The changing faces of hunting in Jackson Hole.
Article published by: Annie Fenn, MD, Planet Jackson Hole.
Jackson Hole, WY – If you don’t hunt, chances are you know someone who does. And right about now, that hunter’s brain is entirely consumed with hunting as many days as possible. He (or she) is organizing gear, studying maps, sighting guns, practicing shooting a bow, and crossing off days on the calendar that will be spent outdoors blissfully unplugged. (Full disclosure: I’m not a hunter but I live with one. I get it.)
In Jackson Hole, hunters look a bit different than they did a few years ago as more women, children and millennial-aged locals opt to harvest their own meat. According to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, women applying for hunting licenses in Wyoming increased 13 percent between 2008 and 2013. During this same period, however, the number of male hunters actually decreased by 2.5 percent.
“We see more women hunting, more families hunting and more fresh-out-of-college kids enrolling in hunter safety classes,” said Mark Gocke, Wyoming Game and Fish’s information and education representative for Jackson and Pinedale. “When you look across the rest of the state, in other communities, it’s going to be kids getting into hunting. Here we see a lot more 20- to 35-year-olds.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation released a survey this year asking 1,374 hunters from all over the U.S. about their motivations for hunting. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, they reported their primary factor for hunting was evenly split between two things: spending time with family and friends, and hunting for meat. Millennials said they were least likely to hunt for relaxation, to be close to nature, or to bag a trophy.
It’s hard to say if these national statistics pertain to local hunting culture. Gocke is not exactly sure why there is an uptick in women and millennial hunters. “I find it interesting,” he said. “A lot of them like the idea of getting their own food, knowing where it came from, eating healthy. It’s pretty gratifying to get your own food.”
Intrigued by what motivates any hunter, but especially novices, to pick up a bow or a gun and take an animal’s life, I set out to talk to as many hunters as possible. Are newbie hunters searching for a more direct connection to the food they eat? Or is it the challenge of the hunt, the thrill of the conquest, the pursuit of a trophy to hang on the wall? Could it be as simple as trying to make ends meet by harvesting the most local and organic meat available?
Mostly, I was curious to learn if this new generation of local hunters is ushering in a kinder, gentler era of hunting. Are hunters coming out of the closet, so to speak, discussing what it feels like to kill an animal? And will these young hunters help raise the bar on behavior out in the field?
Growing up with guns
Hank Shaw is a hunter, angler, forager, writer, cookbook author and creator of the James Beard Award winning website, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, honest-food.net. When I interviewed Shaw, he noted a difference between people who grow up hunting and those who pursue it later in life. He doesn’t think that hunters are “coming out of the closet,” but that those who come to it later in life, like he did, are able to step away and analyze it differently. “If you grew up with hunting,” he said, “you’ve internalized it over so many years that it slips underneath your conscious thought.”
To find out what’s it’s like to grow up in a hunting family, I caught up with Trish Williams, busily fixing her bow in anticipation of elk season. Williams has hunted elk for the past 13 years, the last three with a bow. She grew up hunting quail with her dad in Florida. In 2013, Williams killed one of the 20 largest bull elk ever taken in Wyoming. With a Boone and Crocket score of 384 and 1/8 and a Safari Club International score of 392 and 3/8, it was the largest Wyoming elk taken by a woman.
“Maybe it’s because I was the only tom girl my dad had,” said Williams, the middle child of three girls. “But I started so young. I always went with my dad as a little girl and just watched. I didn’t start shooting and hunting until after college.”
Williams agrees with Shaw that folks who grow up hunting process the experience differently than newbies. When asked if shooting an animal is an emotional experience, she said, “It felt natural because I grew up with it. It’s not that I don’t care about the animal, but it doesn’t bother me, as long as it’s a quick, good clean kill. To me, whatever I do mentally happens before I decide to go hunt.”
For Williams, shooting an elk is as natural as picking huckleberries. And although she loves filling the freezer with elk, turkey, and upland birds, her passion for hunting is about more than just meat. “It just feels like something I am supposed to do. It’s so far away from that buck fever. I must have been reincarnated from some other hunter.”
But just because someone grows up hunting doesn’t mean taking an animal’s life is not an emotional experience, Gocke noted. He described watching a coworker shoot a bison as “profound a moment as I’ve ever seen. He sat down and was tearful about it, and prayed all over his animal that was freshly killed. And he grew up hunting.”
