First day of rifle season

Keangely Kim, right, of East Lampeter, and Joe Kurisch, of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, leave the woods at State Game Lands 156 on the first day of rifle deer season, Saturday, November 30, 2019.

So far this year, I’ve been unlucky.

As of Friday, I didn’t have a deer yet. I tried during archery season.

But by the time you read this, I might have used my buck tag after all. Deer season for hunters using regular firearms began Saturday, one day earlier than the normal Monday-after-Thanksgiving Day start. With good luck and aim, I hope Saturday was a good day for me.

Surely, others — including many of your neighbors or family members on their annual outing — already have claimed early success. In Pennsylvania, the first two weeks of the annual deer harvest are usually a busy time in the woods. By mid-December, more than 60% of the harvest has already taken place, and successful hunters have located a good butcher, processed their deer and filled their freezers with plenty of steaks, burgers and bologna.

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This is my second year of hunting during archery season. I’ve quickly learned that shot placement is much different than when hunting with a rifle. Shooting well is the key to recovering a deer with the maximum amount of its useful meat intact.

It’s not easy. You’re on the deer’s home turf and are largely waiting for a 10-second moment that might never come. If you miss, a second chance is rare. For archers, the best way to kill a deer is targeting its vital organs. When shooting a rifle, I prefer to aim for the top of the front shoulder. These methods also preserve the best cuts.

A deer shot incorrectly can run for long distances and, when the woods are filled with fellow hunters, your claim might be lost to someone else. Tracking a wounded deer also can cause other deer to scatter, angering other hunters waiting for their turn at a shot. And if a deer is shot haphazardly, the hunter might end up with damaged venison.

But let’s envision a success, shall we?

Finding a butcher

For Pennsylvania hunters, part of pre-season planning involves both research and, well, hope that they’ll get the deer of their dreams.

What’s the next key step if they do?

A reliable butcher.

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While some hunters prefer to do their own processing, it’s not easy for everyone. A good butcher is needed. So how does a successful hunter find one?

— Family traditions can play a big part in finding a butcher, but word of mouth works, too. Ask those who you hunt with what their plans might be.

— Call ahead to established butchers in the region to see what services they offer. Some butchers do not provide “whole deer” processing, and the hunter might be responsible for skinning and deboning it ahead of time. If a butcher doesn’t process deer, they might be able to offer you a lead for someone who does.

Meat processors are required to register with the state Department of Agriculture and follow state regulations for transport and disposal of deer carcasses, says Shannon Powers, the department’s spokesperson. In addition, the department will do “sanitary inspection” for butchers who are processing meat to be donated to charities accepting it for use, she says.

What kind of cuts?

Troy Bair, owner of Bair’s Deer Processing in Elizabethtown, says the most common cuts he receives orders for are steaks, roasts and whole loins. Steaks and burgers are standard fare for many butchers. Bologna is also popular.

“Oh yeah, we make a lot of bologna — probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 pounds,” Bair says, adding that bologna from Lancaster and Lebanon counties is unlike sausages elsewhere in the country. “It’s sweet. It’s a little salty. It’s got a little zing to it.”

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Though he doesn’t see many hunters coming in who don’t already know what they want, for a first-time hunter he would recommend getting a variety of items. “Try not to overdo it with one thing until you know what you like,” Bair says. “A lot of guys just want the plain cut, because deer meat really is a healthy meat.”

Bair’s favorite? Jerky.

“My favorite thing to do is jerky, personally,” he says. “I’d just as soon do the jerky as anything else.”

What I do

My standard order for deer processing with my butcher is for two 8-pound summer sausages, loins out whole, back legs into steaks and the rest into burger.

When field dressing a deer, hunters often will leave the heart and liver in the woods, but these are two of my favorite parts. Ground liver and onion is one of my favorite venison dishes, and I pickle the heart with some red pepper and other seasonings to enjoy throughout the year.

I generally don’t eat the steaks but instead turn them into deer jerky with seasoning that can be bought at most outdoors shops. This always seems to be a hit, even with people who say they don’t like venison. And the loin, where you would get filet mignon on a cow, can be used for a variety of great dishes.

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A cut that I’ve done in the past, which I know is popular with others, is to take the neck out whole and make a roast out of that with potatoes and vegetables in a slow cooker. This is a great option if you’re hosting a party. Shanks also can make for good roast meat.

If you prefer to have the majority of your deer ground into burger, you might consider adding some pork fat to it, as venison generally is very lean and the fat it does have is not the most appetizing.

This year, if I am so lucky, I am going to get a rack of ribs to make a recipe I saw on a TV show called “Meateater” with Steven Rinella. Also because of that program, and in an effort to not be wasteful, I’m going to take the tongue as well and see how I like that.

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