Field Notes of a Rookie Sportsperson
‘Taking my gun for a walk’ plus learning to butcher and prepare deer like a gourmet
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Ten months of classroom study, days of target practice at the shooting range and hours of immersing myself in the ethics and strategies of hunting all built to a climax on the weekend after Christmas: my first big game hunt.
The anticipation was almost overwhelming as, on Dec. 28, my daughter, Natalie, and I embarked on our first big game hunt as members of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Rookie Sportsperson Program (RSP).
The RSP is a free program offered by CPW’s Southeast Region headquartered in Colorado Springs. It takes novice outdoors enthusiasts like Natalie and me and teaches them outdoor skills. Hopefully, attendees are inspired to get outside and sample all the adventures available in Colorado’s great outdoors.
We are learning about hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and much more. We became certified in the safe handling of firearms through a Hunter Education course and have been out on a couple small-game hunts with our mentor, District Wildlife Manager Logan Wilkins.
Along the way, Natalie and I began to understand why people hunt. We learned how hunting provides perhaps the most organic, natural protein one can find. And we learned how CPW uses hunting to protect big game animals from starvation and disease that result when herds grow too large, leaving no food for them on over-grazed habitat.
Way back on March 30, in anticipation of my hunt, Wilkins helped me decide which hunting license to buy so I could join him on a mentored pronghorn hunt near his district in Limon. Ever since, I’ve had the license in my wallet, just waiting to use it.
Every once in a while, I would take it out and read it: “Resident Pronghorn License. Doe Late Rifle. For Units 110, 111, 118, 119, 123, 124. Season Dates: 12/01/19 – 12/31/19.”
On the big day, Natalie and I met Wilkins at 6:30 a.m. in Limon. It was a cold Saturday morning, but I was burning with the Big Game Fever. Wilkins had gotten permission from a landowner in the area to let a couple novice hunters come try their luck at pronghorn hunting.
As we stepped out of the truck, the wind blew bitter cold in our faces and would continue to blow throughout the day. I was proud of my daughter: she never complained.
My first good chance to get a pronghorn came early in the day. We found a position in a field around 150 yards away from a group of pronghorn and sat down to keep from drawing attention to ourselves.
I positioned my lefty Savage Rifle, loaded with .243 Winchester ammunition, on a set of shooting sticks and tried to aim as the wind whipped us. Out in the field were two does and one antlerless buck, “all legal” with my license, Wilkins told me.
I took a deep breath and found them in my scope. But I couldn’t get the crosshairs to hold still long enough to feel comfortable taking a shot. We had practiced on targets at 100 yards and these pronghorn, at 150 yards, were just out of my range.
As I struggled to calm my sights, I sat back on my butt and we adjusted the shooting sticks. But I still couldn’t get the scope to remain still long enough to feel comfortable taking a shot. We decided to get up to try to get cover behind a nearby hay bale.
“We’ll see what they’ll tolerate,” Wilkins said.
Turns out they didn’t tolerate much from us. As soon as we got up and began walking, the three pronghorn took off, moving so quickly out of range that their speed seemed almost supernatural.
“They say they evolved alongside big cheetah-like cats,” Wilkins said. “Myself, I like to say God was just showing off.”
He told me pronghorn will stand facing into the wind so that the scent of predators is blowing toward them. And I read online later that windy days on the plains can dry a pronghorn’s eyes, impairing their sight and making them skittish.
They certainly were jumpy the day we were hunting them. We spent the rest of the morning trying to spot and stalk them. Many times we saw a herd and crossed freezing fields hoping to sneak up only to pop up over a small hill and find the herd had disappeared.
We broke for a late lunch around 1 p.m. Wilkins offered to get a hunting blind – essentially a camouflage tent – that we would sit in until dark. But bad weather was moving in and news of cars sliding off nearby Interstate 70 convinced me to call it a day.
When we got home, I fell asleep sitting on the couch while my girlfriend was talking to me about how our hunt went. The next week, when people asked me how my hunt went, I told them what I’d heard others say: I ended up just taking my gun for a walk.
But the day was much more than just a cold hike with my gun. As with my small-game hunts, I got to experience with my daughter an adventure we will never forget. Sure we didn’t even get off a shot. But we enjoyed the preparation, the anticipation, the quest, the shared experience of trying to feed ourselves the way our ancestors did a century ago.
Like many things, it’s more about the journey than the actual destination.
A week later, I was back in class, learning more about how to cook wild game from professional wild game chef Jason Nauert.
Wearing a black Prosper Meats hoodie and a hat with a Colorado logo and a forearm loaded with tattoos (are you even a chef without them?), Nauert told us about his background.
He attended the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat after leaving a career in law enforcement due to an ankle injury. In 2014, he began working with Special Forces units to develop a program teaching soldiers how to harvest, field dress and prepare animals in the field. Now, when he’s not traveling around the country teaching these skills at U.S. military bases, Nauert imparts his knowledge at classes like this one.
Nauert showed us how to process a deer, demonstrating different cuts and explaining his techniques as he went.
It was incredibly helpful to see how a professional breaks down an animal into its different cuts of meat. He had great tips for cutting and preparing every part of the animal, such as the deer’s legs or “shanks.”
“With shank meat, a lot of people waste their time cutting all that connective tissue, the silver skin, apart,” Nauert said. “Don’t waste your time. If you braise these in tomato sauce, or something with acidity, they’re fantastic. And you’re not wasting your time trying to cut all that silver skin off. You can tie butcher’s twine around a shank, then let it braise for six to eight hours. The meat falls off, you’ve got a beautiful dish.”
Nauert also dispelled the myth that some cuts of meat have to be tough.
“Some of the biggest reasons people end up with tough cuts of meat are, one, they cook it too long,” he said. “Two, they don’t use the right marinade if they’re trying to marinate it. And three, they cut it wrong.“
Another trick is cutting across the grain of the meat.
“If you cut with the grain, you’re screwed,” he warned. “If you cut against the grain, it’s going to be beautiful. Try not to cut super thick cuts either. It’s wild game. It’s not a cow. You can’t get away with three-inch pork chops or something like that. You want it thin.”
Nauert had prepared a few dishes ahead of time to show the class what the results of cutting and cooking wild game could be. The delicious smell of venison carne asada and venison chili wafted around us and we all dug in to the delicious dishes.
At the end, Nauert wrapped up the different cuts of meat from the deer and everyone was able to take home a cut of their choosing. My girlfriend, Jamey, and I chose a roast.
For dinner the next evening, we took chopped carrots, potatoes and onions and put them in a slow cooker with salt, pepper and garlic. Then we added broth and water to the pot and cooked it on high for about eight hours. The result was a delicious dinner for our family for the next two evenings.
For our final month of RSP, we’ll be participating in an ice fishing class and then have a final banquet consisting of wild game prepared by participants in the program. You’ll be able to read all about it in the next installment of Field Notes of a Rookie Sportsperson.
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