This story originally ran in the Fall 2019 issue.
THE BEST wild fish or game meal is usually a simple one: meat, fire, and maybe a little salt and pepper. Actually, the best wild-game meal isn’t really a meal at all. It’s a custom that you follow not because it tastes good (even though it does), but because it jolts you right back to the hunt—and all the hunts that came before.
You probably practice some of the following rituals yourself (or at least a version of them). Others might surprise you and make you think twice before partaking. But all serve as a direct link back to the author’s hunting and fishing history. For that, they’re worth chewing on. —Alex Robinson
The Eyes Are the Prize
The greatest fish-catching celebration you wish you’d never heard of | By Gerry Bethge
“You must understand this point: The swordfish’s environment is almost completely unobservable,” says southern Louisiana charter boat captain Peace Marvel. “Think about that for a minute. The water temperature at 1,300 feet—where we fish for these things—is 36 degrees. It’s pitch-black both day and night. And that’s where the most badass fish in the ocean make their living. They find their food with these giant eyeballs that they can actually heat in order to improve their hunting ability in deep water. Oh, and by the way, their eyeballs make for great shot glasses too.”
Wait, what? That swordfish eyeballs can double as drinking vessels was a new one on me. But in Cajun tradition (one which no one seems to know who started), an angler who lands a daytime swordfish must use the raw, poked-it-out-of-the-head-fresh eyeball as a celebratory shot glass. It seemed brutal, but hell, I’d been obsessed with swordfish for a decade, and I’d never boated one. At this point, I wasn’t too worried about it.
Unlike fishing for other offshore species such as marlin and tuna, where you at least get to troll and cover miles of water, swordfishing can be mind-numbingly boring. You must fixate on the tip of a fishing rod for hours on end without losing focus. The hooking-up part consists of dropping a bait, typically a rigged squid, into the deepest trenches and gorges of the ocean, and then sitting on the boat’s gunwale, studying the rod tip in hopes of seeing a twitch, a tremble, or a shudder. Allow your concentration to wane for even an instant, and you might miss the bite and the opportunity to hook a sword.
I was a black belt at that part. I had missed seeing almost every sword bite I’ve ever been a part of over the years. Thankfully, Marvel and the other captains I’ve fished with were nothing short of prescient. They’d push me out of the way as they grabbed the rod, and I’d be left cussing in frustration. Yet, until now, none of that had mattered. I had yet to bring a single swordfish to gaff. I’d had innumerable biteless trips. I fought some captain-hooked fish that spit the bait. I battled a giant for more than two hours that turned out to be a thresher shark.
Then, finally, I got a bite so solid that even I spied it.
“He whacked it, hard!” Marvel hollered (he always hollers). “Reel, reel, reel—faster, faster—you cannot let up for a second.”
I was thoroughly familiar with this part of the program and its cadence—or lack thereof. The swordfish fight is part of what draws me to them. No two hookups play out the same way. Sometimes, the fish will power to the surface in minutes, which is why the angler needs to gather line quickly, and then they’ll dump the reel on their way back to bottom. Other times, they will skulk in the depths for an hour or more until the angler is able to winch them toward the thermocline, so the truly crazy stuff can begin. Swords jump, which is when many fish are lost. They might charge the boat, initiating a mad scramble by the crew, or they might swim topside, seemingly just to get a look at the boat and its occupants before plummeting once again, which is just plain bizarre behavior for any fish. This fish, my fish, played it relatively straight for an hour and a half. It came up, then just as quickly beelined it toward bottom. We gained leader twice, only to give it up again, and then finally we saw deep color on the fish below the surface. The bout was nearing its end. I was thoroughly exhausted.
“Don’t you dare quit now,” Marvel said as the fish surfaced. “Concentrate harder than you ever have. This is the hardest part of the whole deal and where everything can go wrong.”
Gaff in hand, imploring me to keep the rod tip raised, Marvel made his move—plunging the hook directly into the fish’s eye. As gaff shots go, it was stellar. As swordfish eyeball celebrations were concerned, well, that part was likely ruined (at least with that eye). Regardless, the 100-pounder was hoisted onto the deck and then quickly moved into the fish box, where it was covered in ice.
Returning offshore boats always draw a crowd, particularly in Venice, Louisiana, and this day was no different. At the dock, among a small crowd, Marvel made quick work of my first-ever swordfish, and then turned his attention to the blackfin tuna we had boxed. I grabbed a stray fillet knife and went to work on the sword’s intact eye. Extraction complete, I cleaned it as best I could, slipped it into a plastic baggie in my pocket, and sheepishly headed up to the marina’s bar.
