A huge bull or monster buck walks out, perfectly broadside, and in range. Maybe you’ve waited years for this moment, or maybe you just got lucky. Few among us would pass up such a shot.
But once the animal is on the ground, you stand, quite literally, on the horns of a dilemma because the biggest, gnarliest bucks and bulls are, well, challenging in the kitchen.
This is most evident with elk and moose. Good bulls of both species are routinely over 10 years old, as are really big mule deer bucks. In fact, a gigantic bull moose can be 25 years old. With animals this venerable, even the backstrap can be tough. Whitetail deer generally don’t live as long, so this is less of a problem until the buck is five years old or older.
And age is only one factor here. The rut is another factor, and that affects meat quality even more.
Studies in New Zealand on red deer, which are similar to our elk, show consistently that even older stags can be of good quality before the rut. The red deer are fatter, they’re not flooded with hormones, and their meat tends to be juicier and tenderer than a stag shot during or shortly after the rut.
Actual meat stink from hormones can and does happen, but it is relatively rare. Adrenaline in the meat generated by a fleeing, wounded animal is a far more common factor in weird smells and poor meat quality.
Don’t get me wrong, older cervids and those shot in the rut certainly can be excellent. But a big bull elk and a young cow elk, shot, dressed, butchered, and stored in exactly the same way will be markedly different in character. The meat of a cow will beat a bull every time. This holds true across the species we hunt. And it applies to young males, too. A forkie will be tenderer than a wall-hanger—almost every time.
So what to do?
First, get the animal gutted and cooled as soon as possible. A great many of the stories I hear about nasty ol’ bucks have their origin in the euphoria of the moment. The hunter has quite likely shot the biggest elk, deer, moose (or whatever) of his or her life and often lets the clock tick too long before tending to its meat. Care of the meat is paramount, no matter what.
By far the best thing you can do is get your animal to a meat locker. Older animals absolutely must be aged—and for a long time. Dry-aging in its modern form was designed for older beef cattle, and it is this slow, enzymatic process that can transform a tooth-breaking bull into something magical. My advice is dry-age the quarters (except the tenderloin, which should be removed immediately) of a trophy buck or bull at least two weeks. Three weeks is not too long. Doing this will go a long way toward making your mealtime reminiscences about your animal a joy and not a trial.
If you’ve dry-aged your quarters for a few weeks, you can expect to butcher and eat your trophy animal much the same as a yearling. And here’s the thing: It will be better. More complex, richer, more interesting.
If you haven’t, well, you need to understand that this animal isn’t going to do so well cooked hot and fast. Fortunately, many venison recipes go the slow and low route. No matter how tough the animal is, it will submit to the slow caresses of broth and time.
You’ll also want to use this animal as the basis of your year’s supply of ground meat, sausage, and jerky. If you’ve shot an exceptionally old animal, my advice is to make sure everything you make with it has been ground twice: once coarsely, once fine. If you fail to do this, you might find that even your burger is chewy, which can be more than a little disappointing.
What about the backstrap…or those pretty roasts? As I mentioned, if you’ve dry-aged the animal, you’re fine. If not, the only way to really enjoy these cuts cooked medium-rare is to slice the meat as thin as you can. By doing this, you are cutting the muscle fibers short and leaving your teeth with less work. Think roast beef, not steak, and you’ll be OK.