because it will suck the heat right out of you. There aren’t a lot of trees up there so the Obergs would build elevated stands to hunt out of. Some of the first stands were old fuel tank stands that they would build a wood frame box on top of. The stands have evolved since then and have taken on the feel of an ice house, fully equipped with wall mounted heaters, sliding windows, and swivel chairs.
I have had a lot of success hunting at the Obergs, and over the years the people that I have brought with me have had a lot of success as well. But If I never shot another dear at the Obergs I would still go back year after year. In Minnesota, there are plenty of opportunities to get out and shoot a deer. With the archery season lasting from September to the end of December, the firearms season in November, and the muzzleloader season in late November early December, there are lots of options. I don’t go to the Obergs primarily to hunt – I could go anywhere for that; I go to the Obergs because hunting is about more than just going out and shooting something. It’s about the camaraderie of big family meals out on the farm and seeing old friends and catching up. Deer hunting is just the excuse we need to get together.
This year was a very special year in many ways. For one, James Oberg returned from Afghanistan after a six-month deployment. Secondly, this year was also the first year my mom joined us for the hunt. Mom went squirrel hunting with me back in September and had such a good time that she wanted to try deer hunting. She has been taking her hunter’s safety course online and spent a day at the range shooting her rifle and getting comfortable shooting.
The deer season opened up on November 3rd and the area we were hunting stays open until November 11th. Mom and I left on Friday afternoon along with my brother Kevin and brother-in-law Matt. It took us about seven hours to get up to the hotel in Warren, MN because of traffic and also because we ran into some snow when we got north of Crookston, MN. It was a really funny drive because I don’t know that I have ever seen my mother so giddy in her life. She was nervous and excited and asked a lot of questions. We arrived at the hotel around 12:30 in the morning and went right to bed; we were getting up at 5 a.m. to head out to the field, so we needed to get some sleep.
Opening morning, Mom and I sat in a pop up blind, which is like a small tent with windows to shoot out of. It was still snowing and there was a slight breeze, which always makes things a little colder. As we sat overlooking a field of winter wheat, Mom asked me what that sound was. I told her it was the noise of sand hill cranes; when the sun came up there were hundreds of sand hill cranes on the far end of the field, and they all took flight at the same time. It was a very impressive sight. Mom and I sat in the pop up until about 10:30, at which point we still hadn’t seen anything that looked like a deer, and we were just about too cold to sit any longer.
We met up with Matt and Kev and another friend of mine, Andy, and his daughter Audrey. We formulated a plan and decided we would walk a small patch of trees and see if we could push some deer out of it. Our plan didn’t end up working, as there were no deer in the woods. We decided to go back out into the stands and sit until dark, only this time Mom was going to sit in one of the stands with Kev, while Matt and I would go to another stand. This resulted in the same thing the morning did, no deer. Kev and Mom saw a few but they were too far away to get a shot. Matt and I saw three deer from our stand, but they were easily 1500 yards away. Matt wanted to try to stalk up on them and did a pretty good job of getting about 300 yards away, but then he missed his shot.
After the first day we hadn’t seen very many deer, but we had another day to try. That night we went out to Dorothy’s place and had a nice time catching up with everyone. Mom hadn’t seen some of the Obergs since my grandparents sold their cabin, so it was a lot of fun for her to catch up. We headed back to the hotel and decided that Mom and I were going out early the next morning to a different stand and would try our luck there.
The next morning, Mom and I headed out and sat in one of the stands. It was a beautiful clear morning. As the sun came up, we were once again greeted by several hundred sand hill cranes, and as the morning went on, a migrating flock of about a 1000 birds came flying over. We only saw a few deer that morning, and they were too far out of range for us to get a shot. But then I got a text from James Oberg suggesting that Mom and I sit in his stand that afternoon, as they had been seeing lots of deer over there.
Mom and I headed out to James’s stand around 3:00 pm. Around 4:45 pm we started to see a few deer coming out into the field. Then we saw two of the bucks we had been told about. I told Mom that if she felt comfortable and wanted to take a shot, now would be a good time. I told her that when she was ready to let me know, and I would shoot at the second buck right after she shot at the first buck.
