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Information > Hunting & Fishing

From Field to Freezer by Duane72


TalkHunting Mag:
When hunting, we often spend a great amount of time on preparation. We scout, we plant, we study, we track, we think, we analyze, fantasize, and practice. Many of us not just for the excitement and joy of the hunt, but also the anticipation of bringing home meat for the freezer. But what happens when all the preparation pays off? For most of us, I think it’s safe to say, it’s some of the lesser things we think about when hunting. Not always the more enjoyable aspects of hunting, but without a doubt just as important as the preparation and enjoyment of the hunt is the process of getting the game from the field to the freezer. Here are some things to consider.

After the Shot

One of the first things you should consider after harvesting an animal is that “blood rushes to the wound”. It’s the same principle as when we get a cut or gash and our body naturally sends a heavy flow of blood to the wound for the platelets to create a clot. It’s a natural process in mammals when there is a wound. If you have processed or seen an animal processed you have seen the “blood shot” tissue surrounding the wound. It’s often a gel consistency and can range from a dark red to light pink in color and sometimes almost black with age. That’s the natural process of the body trying to heal itself. Those are the sections of meat we often cut around and throw away because they are quick to spoil. The more blood left in the meat, the more chance there is of spoiling to occur more quickly. This is one reason why we hang the animal while aging it, discussed later, and why it is considered best to hang it from the hind legs. Gravity will pull the blood out of the body through or into to the extremities of the neck where the least amount of meat will be used, saving the better sections of meat in the hind quarters.

Side note: Shot Placement As a side note, “blood rushes to the wound” is something to consider in shot placement. I am not an avid fan of shoulder shots for that reason. I hate to lose the meat. Now there’s no moral push behind it, and I certainly don’t put down those that prefer it. There are some good reasons out there that I have been given for shoulder shots, such as less tracking in densely wooded areas, etc. Better to lose some meat than the animal altogether. But it is just something to consider when making the shot. Neck shots are another option as well. I have taken several deer by neck shots, though I do try to shoot as close to the head as I can to avoid meat loss. The thing to remember is that vitals shots are the only ones that will expel the majority of the blood from the animal. With larger game animals especially, a good heart and lung shot will allow the blood to be pumped from the animal during its run. Those blood trails are not just good for tracking, but good for the resulting curing and consuming of the meat. Something you may not have considered before.


The second thing to consider after harvesting an animal is heat. Once the blood stops flowing through the animal, the resulting lack of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues allows the decaying process to begin. This is called spoiling as bacteria, enzymes, and microorganisms immediately begin to breakdown tissue. Warmer temperatures encourage this spoiling and also create more ideal conditions for the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, which can cause food borne illnesses. For these reasons it is critical to get the core temperature of the animal down as quickly as possible. Cooler temperatures delay or slow the spoiling process and growth of microorganisms, sparing the meat, the taste of your meal, and your health!

The quickest way to begin cooling the animal down once harvested is field dressing. I had considered including field dressing methods, but with as many videos and how-tos there are online that can give you good information on field dressing, or gutting as it is also called; I opted to leave those out. Check your state Environmental Management website as well as they often have how-tos for field dressing various game animals. Look for specific methods of field dressing for the game animal you are hunting, though many are dressed in much the same way. One thing to consider in all cases as a good suggestion is to prop the animal’s chest or body cavity open using a stick, allowing the air to enter and the heat to be released from the body. You want to cool down the harvested animal as quickly as possible.


Some people call it conditioning, some people call it aging, but in either case it is the same. Aging the meat involves hanging or storing the meat in a cool place for a given length of time. The purpose of aging is to allow the enzymes, found naturally in the meat, to begin to break down the fibers which result in a more tender, and sometimes more flavorful meat. The length of time which the meat is hung or stored depends on a few different factors.

The most important factors to consider are temperature and humidity. If the outside temperature is no more than 45F degrees, then you have ready access to a cool place for aging, but be careful as you don't want the meat to freeze either. Warmer outside temperatures require the use of a walk-in cooler, or even a refrigerator depending on the size of the game. You may also quarter larger game and debone it if necessary to fit it in a refrigerator. The lack of access to a cool storage area may necessitate the immediate processing of the animal. Some people process game immediately because they prefer the taste of the meat less aged. Less or no aging is not harmful, but just remember warm temperatures can be destructive and unhealthy as we discussed earlier, so cool it or process it. Prolonged exposure to moisture, especially at warmer temperatures, will aid the spoiling process. In humid conditions frequently wipe the carcass or meat down with a dry towel. Do not store the meat for long periods in humid conditions if at all possible.

The age of the harvested animal can also be a factor in the length of time needed to age the meat. Younger animals are often naturally more tender than older ones. Their muscles are not as matured and lack the degree of collagen, or connective tissue, that older animals have. The older they are the more the collagen resists breaking down as well, so longer aging times are needed to make the meat more tender.

One final factor I try to consider is the stress of the animal at the time of harvesting. “Stress” can seem very broad, but in general it is the idea of the animal being excited or rushed with adrenaline and/or testosterone at the time of kill. Adrenaline can come from the animal being chased prior to harvesting, or extensive run after a bad shot. As for testosterone, we all know that buck with the swollen neck has plenty of it. When harvesting a buck or other large game animal in rut, it’s often better to let it hang at least 5 to 6 days to allow the enzymes to have time to work against the testosterone flooded tissues as long as you have that cool place to hang it.


Once the meat has been aged, or if the temperatures don’t allow for it, it’s time for processing. If you have your game processed by a butcher, you may be all done other than throwing it in the freezer. Once again, there are many videos, online resources, and books available to help you with the specific details of how to process, or butcher, your game. So for this article I will stick to the cautions and considerations of safely handling it.

If you do it yourself, or if you have to wrap it yourself, always start with a clean, sanitary surface. All the safe handling in the field and storage can be ruined if the meat picks up bacteria from the surface you process it on. Sanitize the counter top, work bench, or picnic table and consider spreading freezer paper if necessary. Wash your hands good before and after the process as well. If you use freezer paper or zip-style freezer bags, be sure to seal them as well as you can. I personally love vacuum sealing the meat I bring home. It removes a majority of the air from the package and really helps in preventing freezer burn and spoiling, which allows you to store the meat longer in the freezer as well. Proper date labeling, and rotating the contents of the freezer is important also to prevent using the newer additions to your freezer before the older ones. You’d hate to throw out a bunch of meat you got at the beginning of last season because it went bad hiding under all that meat you added during a good end-of-season hunt.

How we handle our harvested game, from the moment of the shot to the time it enters the freezer can directly affect the taste, condition, and health of the meat we put on our table. The work of field to freezer is not always pleasant, but it's vital to a successful hunt.



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