The Whole Deer

Ten things to do with the animal you just took.

Whitetail Buck stands proudly on a ridge
Whitetail Buck stands proudly on a ridge
Whitetail Buck stands proudly on a ridgeField & Stream Online Editors

A Native American hunter of the 18th century truly appreciated what he killed. Everything would be eaten-_all _the meat, plus the heart and liver. The brains were used for tanning hides, and the hides were used for clothing. The antlers were used to make tools, and the hooves were boiled to make glue. Even the bones were cracked for their marrow. We have it easier today, but we can still take a lesson from our "primitive" forebears.

1. Eat the heart

Medieval nobles helped themselves to the finer cuts of the stag, leaving the "umbles"-the heart, liver, and entrails-to the servants. Thus was born the term humble pie, but the expression does a disservice to a complex and exquisite meat-the fresh heart of the deer. It is lean, dense muscle, easy to clean and easy to prepare.

Heart meat should be eaten within a day or two. To clean, split the heart in half and remove all veins, arteries, valves, and fat. (A word of caution is in order: Check the meat for bullet fragments before cooking. Chomping down on a bullet jacket is unforgettable.) Rinse well under cool running water. Now you can simply slice the meat thinly, roll it in flour, and fry it fast and medium-rare. Or give the heart the royal treatment: Dice it into 1-inch cubes and saut¿¿ in butter with four strips of bacon and one diced onion. Add 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup red wine, and 11/2 cups peeled, diced tomatoes. Cover and simmer for 90 minutes, then stir in 1/2 cup sour cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve over egg noodles.

2. Make rattling antlers

You'll need a set of points with three to four tines on each side. Cut off the brow tines so you won't bash your thumbs, and the tips so you don't gore yourself. Sand or rasp away sharp edges or burrs. Drill a small hole at the base of each antler. (Wear a face mask whenever drilling or cutting bone and antler.) Thread the end of a 3-foot-long piece of black parachute cord through each hole and tie a stopper knot at each end. The week before opening day, toss the antlers into water to replenish lost moisture. And paint a tine or two blaze orange.

3. Preserve and dye bucktail for streamers

With a sharp knife, split the underside of the tail for several inches toward the tip, then roll the hide back, grasp the exposed tailbone firmly, and pull out the bone. Split the tail the rest of the way and scrape away all fat. If you plan on tying flies in the next few weeks, a generous rubbing of salt is all that's needed for a quick cure. For longer storage, pour Borax powder onto the flesh side and grind it in. Let the tail cure for a week or two.

To color it, soak it overnight in a bath of soapy water, then rinse thoroughly half a dozen times to remove all soap residue. When the hide and fur have dried completely, it's ready for the dye vat. Rit Dye is fine for starters; simmer the solution and tails over low heat with a tablespoon of vinegar to help set the color, then rinse, dry, and head for the fly vise.

4. Green-score the rack

To gain entry into the Boone and Crockett record book, your deer must be measured by an official B&C; scorer after a 60-day drying period. But you can get your own score by using any measuring tape. It's called green scoring, and here's the formula for a typical whitetail. (All measurements are to the nearest 1/8 inch.)

Measure the length of the longer main beam. Then, the inside spread of the main beams; if this is less than or equal to your previous notation, it's your first number to keep. But if it is greater, discard it and use the original figure instead. Call whichever you retain.

For each antler, add up the following: length of main beam; length of each normal point (the beam tip counts as a point, but do not include its length in your measurements here); the circumference at the smallest place between the burr and the first point; a the circumferences at the smallest places between the first and second, second and third, and third and fourth points (or halfway between the third point and beam tip). Add the two antler totals together to get B. Take_ A_ plus B to get your gross subtotal, C.

Now for the deductions: Take the differences between the corresponding measurements of each antler, i.e., beam and point lengths, and the various circumferences. For example, if the right beam is 2 inches longer than the left one, write down that amount. Do the same for each individual measure, and total them. To this figure, add the lengths of all abnormal points-those tines that don't project from the top of the main beam, or that don't have a matching tine on the other antler. This is D. Subtract D from C for the score.

5. Make your own cover scent

Here's how Russ Carman, a professional trapping-lure maker for 35 years, goes about it: To collect urine while field-dressing your buck, puncture the bladder and fill a small glass bottle with the stuff. Store it in the freezer. Cut off the tarsal glands and trim everything away, leaving only the dark, malodorous centers. Chop these into small pieces-hide and hair together-and pack it into the bottom of a small glass bottle. Cover it with propylene glycol and keep the resulting solution in a warm place for three to four months-the top of a water heater is perfect.