Mom said she was ready and took the shot, and as soon as I heard her shot I pulled the trigger on my own gun. But then, click, my gun didn’t fire, I opened the action and realized that I had forgotten to load my gun. I quickly loaded a bullet and found the second buck as it was running for the woods. I took my shot and watched the deer go down. Then Mom said to me, “I missed mine,” and so I looked for it and found it in my scope, But just as I was about to pull the trigger, it fell over. I looked at my mom and told her that she didn’t miss, but I don’t think she believed she got the deer until she actually saw it. Mom shot a big body deer with a small 4 point at 175 yards, and the bullet went right through both lungs and the heart. It was a perfect shot; the deer ran for about 20 yards and fell over. It was an amazing hunt to share with my mom. I shot a small six point buck, but I would have been just as happy if Mom was the only one to get a deer that day.
We brought the deer home and I showed Mom how to butcher a deer. It took us about an hour and we got it all wrapped and packaged for her freezer. It was one of the most amazing hunts I have ever been on. Mom is already talking about buying her own gun and would like to try turkey hunting next. I think I got another person hooked.
There are many beliefs about how you should care for your venison after it is shot. Many people take it to a butcher and have it done for them. I am an advocate for doing the butchering yourself. It is not a difficult skill to learn, and I find it to be almost as rewarding as shooting the deer. I also believe that processing your own deer is probably the most important thing you can do to make you venison taste good. People who have eaten venison and had a bad piece of meat that tasted “gamey” usually are hesitant to try it a second time. I believe that if you care for your meat properly and trim away the blood clots and most of the fat and connective tissue, you will always end up with sweet tasting tender meat.
I have been butchering my own deer for 15 years and in that time, I have never had anyone tell me that my venison tastes “gamey,” and I believe that is because of the way I take care of my venison. I am not a big fan of hanging my deer for long periods of time. I have been told that I should hang my deer for at least 3 days and up to 9 days. Every deer I shoot is butchered and in the freezer within 2 days of shooting it and sometimes not even that long. The other thing I do that I think helps a lot is that I trim away a lot of the fat. Fat goes bad quickly and can taint the flavor of the venison. I may leave a small amount of fat on any meat that I intend on grinding, but I like to trim away most of the fat from my roasts, steaks and chops.
Venison can be a bit tricky to cook if you have never cooked it before. The best advice I can give to cook venison right is to not overcook it. Because venison is so lean, it will dry out very quickly if you overcook it. Even when you braise venison, it can take on a dry stringy texture because it doesn’t have a lot of fat. I usually do two different things when cooking venison. First, if you roast it or grill it, don’t overcook it, 135-140 degrees is all you need to get it to. Second, if you are going to cook it in a stew or in a slow cooker, add some fat – a little bacon or some salt pork can go a long way to keeping your venison from getting string and tough.
Over the years, I've cooked venison many ways, including venison curry, venison burgers, venison backstrap with coffee-spice rub, and pickled venison heart. One of my favorite ways to eat venison is to roast it in the oven with juniper and garlic and to serve in with a Rye whiskey cream sauce. It is remarkably easy and delicious.
Juniper Roasted Venison Loin with Rye Whiskey Cream Sauce
1 pound piece of venison backstrap
6-8 juniper berries
2 cloves garlic
½ tsp black pepper corns
1 tsp salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. In a mortar and pestle mash together the garlic, juniper, salt, black pepper, and oil. Rub this mixture onto the venison loin and let sit for 30 minutes.
2. In an oven-proof pan over medium-high heat, sear the loin for 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a 375 degree oven and roast for about 10 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads 135.
3. Take the loin out of the oven and let it rest for ten minutes. The internal temp will continue to rise to about 145.
4. Slice the loin and serve with cream sauce and a side of your choice (I like roasted potatoes).
For the Cream sauce:
Place the pan you roasted the loin in back on the stove top over medium heat and deglaze the pan with 2 tablespoons rye whiskey (bourbon, brandy, cognac all work, as well). Add 1 cup heavy cream and reduce sauce until it thickens up, then salt and pepper to taste.
Jamie Carlson lives in Burnsville, MN with his wife, Amanda, and their two kids Eleanor and Charlie. He works as an Rn at the Minneapolis VA hospital. He enjoys hunting, fishing, foraging, and, of course, cooking. He believes that all food can be tasty if it is prepared with care, and he writes about his adventures cooking everything from Pickled Venison Heart to Roasted Dove on his food blog, You Have to Cook it Right. Follow him at @youcookitright. His last post for SGT was Hunting for Dinner: An Unsuccessful Pheasant Hunt.