Young and on the hunt
The first time Brent Offut pulled the trigger on a big game animal he was 12 years old. Now 14, he described that moment like it was yesterday. “That was the first elk I’ve ever shot and the most adrenaline I’ve ever felt. The snow was crazy deep,” Offut said. “Me and my dad just slowly walked towards this elk at the top of a hill. She sees us, and I tried to get a good angle to shoot it, but it was hard because of the snow. I didn’t want to get the barrel in the snow.”
Offut got a clean shot at the cow elk. It immediately dropped and rolled down the hill towards them. “I pull the trigger and it hits it right where the spine is. When you hit the spine it can’t move, so I was worried that it could still suffer,” he said. “I shot it in the head to make sure.”
When asked how he felt after making the kill, Offut says he didn’t feel sad. “I knew taking one elk wouldn’t destroy the whole ecosystem, and that one elk is feeding my whole family. We still have some.”
Like many of the hunting kids I spoke with, Offut is well-versed in the arguments that favor culling an overpopulated herd of elk. “I am helping less elk die of hunger and starvation,” he said. “You can be sad about it but you have to realize it is just part of life. I would never sport hunt, you know—shoot a big animal, like an elephant in Africa that you’re not even going to eat. It’s like fishing. I would eat a rainbow trout because they aren’t from here and they taste good. But I would never eat a brown trout. I would never kill a cutthroat unless I was trying to live off it.”
And although he thinks elk meat is the most delicious meat he has tasted, there’s more to Offut’s passion for hunting than just the meat. “[Elk] are maybe the smartest animals I’ve ever hunted,” he said. “It’s kind of an amazing experience to outsmart an animal that knows its own habitat better than you do.” Offut says he will hunt the rest of his life.
Similar to many kids growing up in a hunting family in Jackson Hole, Offutt is a busy teenager. He has to carve out the time to take a hunter safety class, practice shooting and spend time in the field hunting with his dad.
“The hard part about getting kids into hunting,” Gocke said, “is that sports and school are very demanding and take up all your free time. Kids have to choose.” When his daughter Emmie, who is now a high school senior, started hunting, it was important to him that she take the initiative. “She buys her own license online,” he said. “She gets up before cross country practice to hunt. Emmie is making it work because both cross country and hunting are really important to her.”
Gocke fondly recalls how Emmie took her first antelope. “It was a fantastic hunt. Some are easy,” he said. “But this one wasn’t easy by any means. We crawled on our bellies for over an hour through cactus and sharp rocks. When we got as close as we could get, the antelope was bedded down and we were waiting for it to stand up, which gave me a chance to talk her through it, to get her heart rate down a little. Then after a half hour it stood up and she got a perfect broad-side shot.
Gocke says she was converted. “That is a really profound moment when you take an animal’s life and I treat it that way,” Gocke continued. “It’s emotional, there’s no getting around that if you are doing it right.”
Among the parents I spoke with mentoring their children as hunters, a common theme arose. Some kids will take to hunting naturally and others won’t give a hoot. It’s not a hobby that can be forced on them. But when it just so happens that your child shares a passion for hunting, it’s rewarding. “It was a positive experience for [Emmie],” Gocke said. “It was my best moment in all the year’s I’ve been hunting.”
Pink is the new camo
With more women hunting nationwide, blaze-pink camouflage is now legal for hunters in three states: New York, Colorado and Wisconsin. Teton County may be seeing record numbers of women sign up for hunter education classes, but it can still be difficult for a female hunter to fit in.
When Alex George started hunting in high school, she kept her hobby under wraps. “I shot my first antelope when I was 13,” she said. “I told my dad I wanted to go. I had grown up watching him hunt and I thought it was so cool.” Back then, the hunters George knew were boys and men. “My friends were all boys and they all hunted. They’d go hunting before school, early in the morning, and then they’d go in the evening.”
Over time, when George’s younger brother became old enough to hunt, “he sort of took my place,” she said. “It became more of a boys thing, with him and his friends going with my dad, and I ended up getting left out. I definitely think it’s less socially acceptable for a woman to hunt in certain circles in Jackson Hole. Jackson is funny that way.”
