Hunters Must Know What’s Inside Their Sausage

Last week the UPS man handed me a package at the doorway and then proceeded to hand me something else I was not quite prepared for.   It was a nice gesture on his part.   Rolled up in some butcher paper was venison stick sausage he had just made the previous weekend.

“Go ahead, take one” he said.   In my mind I thought…do I have to?   I mean, the visual was gross upon first inspection.   Worse yet…when I picked up a meat stick the casing was loose and all slimy.   My stomach started to churn and I suddenly became queasy about the prospect of eating it.   Honestly, I have seen coyote bait I would be more tempted to put in my mouth than this gift now being offered to me.

Being the gracious customer I am, I took a stick…thanked him…closed the door…and quickly walked to the trash can where it was deposited with a slam dunk.   YUCK!   As I washed my hands I wondered how could anyone put such a disgusting item inside their mouth?   Hell, I didn’t even want to touch it with my bare hands.

During our brief conversation he admitted this was his first attempt at sausage making and didn’t really know what he was doing.   Really?   I would have never guessed.

Unfortunately, this scenario plays itself out thousands of times each year with sportsmen looking to save $300 or more by doing their own meat processing.   Now, while I applaud the effort…it takes more than just desire to be a good sausage maker.   In fact, it takes more than just watching a YouTube video, reading an article on the web or even following a good book on the subject.   Sausage making is an art form and the mere act of squeezing ground up venison into a sausage casing does not in itself make for a culinary masterpiece at the table.

Initially when I attended the University of Minnesota back in the early ’80s I had an emphasis in meat science.   Of course, I’m not saying that a person has to be college educated in the science to be capable at producing good, wholesome meat products.   Yet, it doesn’t hurt.   In fact, I would say that to handle meats on only a casual basis just one or two times a year is a recipe for failure.   What may seem simple can be much more complex than meets the eye—especially when sausage products are involved.

It takes the right equipment.   It takes the right seasonings used in the proper proportions.   It takes the right cuts of meat from certain areas of the animal to produce optimal results.   But moreover, it takes the know how to pull it all together and make for a delicious final meat product that folks will truly enjoy.

I get it that hunters don’t savor the idea of paying anywhere from $5–15/pound for sausage when THEY HAVE SUPPLIED THE MEAT and a commercial processor does their magic.   Still, I contend that saving a few dollars per pound on meat that is barely edible compared to meat expertly handled by a true professional is not a good value.   The point at which a hunter has to decide if they are going to pay someone else to process their meat or do it themselves is a critical decision point.

318First off, let me clarify something here.   This post is not talking about the hunter who simply butchers his/her own deer up into roasts, steaks, and ground meat product.   Instead, I am talking more about the hunter who intends to cure, smoke or somehow fashion a specialized meat product using casings.   This goes far beyond the basics of butchering as, depending on the product produced, you are now preparing meat where some fundamental knowledge of food science is required.

Please understand I’m not trying to scare people off from processing their own meats at this higher level.   Heavens no.   What I am suggesting, however, is if you want to extend your skills beyond the basics of butchering a hunter has to be prepared to take on a new skill that is not always easily or quickly learned.

I still contend that far too much meat handled by hunters soon becomes a product not wholesome by current accepted meat industry standards.   That is another issue for another day…but it is critical to this entire endeavor.   Once meat has gone bad there is no amount of seasonings, smoking or preparation techniques that will save it.   Good venison begins once the animal is shot.   In fact, one might say it begins even before that by taking proper shot placements on the critter.315

As I told my UPS man you can’t just go to a Cabela’s or other type of outdoor store to buy the equipment and automatically expect favorable results.   A hunter needs to take a class or somehow get the proper training.   Heck, my hunch is many meat processors would be willing to give a hunter an hour or two’s worth of training in exchange for some helpful assistance.   That’s what a person has to do if they are serious about home sausage making.

In Minnesota, much like I’m sure is available in many other states, the DNR has a fall class in cooperation with the University of Minnesota Meat Science Department to learn how to properly handle venison and make sausage products.   For more information on 2015 fall classes click HERE to inquire.

Moreover, once a person learns about the sausage making craft it’s highly likely their skills and interests will venture far beyond the basic supplies available at typical sporting outlets.   One good source I’ve found is PS Seasoning & Spices in Iron Ridge, Wisconsin.   Contact them to request their most recent catalog.   It will inspire you with new product ideas AND it will open up many new avenues of equipment to correctly get the job done.   Certainly other fine sources are also available, such as Nassau Foods or The Sausage Maker.

So, are you curious about what my UPS guy did wrong in his first sausage making attempt?   First off, he used the wrong casing for the meat product he intended to make.   He used a casing intended for use with a fresh meat product (to be cooked or grilled) not one that was intended to be smoked (and then eventually consumed cold).   He didn’t know…all he cared about was buying a sausage casing not realizing there were differences.   He certainly learned his lesson the hard way.   So did the people who tried to stomach his venison food gift.