“Think I can I get a shot of vodka in this?” I asked the lady behind the bar. I guess you know you’re in a fishy place when the bartender gives you a hard pour into a swordfish’s eyeball without missing a beat.
“First one, huh?” she asked. “Congratulations. But you might want to do it back there near the bathroom. A lot of guys think that it’s an awesome idea until they actually do it.”
She wasn’t wrong.
The Third Backstrap
The cut that tastes like deer season and defies a butcher’s definition | By Andrew McKean
This is a confession I could have gone the rest of my life without divulging, but it’s so central to my hunting experience that it must be told.
When I view a deer for any length of time, whether it’s in the eyepiece of a binocular or the scope of a rifle, at some point I stop seeing hair and antlers, and instead I see a piece of meat sizzling in a pan.
The pan is always cast iron, and the meat is always the third backstrap. What? You haven’t heard of that cut?
I was raised as a whole-meat butcher, which means that in my family, deer come apart by the muscle group. We don’t saw through bones or cut across roasts. We use our fingertips more than our knife blades to tease apart the silver skin that separates sirloins from flank steaks.
My favorite muscle in a big-game animal is hidden just inside the hind leg. In a human, we might call it a hamstring or a ham, but real butchers, the ones with saws and a vocabulary for meat cuts, call this the eye of round. It’s the fine-grained, light-pink torpedo in the center of the round, or rump, roast.
I don’t recall separating it from the roast for most of my life as a hunter, but one day, when my kids were young and helpful at the butchering table, one of my boys noticed the light-colored tube hiding in the larger roast, and together we dissected it like surgeons. He said the tubular cut looked just like a third backstrap. The name stuck.
It’s the first piece of meat that we cook, long before the backstraps (which we freeze to serve for company) or tenderloins (which don’t make enough of a meal to feed a big carnivorous family like mine). And it’s best to cook this third backstrap fresh.
We use a shallow cast-iron pan, which we heat to smoking–hot before tossing in a dollop of butter the size of a bar of motel soap. When the butter sizzles to a brown froth, the meat goes in, popping and contracting as it sears. Then onions, always red and always sliced with the grain, to be reduced to sweet shreds of caramelized goodness. Then some ground black pepper and sea salt, and a little sprig of rosemary. That’s it. The cut is always tougher than we expect, but when it’s carved into inch-thick medallions, the pink juice melding with the browned butter and onions, it’s the very taste of deer season.
The rest of my confession is this: The mental picture of that cut, popping and searing in the pan, has been the demise of more deer than I care to admit.
Shore Lunch for Barbarians
A fresh walleye fillet needs no seasoning besides grit | By David Karczynski
When I was a teenager and beginning to take canoe trips into the Canadian wilderness, we brought the kitchen into the woods, toting our great green stoves across lakes and over portages. These bulky contraptions cooked gigantic breakfasts—scrambled eggs, hash browns, stacks of pancakes, heaps of bacon. Through the stove, our camps became partly domesticated places, and not even our wild-caught food escaped its touch. Our lake trout and walleye sizzled in oil born in some Alberta rapeseed field, and were coated in breading leavened with the finest laboratory glutamates. They were sent into the great belly beyond with a fossil-fuel pan-fry.
Now, some 20 years later, there is a movement to bring the woods into the kitchen—the modern kitchen—with its glut of spices, techniques, and devices. Your fishing buddy raves about his smoked-trout quenelles, and even your ruffian cousin is sous-viding elk tongues. All of this might be good—even very good—for our palates, but without an equal and opposite practice, these meals risk estranging us from what wild game and fish are really all about.
At their core, hunting and fishing are some of the last opportunities to have one-on-one encounters with Mother Nature, and our time in the woods is the last chance for an unmediated meal, one that brings us closer not just to our quarry, but also to our wildest self. The good thing is, all you need—no, all you are allowed—for such a meal is a blade and a flint. No pan, no plate, no fork. No oil, no lemon, and no salt, save for what rubs off your hands.
The first step is catching your walleyes. You must have at least one fish per person, to avoid mutiny among your comrades. Then make a beeline for the nearest shore. Rocky is ideal, sandy will do, but by no means are you allowed to haul your catch back to camp, where the comparative niceties will spoil this privilege of wildness you’ve been earning for months, from the moment you found just the right blank spot on the map, planned and replanned the perfect route, and then dreamed of the adventure to come.