Gocke agrees that teenage girls who hunt are still very much the minority. “There’s less peer support, for sure,” he said.
When George went to college, she took her mounted antelope head with her. “I was so proud of it,” she said. “I thought it was so cool. Because I grew up in Jackson I didn’t realize how weird that must have been for my roommate. Later she told me she was afraid to look at it and didn’t even know what it was.”
Even Williams, who’s been hunting locally for more than 13 years, has had a hard time finding a core group of female hunting buddies, so she hunts alone or with a guide. “I don’t know enough women here to put together a group of girls to go hunt.”
Offut doesn’t know any girls his age who hunt, but he has no problem identifying himself as a hunter among his peers. “I think it’s socially acceptable because we live in Wyoming,” he said, “and almost every person who has come into Wyoming has to hunt for his food and live off the land. It’s a historical thing.”
Wild and reverent
Margie Boyd is representative of the largest growing segment of hunters in Jackson Hole: female and millennial. The 28-year-old nurse, who works full time at Women’s Health and Family Care, started hunting as a child in South Carolina. “When I moved to Jackson six years ago, it was too intimidating at first—the bigger game and the land out here—it’s so different than where I used to hunt, which was mostly private land. Here, the land is just huge, and I’ve had encounters with grizzlies.”
After three years in Jackson and only duck hunting with friends, Boyd got up the courage to hunt big game. “I’ve hunted the last three falls for antelope and elk. Partly because of the guy I’m dating now who took me under his wing, I’m braver about it.”
When asked why she continues to hunt, Boyd explained that harvesting meat is a motivating factor, second to just being outside. “When you are out there hunting, every sense is just so aware of every smell and sound. For me, it’s almost euphoric. It’s therapeutic.”
Boyd noted what she learned during hunter safety classes about the personal evolution of a hunter. “At first it’s about the killing. Then you have more respect and let a lot of animals pass, searching for that ideal one. Then it becomes all about killing an older animal for meat, not so much about the trophy.”
When asked if she knew of Trish Williams’ record-breaking trophy elk, Boyd said, “I won’t lie. I would love to get an elk like that. But I’m not aggressively going for it. Maybe one day it will happen.”
For Boyd, it’s more important to have a good, safe shot and a clean kill. “I won’t make a stupid shot,” she said. “To know you can hit the animal really well and make it a quick death, that’s more important than the trophy. If I had to track an animal down on a blood trail because it was wounded, I would probably stop hunting entirely.”
Kris Walker grew up fishing but didn’t take to hunting until age 33 when he moved to Jackson. The first time he had a deer in his sight, something kept him from pulling the trigger. Now he takes an elk and a pronghorn each year.
Walker says becoming a hunter was mostly about harvesting his own food. “I just had this weird self-awakening that I’d had this huge disconnect from my food for a long time,” he said. “I was habitualized to going to the store to just grab what I needed. But it just sort of dawned on me that I didn’t even know how many people had handled this meat, where it was taken, what it was fed.”
Seeing the elk grazing all around Jackson Hole was a reassuring sight for Walker. “You can tell that they have a good healthy life.”
Walker also sees hunting as one way to opt out of the industrialized food system. “I think people [my age] are getting into hunting because they are aware of the food issue. The industrialized food system is always there, always in your face. It’s kind of the American way.”
As for his first kill, Walker reports it was life changing: “Taking my first animal was the most emotional thing ever. I was nervous. I felt guilty. But it was intriguing—like crossing a boundary, stepping into somewhere I couldn’t take back. It was exhilarating.”
Mostly, Walker was hit with an overwhelming sense of gravity. “It felt like a great responsibility to use as much as I could of the animal.”
When dealing with the emotional intensity of a kill, Walker has found that it helps to pray over the animal. “It helps alleviate those weird mixed feelings.”
Like Walker, Jared Gebauer got serious about hunting after moving to Wyoming at age 26. “The slower pace, paying attention to every visual cue, sound, and scent makes you experience the environment completely different from any other activity.”
The meat is what motivated Gebauer to start hunting, but he also enjoys the hunt. “Chasing big bulls and bucks around is the ultimate rush,” he said.
Gebauer recalled feeling overwhelmed at the sheer size of his first big kill. “But then it got real, real quick. I’ve always field dressed, butchered and processed my own meat. It’s a lot more work, but I feel an obligation to deal with it myself. Plus by the time you pay for it to be processed you might as well buy a damn cow.”