For safety’s sake when it comes to food handling all sportsmen deserve to know what they are doing.   Don’t guess.   Learn.   It’s one thing if the meat is only going into your digestive system.   It’s entirely another potential risk when you serve others, particularly the elderly or young children.   I’ll be the first to admit there is nothing wrong with taking your venison to a professional processor.   On the other hand, if you aren’t completely sure about your skills handling your own venison you have no business taking on such an important task until you do.

The Curse Of Forgetfulness And Ways To Avoid It

Dammit!   I had a wonderful introduction to kick off this blog post and “POOF!!!”   It disappeared from my brain before I could even get the words down in pixel format.   This seems to be happening to me more often as I grow older.   I will walk from one room to the next and forget my reason for making the trip.   Sometimes I’ll be driving in my truck and a flood of great ideas for future blog posts fills my mind…only to be lost by the time I eventually attempt to write them down on paper.

I suppose it goes with the territory of getting older.   Forgetfulness is not a good thing.   In its worst form it could be an indicator of an underlying medical problem developing into a bad life-threatening memory condition.   To a lesser extreme it becomes a plain and simple mental nuisance.

Of course, the sportsman cannot afford to have these mental lapses no matter how slight they may be.   Mental acuity for the hunter or fisherman can often spell the difference between success or failure when outdoors.   Indeed, as a sportsman grows older I am here to proclaim concentration and memory recall can fall victim to brain synapses not quite firing the way they once used to.

Make Lists

One of the big things I have learned since turning 50 is to make a list on paper.   Or, for that matter, make them on your smart phone if this works better for you.   The point is a person has to write it down and document it.   Good ideas are like gems the do not come along every day.   It’s such a shame to waste the thought by letting it slip away into oblivion.TakeNotes

Another good thing lists provide is an opportunity to prioritize activities.   There’s simply nothing like looking at a list to have certain items jump out at you deserving greater attention.   I construct my list in no particular order (sort of as a brainstorming exercise) and then those activities with more important completion dates get circled (or highlighted in some manner).

Focus and Avoid Life’s Distractions

When I get up from my office desk and wander to another room it’s because I have a purpose in mind.   Then, about halfway there I will look over at my computer printer to discover something I printed, but had forgotten about.   BAM!   I just lost my focus.   Now, I might remember I was going into my bedroom, but I forgot why the reason was to get my wallet for a credit card number.

The same lost focus can occur outdoors.   When you’re muskie fishing and making a hundred casts per hour the monotony of the activity can cause the mind to look for other forms of stimulation.   Maybe there is an eagle soaring over the lake capturing your mind’s curiosity.   Maybe your fishing partner keeps digging through his tackle box and it has you wondering what he’s doing.   Perhaps there’s some strange activity taking place on shore and your interest is piqued.

Focus vs. distraction can be a challenging thing to overcome for the sportsman.   Inevitably that muskie will strike when your attention is diverted away from setting the hook.   When split seconds matter keeping focus can be one of the most challenging tasks asked of the sportsman.

There’s no simple solution for avoiding distraction.   I think it’s human nature to lose concentration and be susceptible to distraction as time goes on.   When a person fishes or hunts for relaxation I believe focus is not as important.   On the other hand, the sportsman who wants to hunt or fish with a serious attitude much like a pro has to develop the mind to stay honed and sharp.

Eat Right and Stay Hydrated

It should come as no surprise that a sharp mind is fueled by proper nourishment.   Likewise, a dehydrated body can play unwanted tricks on a person and I would guess many sportsmen—whether out hunting or fishing—tend to stay less hydrated than is ideal.   And obviously, there may be a reason for doing this to avoid bathroom breaks, but that can work against a person.

I’ve said it before in these blog posts how several years ago I did a story on hunting accidents and made the correlation to farming accidents.   At the time, agriculture safety specialists studied the peaks and valleys of blood sugar levels and how this contributed to poor decision making leading to accidents.

I think the same can be said about sportsmen.   For whatever reason, sometimes the sportsman just does not take the time necessary to pack with a few energy bars or a sandwich to keep their stomach from growling.   But that food can do much more than settle a rumbling stomach.   It can also keep blood chemistry in check that helps keep a mind functioning at optimal performance levels.

Honestly, I should not have to convince most sportsman to drink and eat properly.   I think we all appreciate the importance of doing so.   Yet, it does pay to give some attention to exactly what foods and liquids we put into our bodies.   Snack foods might fill a void, but they do little for providing a well rounded mid-day snack.   Likewise, grabbing a cold brew while out on a hot lake sounds ever so tempting, but that bottle of water will actually do your body better if maintaining focus is critical.