On shore, it’s time to source your cooking materials. Find some green wood to use as a cooking grate—juniper is best. Soak it in lake water while you gather a few stones to build a makeshift stove. Hunt up some kindling and driftwood; steal from a beaver hut if you must. Now light a fire, and burn the wood down to coals as you fillet the sides of each walleye. Leave the scales on—this will allow the meat to cook without burning, and will also serve as a plate. Leave the rib cages intact while you’re at it. A nibble of smoked belly meat makes a fine appetizer or dessert.
With the coals glowing, push the stones close, and bridge them with the juniper. Put the fillets on the grill, flesh side down to start, and cook until the meat just starts to char. Then flip them to the scale side, and let them cook the rest of the way. This will take twice as long, giving you a moment to take it all in. The green wood is spitting its aromatic oils. The smoke gyres around the fish like an escaping spirit. A storm head builds over the distant islands, kicking a chop up onto the bank—a walleye wind that you and your crew can fish hard once you’ve eaten.
When the scale side of the walleye is black with smoke, and the flesh is hot and splits when poked, it’s time to eat. Remove the fillets to a rock, flesh side up. Hunch over your portion, and work the meat with your fingers. It will separate into larger chunks—firm but not dry, hot and smoky and perfect—until nothing but a husk of skin and scale remains.
And now it’s time to move on, to keep up the hunt. Sweep the coals into the lake, and leave the walleye entrails for the birds—there’s no better funeral rite than a raven sky burial. As you paddle off, thank the beaver for its wood and the lake for the next walleye bite.
A Thanksgiving tradition that requires six hours on the stove and 87 years of preparation | By Ben Long
Every Thanksgiving, my friends and I converge at the same snowy cabin in Montana. This is a meeting of hunters, so we skip the Butterball, and feast on an elk roast skewered with garlic and onion, and slow-cooked in a braise of brewed coffee, whiskey, and dark chocolate. It’s a gift from Mary and Gary Sloan.
In a way, the meal began when Gary was born on a Depression-era stump ranch along the rainy western slope of the Cabinet Mountains. When he was a boy, the state fish and game agency was working to recover elk populations from the ravages of market-hunting.
The elk and Gary thrived together. When he was young, there were about 22,000 elk in Montana. Today there are 150,000. Gary grew into a wiry, 5-foot-7-inch mountain-climbing machine.
According to his journal, Gary tagged roughly 60 elk in his decades afield (a statistically “average” Montana hunter would need 600 years to tag that many). His hunts were self-guided on public lands, and conducted on the salary and schedule of a schoolteacher.
Gary’s elk usually died under a canopy of lodgepole pine, and often there was snow on the ground. They were packed out on bicycles, sleds, mules, and in backpacks, but none were taken out whole.
“Any elk I could get out the day after I shot it was considered an easy elk,” Gary said. One of his haunts was dubbed “Idiot Basin,” because it was so rugged and remote that only an idiot would kill an elk there. Gary did so more than once.
Hunting was so central to their life that he and Mary designed their kitchen around the task of wild-game butchering. You could back your pickup up to the sliding glass doors and drop quarters on a giant butcher block.
After a hunt, we’d sit around the block, cutting, trimming, wrapping. Telling stories, pondering strategies. Sometime during the day, Mary would single out an especially large, prime piece of hindquarter, and put an X on the butcher paper—the Thanksgiving roast.
We’ll gather at our mountain cabin again this fall, but it will be our first without Gary. After a fast decline, the old elk hunter died in June—our final conversation was on Memorial Day as he sipped whiskey and offered hunting advice.
Gary left more 6×6 racks behind than I will ever hang on my walls, but for him, the meat was always the real trophy. He considered elk meat as a way to share gratitude and respect. And when I carve thick slices of that roast, stack them next to potatoes, and ladle on the gravy, I’ll know damn well he was right.
Heart of a Hunter
Finding tradition in the gut pile | By Josh Dahlke
I pressed the hefty 12-gauge into my shoulder as three deer approached. I yanked the trigger, bracing for the loud bark and wallop that would come from this freight train of a firearm. But nothing happened. I had forgotten to flip off the safety, which was a good thing, because surely my flinch would’ve meant a clean miss. The second time I squeezed the trigger, one of the does crashed to the forest floor. I was 12, and it was my first whitetail.
The deer had hardly expired when my gray-bearded great-uncle appeared through the timber, knife in hand, ready to guide me through field dressing. The veteran hunter watched every sweep of the handmade blade, which he had given to me, with the utmost scrutiny. Before we loaded the deer onto his game cart (also handmade), he reached into the bloody mess of organs and stashed something away into a plastic bag. Still excited and distracted by the idea of my first deer, I asked him no questions.