CJ Drews admits he started elk hunting after he had his first taste of elk meat. “I realized how delicious it was,” he said, “and [hunting] helped me make ends meet during the economic recession.” That was five years ago when he was 39; now Drews typically takes two elk each year.
Drews remembers his first elk and each since—he likes to honor the animals he kills by naming them. “I name every single one of them,” he said. “To me, it’s a spiritual thing when you take an animal’s life. My first was named Juanita; I shot her on top of Crystal Butte and I’ll always remember that.” Drews butchers and processes his own animals. He takes every ivory, the hide to use for gloves, and he usually eats the heart.
Hunters behaving badly
It’s unfortunate that the public’s perception of hunting is usually based less on the Margie Boyds and CJ Drews of the hunting world and more on another category of hunter: those who behave badly. Each year in Jackson Hole, there are multiple instances where hunters egregiously violate the law. From hunters who poach elk in Yellowstone National Park or violate the Endangered Species Act, to folks who use horses to chase elk onto the Elk Refuge boundary into the sights of waiting hunters.
Twenty years ago local author Ted Kerasote wrote about the need for reform in the hunting community in the essay Restoring the Older Knowledge. “Whereas the hunter was once the teacher and shaman of his culture, he is now the boor,” he wrote. “Their attitudes are founded in the same values that Americans have held about the commons: namely, take as much as you can before it’s used up.”
Kerasote has written extensively about hunting over the last 40 years. Known for his national bestsellers Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog and Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age, which won the National Outdoor Book Award, Kerasote has also written the book many consider required reading for hunters and non-hunters alike: Blood Ties: Nature, Culture, and the Hunt.
When I caught up with Kerasote to get his take on the current status of hunting, he was happy to be home after traveling, and looking forward to elk hunting this fall. And yes, he remains just as critical of many aspects of the hunting community. “I will continue to take a hard stance,” he said. “If you travel into the hunting world and see what goes on especially amongst macho men, it’s still depressing.”
Kerasote sees the mechanization of hunting to be detrimental to wildlife. “The best example I have is when people use ATVs and dirt bikes to hunt near the Gros Ventre River,” he said. “There used to be fabulous elk there, but they left. Americans are a mechanized society; we love our machines.”
Another ill Kerasote has noticed is that more and more hunters have taken up long range shooting. “I see this at the [shooting] range and at the elk tooth drop off at Grand Teton National Park. They brag about the 600- to 700-yard shot. Someone I taught to hunt has shot an elk as far away as 1,200 yards. To me, that’s no longer hunting but target shooting.”
The problem with long range shooting, as Kerasote sees it, is that there are so many things that can go wrong, and the chance of injuring an animal without killing it is higher.
Drews agrees. “Those thousand-yard shots,” he said, “that’s just ego. There’s no reason for that. The destruction due to the ballistics is massive.”
The essence of hunting, Kerasote maintains, is how close can you get—that’s the essence of fair chance, he says. “You meet the elk on his ground. You learn to walk quietly. You are like a wolf. Then when you shoot, there’s no chance of missing.”
Twenty years ago Kerasote advocated for a tax on hunting equipment to produce revenue for wildlife that isn’t hunted, and a small income tax to go towards wildlife care and research. He urged hunters to de-emphasize the record books and the pursuit of trophies for the trophy’s sake, and an end to competitions that involve shooting animals. He urged the hunting community to open its doors to women and to stop using the terms “sport” and “recreation” when referring to hunting. “I don’t call it a sport,” he said. “We are out there killing them with a weapon. If they had a rifle too it would be a sport. The elk are just wearing their hides and we are shooting them with high-powered rifles. I call elk hunting ‘hunting,’ a nice neutral word that describes what we are doing.”
Now, years later, Kerasote is heartened to learn that more women are applying for hunting licenses in Wyoming. “Women in general are not going to bring this macho spirit of competition that men have brought to hunting,” he said. “Probably women are not as concerned about shooting a large antlered or big horned animal.”
