Responsible hunters should manage the contents of their freezers at least as carefully as they manage the contents of their gun safes. That means preventing freezer-burn and other wastage of game meat as diligently as you try to prevent rust and theft of your rifles. The process should start right now, as soon as the fall hunting seasons are over, rather than early next fall when you’re wondering how you’re going to make room for another deer or elk.
Proper freezer management begins with a realistic assessment of how much meat you’re going to use during the next year. Between my own family’s intake and frequent (often large) wild-game parties, I go through upwards of four or five hundred pounds of wild meat every year. Your own intake could be smaller or greater than that, but the important thing is to be realistic. How many nights a year do you eat at home? How many people are you cooking for? Do you have a lot of summer barbeques? Once you’ve answered those questions—and ruled out the possibility of buying store-bought meat—then it should take some simple multiplication to figure out your intake.
If your harvest falls within those bounds, then your job is easy. Start out by emptying your freezer into coolers. Defrost the freezer and then scrub it out. When that’s done, refill the freezer in an organized fashion. I use boxes to separate my game meat by species and/or specific cut. A box for burger, a box for steaks, a box of shanks for osso bucco, etc. Then I have my wife open an Excel document and make an inventory sheet that I can tape to the fridge. By checking things off when I use them, I know what’s gone and what I’ve got. From there, I practice a first-in, first-out policy. That is, any leftover meat from the 2010 seasons has to be eaten before I delve into my kills from 2011. Making a big batch of jerky is a great way to burn through any extra meat before the new season begins. Quite often, I fuel my hunts on dried meat from the previous fall’s hunting season. I particularly like to eat jerky made from an animal that I killed on the same patch of ground that I happen to be hunting at that moment. I have no scientific proof of this, but I think it enhances my luck.
Now, let’s say that your intended harvest is going to surpass your projected usage. For example, imagine that I’ve got an upcoming spring bear hunt followed by fall hunts for blacktail deer, mule deer, elk, and mountain goat. If that’s the case, then I better start making appropriate plans for the extra pounds that are likely to come my way. I handle this in a couple of ways. First, I put out word to friends and family. I let them know that I’m willing to pass along some free-range and organic meat to anyone who can promise that they’ll use it. Then, when the time comes, I give them an assortment of meats that are recipe-ready: trimmed, portioned into serving sizes, wrapped, labeled, and most importantly, fresh. To be absolutely clear, I mean that I give them freshly harvested and frozen meat rather than frosted, banged-up, packages of freezer-burned mystery meat that I found in the back corner of my freezer. (If I find one of those packages, I punish my own sloppiness by eating it for lunch.) Also, I’m sure to give them quality cuts in the same ratio that I keep for myself. Instead of just passing along burger, I pass along loin and sirloin as well.
Or maybe even a smoked bear ham. Included in the gift are recipe suggestions and, often, additional ingredients, such as rubs and sauces. I start small with my recipients, so as not to overwhelm them, and then I follow up casually a month or so later. If they used it and enjoyed it, then I make sure to keep them happy. I have certain friends whose families have been eating game meat of mine for a decade or more. They’ve come to anticipate my gifts as an annual treat for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Many of us have heard of Big Mac Diplomacy, which is the idea that foreign nations will come to admire the United States once they become familiar with our lifestyle and products. I believe that the same principle can be applied to hunter/nonhunter relations. So over the past few years, I’ve been using excess game meat to sponsor wild-game samplers for a variety of college-level courses in subjects such as Wilderness Studies and the Ethics of Modern Hunting. More than any form of emotional rhetoric or scientific data, these events have served to convince nonhunters that we’re doing something both respectable and respectful when we head into the woods to pursue game. And whether you eat your game meat yourself, give it to friends, or donate it to the needy, you are doing a far greater service to you and your fellow hunters when you put our common resources to wise use rather than employing your freezer as a waypoint between the woods and the trash.