You know, getting older means getting wiser.   Or, at least I would like to think so.   Yet, part of growing older is also realizing that an aging body has shortcomings that a body half its age has yet to experience.   Yeah, it’s not fun to forget things especially when they are important to you.

As one grows older a person needs to be prepared to make subtle lifestyle adjustments to their routine in order to stay sharp and effective.   Maybe a few less beers, perhaps paying greater attention to eating properly, keeping a notebook and pen in a pocket.   It’s important for the older sportsmen to recognize as a body ages it requires different things.   And of course, a bit more sleep never hurts anything either.   That reminds me, it’s nap time and I am doing it with a tactical outdoors purpose in mind.

Minnesota’s Buffer Zone Proposal Needs Careful Consideration

I suspect this blog post won’t make me popular among all sportsmen.

Particularly those sportsmen in Minnesota who have latched on to Governor Mark Dayton’s proposed statewide 50′ waterways buffer zone law proposal.

Is the new law proposal the panacea to bring pheasant populations back to respectable levels once again?   I doubt it.

Will the one-size-fits-all proposal achieve positive outcomes for improved water quality?   Maybe.

Does the Governor in his attempt to sell both farmers and sportsmen on the concept really understand what he is doing?   Not likely.

Ever since this buffer zone concept was first proposed at the Minnesota Pheasant Summit last December sportsmen have clamored to this notion of having landowners mandated to provide vegetative strips to “buffer” waterways from our varied land use (i.e. such as crop farming, etc.).   The concept was first introduced to a bunch of pheasant hunters meeting to brainstorm ways to turn the tide of our state’s pheasant population decline.

In reality, it was a savvy place to announce such a proposal because the crowd gathered all welcomed the concept and was hungry for something positive to grasp onto.   In effect, immediately the news spread like wildfire with sportsmen as the ambassadors carrying the message of this much needed change.   It was a perfect public relations scenario.

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Predators love to roam areas near watercourses for the buffet it can become with susceptible prey often being easy pickings.

Well, truth is this concept is intended to have a greater impact on future water quality than it will have for upland birds.   In fact, I actually question if these buffers won’t become killing zones for pheasants, et al. as nesting and brooding habitat now becomes condensed to narrow corridors where most predators are ripe to roam.   Seriously, where do mink, raccoon, skunks, and coyotes do most of their traveling — yup, along watercourses.   It’s a natural highway for them.   Are you telling me that a nest that must sit idle for 3–4 weeks during incubation isn’t a large gamble for the birds anyway?   Let’s not make it even easier for the predators.

Honestly, that is one of my great concerns that deserves much deeper study instead of some anecdotal legislative gesture put forward by an elected official looking to place a feather in his proverbial political cap.   Granted, I applaud the proposal as a measure deserving consideration on many levels, but my concern is it’s nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that will ultimately not be served as promised.

Now, in full disclosure I am both a sportsman and a landowner who has a watercourse running through my farm.   To the best of my knowledge, there is no crop production that comes within the 50′ requirement, so I do not have any issues that I believe personally affect me regarding this matter.

But other farmers and landowners do have some legitimate concerns as it relates to their interests.   In one blog post I read yesterday the blogger summed up the agriculture perspective concerns far better than I could have grasped and/or explained it.   Take a look at this post entitled: The Buffer Strip Controversy…Debunked.   The blogger, Sara Hewitt, appears to be someone who understands the ramifications even better than our Governor.   I urge you to check it out.

This raccoon is not out for a casual stroll...it's on a mission to find food.

This raccoon is not out for a casual stroll…it’s on a mission to find food.

In closing, perhaps the aspect I hate most about this buffer measure is the simplicity of it.   To the average sportsman who hears about the concept…the immediate response is something like this: “it sounds good to me…let’s do it!”   Yet, I think such a cursory examination of the proposed buffer measure really shows a certain shallowness in thinking.   A shallowness by the sportsman in terms of a “quick fix” or “stop gap” action to fix a problem that is much deeper than adding a few strips of grassland here and there.

I might even call this buffer strip concept a false conservation hope that has potential for future negative consequences.   Indeed, I did not attend the Minnesota Pheasant Summit, but I ask what other substantive pheasant population measures did you hear come from that gathering?   I heard none.   It seemed once this buffer concept was proposed it overshadowed any other potential conservation action conversation.   In effect, the stakeholders of that meeting largely came away from the gathering skipping and singing “Happy Days Are Here Again!”

Well, time will tell.   I might be entirely wrong in my take on this subject, but I can’t help the fact I have some deep reservations about this buffer proposal, especially as it relates to conservation.   It could backfire.   I don’t believe the proposed measure has all upsides without some legitimate risks.   In nature there are few easy answers in this complex world.   Let’s be putting our efforts and our hopes behind proven science and not a government policymaker looking to increase his overall public approval rating.