Drews says he has not seen a woman out in the field who makes the bad decisions men make—usually younger men new to hunting. “I’ve been shot over. I’ve been shot at. I had a guy who was taking pop-shots at an elk 25 yards away from me. I had to yell and scream to keep him from hitting me. I think women can be a little more cool-headed. I’ve seen that in the climbing community, too. I think they take it more seriously.”
Markmanship and mindfulness
In his 18 years as a Wyoming Game and Fish officer, Gocke has seen his fair share of bad behavior. “Some hunters bring it on themselves,” he said. “Some are just wired differently. I can’t help but think they were taught the wrong way, taught to disregard laws and ethics.”
In all of her years of hunting, however, Williams can’t say she’s seen the same.“I do not ever run into someone like that—a cavalier hunter,” she said. “Everyone is prepared. If you love hunting, you love the preparation for hunting. I just don’t ever see that guy.”
With all the new faces out there this hunting season, the hunting community seems ripe for change. “The question,” Kerasote said, “is how do we approach this new era of hunting with thoughtfulness? With mindfulness?”
Drews is all for hunting reform that will make it harder to get a license to kill animals. “I really appreciate everything Game and Fish does,” he said. “But I think it’s too easy to get a license. It’s too easy to get a gun.” Drews favors more hunter education classes, more detailed courses, and a change in the thinking of the hunting community. “We need a cultural shift to embrace the idea of marksmanship. We have a great [shooting] range facility here. It’s well managed, it’s cheap, and you can go anytime you want.”
According to Drews, it boils down to “safety, marksmanship and ethics. Every gun accident is avoidable. Every single one of them.”
An excerpt from Kerasote’s 1998 essay Restoring the Older Knowledge rings especially true for this next generation of hunters: “If hunters are going to preserve hunting, they must recreate it as the disciplined, mindful, sacred activity it once was for our species.” PJH
Buck, Buck, Moose
Exploring the cerebral side of hunting with Hank Shaw.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – I first encountered writer Hank Shaw through the recipes on his blog. I had just moved to Wyoming and wild game had become my family’s primary source of protein—I needed help. Shaw, a former political reporter turned food and hunting maven, taught me how to turn a freezer full of antelope, mule deer, moose and bison into fabulous dishes. When my family got into upland bird shooting, I immediately consulted HAGC for the best wild bird recipes, and subsequently cooked my way through his second book: Duck, Duck Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Ducks and Geese, both Wild and Domesticated. When I started foraging for mushrooms and wild plants in the Tetons, Shaw’s blog was my go-to resource.
Shaw is one of a handful of writers who explores the thoughtful side of hunting—what it’s like to kill an animal, how it makes you feel, and what motivates men and women to hunt for food.
On writing about hunting
PJH: Your 2011 essay On Killing explores why you kill animals and how it affects you. Since then, have you observed that hunters are talking more about the emotional impact of hunting?
HS: I actually haven’t. If you grew up with hunting, you’ve internalized it over so many years that it slips underneath your conscious thought. Of course you care about the animal—everyone knows one or two damaged human beings who really do dislike the animals they hunt, that show no compassion. Those are the exceptions. I am more able to write about the emotional aspects because I came to hunting as a fully formed adult who was a writer. My advantage is not only experiencing all this stuff for the first time but having the skills to translate that feeling into words. And I’ve since seen a number of authors write about that experience.
PJH: In another memorable essay, Limitations, you wrote: “The realization began to creep over me as I was catching up on other websites and reading colleagues’ cookbooks. It solidified when I thought of all the amazing food I’d eaten at my book dinners over the course of those four months. Clear-eyed and cold, I sit here with the stark realization that I am simply not that good.”
HS: The Greeks said the smarter you are the less you know. I wrote that piece after coming off a period of time when I was exposed to countless brilliant cooks—people doing stuff with wild food, which I consider my strength, better than me. I had already known this from being a runner. I could have made the Olympic trials if I had put my heart and soul into it. I do not have the talent to make the Olympic team. That recognition of the limitations of your physical and mental abilities comes with age and it’s just one of those things—you do the best you can with what you’ve got. If you don’t recognize that and don’t acknowledge it, it’s extraordinarily dangerous and toxic to you and everyone around you.
PJH: Did it take a while in your writing to get to a place where you felt comfortable exposing yourself that way?
