How can you make sure the deer you’ve harvested will be fit to eat by the time you get it home or to the processor?

This year’s deer harvest is apparently ahead of 2012’s, which was another record-buster. According to Mike and Jim Flowers of Flowers’ Garden Center and Deer Processing in Nashville, not only are experienced hunters bringing in more deer, but more novice hunters are getting out into the field, too. As the U.S. recession stretches on, venison is once again becoming a regular part of many Tennessee families’ diet.

One average-size deer will produce several roasts and sausages plus 40 steaks—60 if you count the backstrap. Some families prefer to have their venison processed as ground meat (mixed with about 10% beef fat) for burgers, or lean ground venison for chili and spaghetti sauce. However it’s cut and cooked, the taste of venison can be excellent—if the meat is properly cared for from the outset.

It’s a shame, but a number of the deer taken by young and inexperienced hunters are ruined for human consumption because the hunters simply didn’t know how to care for their deer in the field.

Flowers' Garden Center and Deer ProcessingWe want to help them do a better job. On last week’s Southern Woods and Waters, Mike Flowers and I offered the following advice for a new person, just into hunting.

The first step in preserving your venison takes place before you leave home. You’d be surprised at how many hunters bring a deer in to Flowers’ to be processed that looks like it was butchered with a broken piece of glass or rusty can opener! Some hunters try to field dress a deer after dusk by match light using a dull pocketknife. Go into the field expecting to harvest a deer and have the right tools to do a good job.

  1. A sharp knife suitable for slitting hide and field-dressing the carcass
  2. A flashlight, preferable a head-lamp, with fresh batteries
  3. Shoulder-length Game Cleaning gloves that go over your hands and sleeves to protect your clothes and the meat. ($11.99 per pack including 6 pair latex gloves at Bass Pro Shops.) Rubber gloves are no joke; any small cut or nick on your hands and arms can be an entry point for life-threatening infection, as they were for a friend of Mike’s, who now uses the gloves unfailingly. I buy a dozen of these at the beginning of each season, hopeful that I’ll have a chance to use them all.
  4. Plastic zip-seal, freezer-grade poly bags for the deer’s liver and other organs you wish to keep.
  5. Black pepper. Sprinkle this generously around the deer’s eyes, nostrils and mouth, any wounds and cuts, and in and around the open body cavity to repel flies. This really work! For some reason flies can’t stand being around the stuff.
  6. A tarp for dragging the carcass back to your vehicle.

Once you or your youngster take the shot, the work of preserving the venison begins. The proper thing to do is to wait 30-45 minutes after the shot. Give the deer a chance to lie down and expire. If you immediately rush over to where the animal was when you shot it, you may panic it and send it running, which can make finding and retrieving it a challenge.

By examining blood splatters on the ground and leaves, determine where the bullet struck. Blood color indicates of the amount of time you have to wait. Frothy, pink blood indicates a lung shot. Bright, red blood comes from muscle or a heart shot. Dark, red blood indicates a liver shot. If you think you made a back hit, striking the liver, the deer is going to take considerable time to expire. Let the animal rest for 7 hours or more to give it time to die before you pursue it.

In Tennessee you have 24 hours to report your deer, but tag it immediately. You can do so on your cell phone now. Tennessee law is that it’s not in your possession until you have the tag on it. A tear-away tag has to be attached to the deer to make it yours.

In area L you can have up to three deer sharing only one tag. Get them together, fill in the three lines on the tag, hang it on one deer, and call them in together.

The main thing is, field dress the deer just as soon as you find it. Regrettably, some deer brought in to Flowers’ are past the point of processing. Most times that’s because it was not field dressed quick enough. Flowers’ Deer Processing won’t process anything that looks “iffy.” We ask ourselves, “Would we eat it?? If not, we won’t waste your money processing it. If we wouldn’t eat it, it goes in the bone barrel; we won’t process it.

You can find detailed instructions and videos on how to field dress a deer many places on the Internet. Just a couple points to make about this: If you desire a neck or shoulder mount, slit the hide only to the sternum so as not to ruin the cape. And be careful about dragging the carcass out of the woods. You can scrape the hair right off a shoulder by dragging it along the ground.That’s why I suggest packing a tarp.

If the weather is above freezing—and as I write this our weekend low is about 45 degrees—then rinse out the body cavity and all cut areas with clean water from a hose pipe. Creek or pond water may look clean, but it has bacteria that will infect and ruin the meat.

If the weather is above freezing and you can’t take the deer immediately to a processor, stuff the body cavity with ice. Also lash a bag between the back legs to rapidly cool and preserve the back quarters and hams. The best-tasting venison is that which was cooled as quick as possible. If you have a tarp or old blanket, cover the carcass to shelter it from the sun, insulate it and keep flies from getting to it.

Keep the meat clean of dirt and debris. Some hunters have the mistaken notion that if they don’t have ice or other means to protect the meat, that cedar bark or even dirt rubbed on the meat will protect it from flies. Don’t believe it! Not only does that make cleanup a mess later on, but anything that’s touching the meat is, in effect, marinating the meat. The venison will take on a flavor that no amount of seasoning can cover. If you’ve ever gut-shot a deer, you know what I’m talking about.

Three more tips to pass along: If you shoot a buck with antlers in velvet, get them in the freezer as quickly as possible.

Second, take advantage of Tennessee’s Passive Road Kill law (TCA 70-4-115). If you hit a deer with your car or come upon a fresh road kill, process it exactly the same way as one you shoot. In road kills, usually there’s very little bruised meat; it’s antlers, heads, and legs that take the most damage. However, Mike and Jim Flowers will inspect the carcass and throw away the bruised meat, so that shouldn’t be a concern.

Not a hunter? You don’t need a license or tag to claim a fresh road kill, but you still need to report the kill to TWRA or local law enforcement within 48 hours to legally possess it. If you claim a road-killed deer during hunting season you can take it to Flowers for processing. They don’t offer deer processing all year long; just during Tennessee’s deer season.

Third, share with others in need. If you don’t want or need the venison, bring it in to Flowers and they’ll process the deer and donate the venison to Hunters for the Hungry, a program administered in our state by Tennessee Wildlife Federation. TNWF gets the meat to individuals and charities such as Room at the Inn. If you know a family in need of meat, contact TNWF, not Flowers or another processor.

Just about everyone who brings in an average-sized deer donates a pack or two of burgers to Hunters for the Hungry. Last year Flowers and the hunters they serve donated over two tons of venison to TNWF by doing that. If you bring in a deer to donate, Flower’s is donating the processing fee for the first hundred. After that, Flowers charges just a $50 processing fee per donated deer carcass.

No deer to donate? Anyone can donate funds to TNWF to help defray costs in support of this program. Go to the TNWF website (http://www.tnwf.org/our-programs/hunters-for-the-hungry) to learn more and to donate to Hunters for the Hungry. There’s a “Donate” button right at the top of the home page.

In the middle Tennessee area, it’s great to know we have a processor that’s honest and truthful with us, and Flowers’ Deer Processing is just that. Not only will they do a good job with your venison but will tell you straight up if it’s not fit to eat. You can find them at:

Flowers’ Garden Center and Deer Processing
4550 Eatons Creek Road
Nashville, TN 37218
(615) 876-8493
http://flowers-farms.com/