Close your eyes and you can almost see it. You have the right gear in the right place at the right time. The deer of your dreams steps through the brush right in front of you. You steady your aim and squeeze the trigger, and when the smoke clears that once-in-a-lifetime whitetail is lying motionless on the ground.
What you do next in the field can make all the difference at the table.
Preparing the venison starts with preparing the deer for the processing center or your own bone saw. The ways in which a hunter field dresses and transports the carcass may determine whether the cook serves a delicious venison entree or sour, smelly meat.
"Deer are killed under not the best sanitary conditions in the world," said Kip Padgelek of Kip's Deer Processing in Carnegie. "The quality of the meat starts with the hunter. ... There's no such thing as gamey tasting deer. The only reason it would be like that is if it was improperly cleaned or temperature damaged."
Several of the most common mistakes made by deer hunters occur between pulling the trigger and pulling the carcass out of the vehicle.
Jim Landis of Clare's Deer Processing in Elizabeth said hunters should decide before entering the woods "whether they want meat or antlers."
"In heavy rut, bucks have a lot of testosterone running through them," he said. "There's hardly any fat in bucks this time of year. The muscles are tense and solid, almost like a weight-lifter deer. Hormones running through their system really do make the meat tougher and gamey flavored. The does have been packing on the pounds to survive winter and breed, and their meat tastes much better."
Once the deer hits the ground, the real work begins. When Padgelek says "make sure you get all the entrails out," he means everything.
"Every bit between the pelvic bones. All the blood in there. Get the heart and liver out. Reach up into the chest cavity. All the little bits of bone fragments, pieces of hair, leaves and dirt -- everything," he said. "Anything that's left in there starts to decay immediately, and when it touches the meat it will taint the meat. There's nothing I can do to make it taste better if it's not cleaned out well in the field."
"A lot of guys bring in deer that still have the urine sacks and anus still on there," said Landis. "That meat around there, that's where steaks come from. Get it out of there, leave that in the field."
Some hunters think they're helping the butcher by cutting off the multiple scent glands. Bad move.
"If you get that on your hands or your knife -- and most likely, you will -- you'll just spread it all over everything," said Landis. "Don't touch [scent glands]. Just leave those for [the butcher] to remove."
There are several schools of thought regarding disposition of the aitchbone, the broad pelvic bone with a donut hole that holds the lower intestines. Back in the day, every deer pack included a hatchet for hacking through the aitchbone, but most modern deer processors say there's a better way.
"You smash that bone, break it into pieces, or miss and hit the meat, and you'll damage the steak meat," said Landis. "I wouldn't break the aitchbone. If you cut it with a knife from the inside and from the outside, everything pulls right out."
"I definitely wouldn't use an ax," said Padgelek. "Use a wire saw -- two rings on either end for your fingers, and little blades on the wire. It gets in there and cuts that bone easily. Butt Out works, or another tool for field dressing a deer, but you can take a good sharp small knife and cut a circle from the back right against the bone and pull that right out. Any way is fine, as long as you get it out of there."
Clean the knife often as you move from one area to the next, and use a bottle of water to wash blood and bits out of the carcass.
The greatest threat to venison is temperature. Nothing spoils deer meat like a long drag-out on a warm day, or triumphantly parading the carcass all afternoon in the back of a pickup truck. Some hunters hang a deer for a day or two to "tenderize" it before butchering. Bad move, say the people who carve up deer for a living.
"When butchers hang cattle or pigs, they're hanging them in a refrigerator with a constant temperature," said Padgelek. "You hang a deer outside with its skin on, the temperature goes up and down -- it's not the best thing for the deer meat."
To insure that improper temperature control doesn't negatively impact quality control, this year Kip's Deer Processing instituted a new policy.
"We no longer take deer recovered the next day after shooting," said Padgelek. "When someone shoots a deer and can't get to it until the next day, even in cold temperatures it stays warm for a long period of time. That meat has already absorbed a lot of oxygen, and we can't get that out of the deer. For the sake of our reputation, we can't take deer that have been laying out over night."
After the drag, it's smart to have a bag or two of ice in a cooler. Landis recommends putting a bag between the deer's legs and another in the abdominal cavity against the spine to keep the largest meat masses cool during the drive directly to the processing center.
Padgelek, Landis and most deer processors offer customers options beyond the standard cuts. If it's anything other than a 1- to 3-year-old doe -- generally the tastiest whitetails -- consider having the meat processed or flavored. Increasingly, successful hunters are ordering deer dogs or brats, trail baloney, Canadian bacon, jerky or venison sticks as well as ground meat. Many processing centers offer unique house specialities.
"But we can only do so much," said Landis. "It all starts with what the hunter does before we get it."
Kip's Deer Processing, 412-279-6527. Clare's Deer Processing, 412-805-3710.