HS: It just sort of happened. A blog is a web log. At its core, a blog is an online journal. I am talking to you the reader. A substantial part of every day is answering readers’ questions. I am constantly having a conversation with what I like to call Hunter Angler Gardener Cook nation. It becomes a relationship even though there’s tens of thousands of people I’ve never met in person. I end up knowing people really well. Once you have that it’s a little bit easier to open a vein and tell them what you’re really thinking. That’s what makes these book tours so exhausting and exhilarating. I get to finally meet in person people I have known for years online.
From politics to berry picking
PJH: You worked as a political writer for 18 years. When did your cooking hobby and writing career collide?
HS: Well into the last bit of my political career, politics became less of what I loved and more of what I was just good at. After 2004, food became my escape. I started writing in the food section of the newspaper. My first big break was at The Art of Eating magazine with editor Ed Behr. He put me through the wringer. I had never had an article I’d written edited so many times. It was like food writing boot camp, and it worked really well. I started writing freelance, then in 2007 started Hunter Angler Gardener Cook — this was in the early days of blogging and I got in on this niche on the ground floor. I used the website as an outlet for all the ideas I wanted to write about that I would not be able to sell to Gourmet, or Food and Wine, or The Art of Eating; I just had too many things that I wanted to write about.
PJH: Did studying African history in grad school spark your interest in discovering indigenous foods?
HS: My mom taught me how to identify wild plants so I’ve been picking beach peas and blueberries since before I can remember. Picking wild foods was part of how my family recreated—we’d go berry picking, dig clams, go fishing. That has been part of how I define myself. I’ve been fishing since before I can remember so that’s just internalized as part of who I am.
PJH: You’ve traveled extensively in the U.S., meeting people and talking to them about local food. Do you think that the renewed interest in foraging and hunting is a passing trend or is it a reflection that Americans are interested in embracing regional foods?
HS: It is absolutely a trend, but we’ve seen this before. There was an equal trend in foraging in the 60s and 70s fueled by Euell Gibbons. Each time that happens, more people internalize it and make it who they are. Are there thousands of hipsters out there who think it’s cool to go hunt? Sure, but many of them will keep at it. The reason I think it is getting more attention is that we are in a situation as a society where we are less controlled by what we are and what we do. We are losing our privacy day in and day out. We control less about our food system. We control less about our lives, especially in the food arena. The ability to control something as vital as food, because food is far more than just sustenance, it’s culture; it’s how we define who we are. The ability to take possession of that, to take some control of how you feed your family is enormously empowering. And it’s a way to quietly to strike back at the Monsantos of the world, or the corporations that want you to buy things in boxes.
I’m not asking people to be me because I am kind of an outlier. What I’m asking people is to take some things that light a fire in them when it comes to taking charge of your own sustenance, and make them theirs and make them part of their family. Like my mom did. We didn’t eat off the land but we always picked berries, we always dug clams, we always did little things around the edges to make our meals special. In Wyoming, it’s a little bit more of the state’s culture, because you eat venison, you eat elk, or pick chokecherries, so there’s already a pretty wide base. I’m willing to bet that everyone who reads this either does something with wild food or knows someone who does. That’s not true if you go to New Jersey.
PJH: When did you start hunting?
HS: Hunting came much later. I didn’t start until I was 32. The old saying, “The zeal of a convert” is real. I think what happens is that whenever you find any new pursuit, it could be knitting, making soufflés, growing roses, that really lights a fire inside you, no matter what it is, you want to experience that as much as you can. It’s the learning curve of what you are passionate about.
There’s so much to hunting to understand, in terms of knowing the ground, and knowing the animals and the equipment and what’s safe. And because there is so much to learn, you kind of have to have that zealot attitude to pick it up as an adult. When you’re a kid you get it in drips and drabs. I understand fishing implicitly because it was part of my primary education.
With hunting, there are a lot of things you don’t even know that you don’t know when you are starting out.
Dank mushrooms and duck
PJH: When I started foraging I learned a lot about mushrooming from your website. Have you ever gotten sick from making a bad mushroom choice?
HS: The closest was when I was foraging for mushrooms on Long Island with a Michelin starred chef, Anita Lo, and we found a whole bunch of mushrooms. There’s a particular mushroom called a velvet-capped bolete that’s a known edible. Both of us woke up with a mushroom-weird feeling of intestinal unease. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to actually getting sick. It’s a good lesson. I know people who get sick on chanterelles. Mushrooms are weirdly biologically active so everyone reacts to them in a different way.
