How I Spent Opening Weekend In The Texas Hill Country
November 6, 2012
A couple of weeks back, I was talking to Carl, who runs the Nueces Country Smokehouse, a local butcher shop, grill, grocery, and game processing facility that I frequent (he makes awesome bacon, and his wife’s home-baked bread is the only bread we eat around here). He just opened up back in February or so, and this will be his first deer season in business. This is also my first deer season here. As such, we were talking about what we might expect when the rifle season opened up on November 3.
He’d had a slow, but steady stream of deer coming in from bowhunters since late September, and anticipated a big upsurge when the rifle hunters showed up. I don’t know exactly why, but I told him that if he was interested, I’d be happy to come in and help with dressing and skinning so his regular guys could focus on cutting and processing meat. The next thing I know, I’m scheduled to come in on opening morning and start skinning.
My little place is smack dab in the middle of a canyon that is dotted with hunting camps. In fact, I’m bordered on three sides (north, south, and east) by hunting cabins with shooting houses and feeders. I can sit on my porch and glass across the canyon to see no less than five distinct deer blinds and three or four feeders. I’m used to hunting heavily used public lands, but even so, the proximity of all these blinds gave me pause. I imagined an epic fusillade at first light of opening day. Yet, when I went out to feed the horses just after sunrise, I didn’t hear a single shot.
Carl opens the shop at 09:00, so I figured I’d get there at 08:00 or so and get a closer look at the facility. Since he also processes domestic meat, I knew there would be some procedures and rules I’d have to learn in order to meet USDA regulations. An hour should be plenty of time to go over these things before the doors opened for business.
Best laid plans…
I pulled into the driveway and noticed a pickup backing up to the receiving bay. Carl laughed as I walked in. “Hope you brought your knives,” he quipped. “Time to get started!”
The first deer of the day was a little four-point buck, taken by a young man I guessed to be around 10 years old. He was pretty excited as we went through the process of filling out paperwork and checking in the deer. His dad was just as stoked, I think. I was pretty happy for both of them, and the joy was fairly contagious… until I took a close look at the animal and saw the two bullet holes, dead-centered in the buck’s paunch.
The shop charges extra for field dressing (skinning is free with processing). The idea is that the additional fee discourages the hunters from bringing their deer in whole. No matter how careful you are, gutting an animal is messy and in a meat processing shop, cleanliness is paramount. On top of that, since the shop includes the grill and grocery areas, you don’t really want the smell of blood and guts to permeate the air. It’s not very appetizing.
But if the customer will pay, we’ll gut the deer. And these guys had no desire to gut this little guy themselves, considering the shot placement. So I hoisted him up, flipped open my Buck, and started cutting. As usual with this kind of damage, the moment I slit the abdominal muscle, the stinking gore came pouring out, splashing over my t-shirt, jeans, and boots. It was a heck of a way to start my new side job.
When I’d finished and washed down the processing room, Carl came back to check on me. He took a quick look at my blood spattered clothes and pointed to a rack against the wall. A rubberized apron was hanging there. “You could use that if you want,” he said, stifling a grin.
After that beginning, I was ready for anything. What I didn’t expect, however, was nothing. I decided to run home and get a clean shirt. When I returned, one of Carl’s employees told me that I had another deer. “You’ll be glad to know, they ran back to the ranch to gut it,” he told me.
After dealing with that first buck, simply skinning this second one was pretty easy. I stripped the skin off, cut off the head for a euro-mount (a nice little 10-point), and put the carcass in the cooler. After touching up my knife, I was ready for more.
There were no more.
I’d brought a book (Lonesome Dove… good stuff!) to read between animals, although I didn’t think I’d get much chance to do any reading. I kicked back in the picnic area and knocked out a couple of long chapters until, around lunch time, Carl told me I could go home if I wanted, and he’d call if more deer came in. I think we both expected a line of trucks right after dark, but no call came. I did some clearing around my tree stand, had a beer, and waited for the phone to ring.
Sunday morning, I decided to go sit in my stand. I wasn’t really anxious to kill another deer, but sometimes it’s just nice to be out there when the sun comes up. I grabbed the Mathews and headed up the hill. As I started to climb into the big oak, I heard a deer blow and run a few yards away.
At sunrise, the hills around me started to light up with gunfire. This was more like what I’d expected on the opener. I doubt there was a lull of more than five minutes between shots for the first hour of shooting light. When it was light enough, I glassed the distant ridges, and could see deer moving everywhere… some running in panic while others fed quietly in open pastures. With all the shooting, I was pretty sure I could expect a busy morning at the shop, so I didn’t plan to stay in the tree very long.
I got down out of the tree around 08:00 (the time change…remember?), had a quick breakfast, and was just sitting down in front of the TV when the phone rang. It was Carl. Time for work.
This time I was prepared. I packed a spare knife, my sharpening stone, my book (for breaks), and a spare t-shirt. I got to the shop to find a truck already backed up to the door with a nice little buck. We ran through the paperwork, and then left the hunter to go through his processing order (steaks, sausage, etc.) with the meat cutter while I skinned his deer.
As I was finishing up, someone came back and told me there was another one coming in. We put the first deer in the cooler, and I got ready for #2. However, it turns out that these guys had already skinned and quartered their animal, so all I had to do was paperwork and put it in the cooler. Another deer came in already cut up, and we slid that one through as well. Since my arrangement with Carl was that I’d get paid for each deer that I skinned, this wasn’t shaping up to be a very profitable day.
Finally, another little buck came in. As I was cutting off the skull cap for the customer, a third deer was brought in (a really nice, six point buck). Suddenly I had two deer hanging, and only one hook left. I was sort of excited, hoping that I’d be a little swamped and really earn my keep around the shop. I worked through the two animals, though, and nothing else arrived. I had a brisket sandwich, hung out a bit longer hoping for more business, and then rolled on home.
I spent the last hours of sunset sitting out behind the house in a lounge chair with the Savage across my knees and the binoculars around my neck. A doe and spike were under my feeder for about an hour, but I really wasn’t all that crazy to shoot anything so I just enjoyed watching them. I think the rifle was just along for atmosphere.