My early years of deer hunting consisted of carpooling to “the farm” to hunt with my great-uncle. Each season, I had just two days to experience all that is deer camp. We always killed deer, but I had little time to work on meat processing. My deer ended up at the butcher shop, tossed into a pile among dozens of other carcasses. My great-uncle’s venison always tasted better than mine, and I came to realize it was because of the care he took in processing and cooking the meat.
So I started processing all my own game until it became as elemental to the hunt as pulling the trigger.
Years later, I was able to hang around camp longer than usual. With extra time and plenty of home-brewed wine to keep us warm, my great-uncle and I butchered and packaged a deer I had killed that morning. With the work done, he retrieved a metal pot from the fridge and removed from it a deer heart. Salt water had sucked out most of its blood—the heart was now off-white in color. He then boiled it on the stovetop, cooled it, and served it in thin slices with salt and pepper on crackers. Rich and delicious.
That’s the thing about preparing a deer heart at deer camp. It’s simple, but it requires time and attention to detail. These days, I always carry a plastic bag in my pack to honor the hunter who taught me those lessons worth learning.
A few slices of wild sheep bring a solo wilderness hunt to a celebratory end | By Tyler Freel
Wild mutton is a greasy, fine-grained meat compared to most venison. It has a sweet, mild taste of its own, and even the second-grade cuts are tender. But what it really tastes like is success—when it’s seared on the rare side, in its own tallow—to a mountain hunter who’s eaten nothing but granola and freeze-dried food for days—or weeks.
Over the years, I’ve made it a point to rock-fry a few slices of backstrap at the end of a successful sheep hunt. The meal is the culmination of all the hopes and hardships of a brutal trip.
Then, last fall, I drew a sheep tag for a trophy unit in the Alaska Range that I had been waiting 15 years for. I would go on this hunt alone, as if it were the culmination of my 15 years of hunting sheep.
Any Dall sheep hunt is both extremely challenging and deeply rewarding. A solo sheep hunt is more of both. There’s the exhilaration that comes with being free in the wilderness, but, inevitably, the reality of being terribly alone in country where distances are measured in days walked, not miles, begins to sink in. Crawling up scree or navigating steep ridgetops brings more seriousness. The consequences of a misstep could be deadly.
So, I hiked in a couple of days before the season opener with just a little bit of trepidation and plenty of high hopes of locating my dream ram and then killing him on opening day.
I spent the next few days glassing hard. I walked narrow trails that were beaten into the mountain by generations of sheep traveling to their high-alpine haunts. With my binocular, I’d carefully pick through each mountain cut and dissect the small patches of grass among the rust-colored rocks. After a few days of this, I had spotted only a few small rams. Doubt began to creep in.
Then, on the fifth day, I located a band of four rams, about 4 miles away, sunning themselves on a ridgeline. It was impossible to tell for sure how big they were, but two of the rams were definitely worth a closer look. To get to them, I would have to climb along a steep, craggy ridgeline. As I tucked in for the night, I tried not to think about all the things that could go wrong.
I broke camp the next morning not exactly sure how I was going to traverse the terrain, or what was going to be waiting there for me when I did.
My only option was to circle around to a creek that was draining snow from the previous winter and pick my way up.
I climbed on all fours up the loose shale and patches of scrabble, and wondered how in the hell I would get back down safely. Slowly, I gained elevation until I reached a rock just below the crest of the ridge. I unbuckled my pack belt, preparing to crawl to the edge and peek over, when three rams walked into view just 100 yards away. I froze, and eventually, the rams bedded.
At 100 yards, field judging is easy, and I determined the biggest of the three to be a full-curl 9-year-old. A dandy, but he was not the caliber of ram I had come for. Then, after a few minutes, two more heads popped over the crest of the hill. I pulled up the spotting scope as the bigger of the two lay down, with all but the top of his head blocked from view. From the dark rings in his horns (which form each winter), I could tell he was an old ram, at least 10, with a beautifully flaring horn that I was sure would break 40 inches.
I spent the next hour and a half behind my rifle, shivering in the wind, waiting for the ram to stand up. Eventually, he did, and soon after I was setting meat on the alpine rocks to cool, just a hundred feet from the top of the tallest peak within miles.
Loaded with a very heavy backpack, it took a couple of days of hard hiking before I was back down into the timber, where there was enough fuel to cook a few slices of backstrap.
It’s easy to get caught up in the desire to get back home at the end of a mountain hunt. I’m exhausted, physically and mentally. At home await my wife and kids. A shower. A soft, warm bed. But that’s why I take a break during the long hike out to fry slices of fresh sheep backstrap, in fat, on a rock. It’s about much more than how good the meat tastes. It’s a last homage to the wild and primal before returning to the rest of the world.
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