PJH: Give us a few pearls on cooking the mushrooms we have around here.
HS: Morels have that hydrazine in them, is a precursor to jet fuel, which is why you have to cook them thoroughly. Chantis [chanterelles] don’t dry well; they lose a lot of their character. They’re better pickled, sautéed, and then vacuum sealed and frozen. Morels are best dried.
PJH: You have said that most people don’t know how to cook duck because they don’t realize that “a duck is a steak wearing a hat made of bacon.”
HS: Well first—skin on. Certain birds you want to keep the skin on. A duck hunter in Wyoming will want to do that with good birds—pintail, mallards. Let’s say mallard breasts. Do three quarters of the cooking on the skin side. Put a little bit of lard, butter, or duck fat in the pan, turn the heat on and as soon as it melts, put your duck breasts in. I prep my duck breasts by taking them out of the fridge and then salting them really well, and let them sit out for at least a half hour. It’s just like cooking a steak, but the difference is that it requires a certain amount of time to crisp that skin. It won’t crisp until most of the fat beneath that skin will be rendered away. With a domesticated bird, there’s so much fat you need to cut a cross hatch in the skin first, but that’s not necessary for wild. Cook it on medium heat. It should sound like bacon sizzling. Once the skin is nice and brown and crispy, which can take about eight minutes, turn it over, cook for another two minutes. Then I will always stand them up on their fat end. The skinny end is the part where the breastbone used to be. Finally put them on a cutting board and let them rest skin side up. Grind over a lot of black pepper, right when they hit the cutting board, and let them rest for 5 minutes.
Venison: Starting with the hunt
PJH: Let’s talk about your new book Buck, Buck, Moose, and about venison. Let’s start with the hunt. There is some data showing that cattle who are slaughtered under duress crank out stress hormones when they are killed that seep into the meat, leaving substances that cause inflammation when humans ingest the meat. Do you think this is also true for wild game? Do you think a stressful kill changes the taste of the meat?
HS: There is an old joke about people from Wyoming that they are incapable of killing a standing animal. The ability of residents of this state to shoot a running animal accurately is uncanny. But when you tend to shoot running animals, who are under duress, the meat will darken and toughen.
PJH: Do you think young animals taste better than older animal “trophies”? What about females vs. males?
HS: This is all in the book, by the way. It is easier to make a younger animal taste better than an older animal. But an older animal treated properly can taste better than a younger animal. The way to get there is dry aging. Females are easier to make taste better than males because of the rut—it puts a buck in rough condition—there’s hormones, and they’re tired, and there are a lot of reasons. You always want to shoot a male antlered animal before the rut from an eating perspective.
But let’s say you got a really nice bull moose in the rut. That moose could be 14 years old or even older. The way you make it taste amazing is to dry age those pieces you want to eat medium rare or rare. The young animals are far easier to make taste wonderful because they don’t need much dry aging. I’m talking about dry aging prior to butchering, and dry aging primals.
PJH: Copper vs. lead bullets?
HS: I shoot copper because I have to; I hunt deer in the condor zone. The bullets have gotten amazingly better. You don’t want to switch back and forth because they have different ballistics. If you shoot bargain basement ammo, which kills a deer just fine, the price difference is profound. If you shoot premium ammo and then go to copper, the cost difference is not that much, like $2 per box. But for someone on a budget who has learned to shoot well with cheap ammo, that’s pretty significant.
PJH: Is it hard for hunters to change their practices?
HS: It’s just like a farmer, try getting a farmer to grow different strains. If it works, don’t break it. That’s why there’s been a lot of resistance. The bottom line fact is that lead kills birds. Period. It does. However, lead had not been shown to damage populations of birds, except for the condor. Both sides have a legitimate beef on this one. On the record, I prefer the voluntary system. I choose to shoot copper, the ballistics are fine, they kill deer just fine, and I have no problem with the efficacy of the tool. There’s a whole lot of politics involved.
On September 23, Hank Shaw will collaborate with Chef René Stein at The Rose for a special dinner featuring venison recipes from his latest book: Buck, Buck, Moose—Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Deer, Elk, Antelope, Moose, and Other Antlered Things.