A day or two before you hit the woods, strain out the solids and mix in a dollop of thawed urine. "The volatile urine activates the tarsal tincture," Carman explains, "and that's as good a deer scent as there is in the world."

6. Take the tenderloins

These are the long fillets that run parallel to the deer's backbone inside the rib cage, under the saddle. They are the most tender cuts and deserve the most tender care. All they need is a sharp knife to remove them; a quick rinse; a trip into a plastic baggie fast, to prevent drying. Besides that, they simply call to be sliced into medallions, pan-seared in real butter seasoned with black pepper and rosemary, and eaten with the fingers.

7. Make buttons, zipper pulls

Racks too small to show off are sized perfectly for handmade buttons and zipper pulls. For a button, use a hacksaw to cut off a tine at the diameter you need. Using the tag end of the tine as a handle, sand the cut surface, first with 80-grit sandpaper, and then 120-grit. Next, saw off a disk about 3/16 inch thick, and buff the other side. Drill thread holes with a 3/32-inch bit, spacing the holes evenly.

To make a zipper pull, saw off a tine about an inch long. Smooth the surface with sandpaper and drill a small hole into the center of the antler, about 1/2 inch deep. Fill this with a few drops of five-minute epoxy, and thread a small screw eye into the hole. Attach it to the zipper with a small loop of rawhide or ribbon.

8. Tan the hide

Tanning a deer hide with the hair on is work, but manageable. Here's the drill: Stretch the skin over a two-by-six. With a dull knife held at 90 degrees to the surface, scrape off all remaining muscle, sinew, and membrane. Rub copious amounts of non-iodized salt into the flesh side, roll it up, toss it in a plastic bag, and put it in the freezer. Two to three days later, let it thaw, flesh it again, and wash out the salt.

Prepare a tanning solution of 4 gallons of water, 1 pound of granulated alum, and 1 pound of salt. Soak the hide for a week, stirring once a day.

Remove it from the tanning bath and squeeze it dry. Lather the flesh side with neat's-foot oil; let this soak in for a few hours. Stretch the wet hide over a hard, straight edge such as a sawhorse or table, and work it back and forth, as hard as you can, to soften it. Use a rounded dowel or butter-knife handle for the hard-to-reach corners. If you think you're finished in less than eight hours, you're not.

9. Roast a haunch

The 17th-century poet and soldier of fortune Gervase Markham had this advice: "Stick it with cloves all over on the outside using lard, either with Mutton lard, or Pork lard, but Mutton is the best. Then spit it and roast it by a good soaking fire, then take Vinegar, bread crumbs, and some of the gravy, which comes from the Venison, and boil them well in a dish. Then season it with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and salt, and serve the Venison fourth upon the sauce when it is roasted enough." Of course, Markham was writing in the England of 1615, when six servants were assigned to every respectable kitchen.

Here's an easier way: Cut the shank off the hind leg of a dressed deer and bone out the haunch. Stuff the bone cavity with a 50-50 mixture of diced dried cherries and toasted pecans. Tie it with kitchen twine. Roll it in a spice rub made of 3 tablespoons each of ground cumin and brown sugar; 3 teaspoons each of ground ginger and garlic powder; and 2 teaspoons each of ground red pepper and Chinese five-spice powder. Roast it at 350 degrees until a meat thermometer reads 140 degrees (rare) to 160 degrees (medium). (If you're looking for an imaginative main course for Christmas dinner, you can't do better.) Slice and bask in your own glory.

10. Pay homage

Tipping your hat-and heart-to the spirit of the animal is an ancient tradition found in hunting cultures all over the world.

It occurs in such diverse places as Germany and the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, where the I-Kang tribesmen apologize to the animal and thank it even as they are tracking it down to kill it.

In its simplest form, homage can take the form of a prayer. James Swan, filmmaker and author of "The Sacred Art of Hunting," knows of hunters who recite Ecclesiastes (the "time for everything" passage of Scripture) at the site of a kill.

Another level of tribute involves giving something up in return. Native Americans often dropped cornmeal by the bodies of the game they took, which according to Swan "sprang from the belief that sacrifice on the hunter's part honors the spirit of nature." Europe has its "last bite" or "last sprig" tradition. As the hunter approaches the downed animal, he breaks off a sprig of green growth. Half of it goes into the animal's mouth. The remaining piece is dipped in the animal's blood and fastened to the hunter's hat. More contemporary ideas include burying the heart of the deer (if you choose to ignore the first item on this list) to acknowledge that the wild essence of the animal stays in the woods, or planting a tree for each deer killed. It's your choice, because as Swan says, "It's more about the attitude than the action." h corners. If you think you're finished in less than eight hours, you're not.