The Hungry Hunter
The great taste of game drives a first-time hunter into the field.
Everyone is up, except the sun, enjoying breakfast burritos before the day’s big hunt. Jerod Foster takes a sip of coffee, sets his cup down and starts taking pictures of our pre-dawn deer camp activity. He looks around and realizes someone is missing.
“When I drove up, his trailer was pitch-black,” my nephew chuckles.
My father-in-law shakes his head and walks outside. A West Texas wind chills his bones. He snugs his earmuffs just beneath his cap, walks to the back of my trailer and raps on the window.
Yup, I was late to my own hunt.
We are at Caprock Gap Ranch. As the name suggests, the 1,800-acre ranch is nestled in a canyon beneath a section of the Caprock Escarpment in Garza County. The sheer caliche bluffs cradle a healthy population of native game — mule deer and white-tailed deer plus non-native aoudads, a Barbary sheep. It is an exotic landscape cut into the windswept High Plains of Texas.
I’m 48, and this is my first deer hunt. I seek adventure in all aspects of my life, and food is no different. I love wild game, especially venison and elk. Sadly, I’ve never harvested my own. This year, I decide to change that.
I enlist the best team I know. My father-in-law, Rusty Workman, is a longtime hunter and a voracious eater, like me. I respect him immensely; he’ll be the perfect mentor for this life experience. Rand Isaac Martin, my 21-year-old nephew who’s a professional hunting guide, has been scouting the local fauna on this ranch for the past month. Jerod, my adventure story collaborator, has agreed to come along and shoot photos.
I sheepishly walk into the camp kitchen and wait for the justifiable ribbing.
“Good morning, sunshine!” Rand can’t resist a dig. Rusty smiles and pats me on the back.
“I set my alarm for 5 p.m.,” I offer
The Hunt Begins
We load up in Rand’s pickup, drive to the top of the Caprock and hike to an overlook. Rand starts glassing (searching for game with a spotting scope) the canyon below.
The sun starts its slow ascent, with rays piercing the horizon and illuminating the wind turbines. The canyon floor below is still cast in lit shadows from the sun’s ambient light. The contrast is spectacular, and we take in the morning beauty.
Rand spots the large mule deer he’s been tracking for me, and we jump in his pickup. The stalk is on! Everyone is excited, except me. Frankly, I’m anxious. Can I do this?
We park behind a rocky ridge that obscures us from the deer and steal quietly up the hill.
“Can you shoot prone?” Rand whispers.
“I’m not sure,” I confess. No one’s ever asked me that.
He pulls a set of shooting sticks from his backpack and sets up a stable shooting platform. I do what he tells me. I’m on autopilot now. We watch the large buck drift lazily into a ravine. He’s big, with a 5x4 antler count. The mule deer has no sense of his imminent danger. His life is in my hands, and the responsibility feels immense. Rand is positioned beside me with his spotting scope.
“Just wait, he’s turning,” Rand says. I realize I’m still wearing a fleece glove on my shooting hand. I flick the glove off and peer into the scope, nothing but brush and antlers. Rand talks me through it.
“OK, he’s coming back out.” I follow with my scope as the buck presents his left side.
“There he is.” Rand pauses. “Just breathe.” My heart is pounding.
“Take the shot?” I ask. Rand’s voice slows to enunciate the next six syllables.
“If you’re comfortable.”
I take a deep breath…
First gun, first game meal
Two catalysts in my life brought me to this precipice. The first one happened before I was born. In the spring of 1971, my grandfather, Lester Moore, walked into a Kmart in Abilene and purchased two rifles, Remington 700s with a .243 Winchester cartridge — one for my sister, one for me.
Granddad’s life revolved around hunting seasons. His workshop was filled with antlers from successful hunts, including caribou and moose from his Alaskan excursions. He had an olive-green motorhome that toted an International Scout, the preferred hunting 4x4 in the 1970s, to his hunting lease in South Texas. I’ll never forget the metal dashboard in the utilitarian Scout, with a gun rack bolted right to it.
He took my sister hunting a few times with her Remington 700, and then abruptly, he quit. Granddad gave up his hunting lease and never shot anything again.
What happened? Why did he stop? He passed away in 1996, long before the question ever occurred to me.
My mom told me Granddad had grown weary of hunting, saying it had become too commercialized. Too many hunters and not enough deer. For him, the purity was gone.
My rifle sat unused for decades. I moved it from house to house, thinking — someday. I needed a motivator. Enter Ingram-based Broken Arrow Ranch, hitting me right in the mouth.
In 2006, I experienced axis venison at Abacus, a fine dining restaurant in Dallas. A friend of my mine was a server at the restaurant, and he pushed hard for me to try the entrée. Generally, a beef filet was my default at such places, but my friend assured me I wouldn’t regret the exotic deer. I trusted his palate.
The dish arrived, a beautiful presentation of medium-rare venison medallions on a bed of creamy risotto. To this day, it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
After that, if there was wild game on the menu, I ordered it. Elk, ostrich, antelope — it didn’t matter. I was all in. That fateful first taste of game was a product of Broken Arrow Ranch.
Axis deer are native to India and were introduced to ranches in the Hill Country in the 1930s. Broken Arrow Ranch works with private ranches to harvest these non-native exotics for sale to restaurants and direct to consumers. The company utilizes trailers called mobile-processing facilities, where the deer are skinned, cleaned and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all on site.
Finger on the Trigger
Back on the ridge, with the mule deer in my scope, I exhale.
The rifle my granddad acquired for me, so long ago, is in my hands. I pull the trigger. The buck drops instantly. He’s down. It’s done. Rusty pats me on
“Good job, Brandon,” he tells me.
Rand is ecstatic. He’s been watching this deer for months, and now all that hard work has come to fruition.
I’m stunned and a little somber. I’m not sure what to feel. The team holds back and lets me approach the deer on my own. Jerod and I have spent a lot of time together biking, paddling and camping. He can guess what’s going through my head.
“Nice shot, Brandon,” he says with a familiar, easygoing cadence that calms my jangled nerves. I instantly feel at peace with the moment. I tag the deer. Now, the real work begins.
Post-hunt with the chefs
Back at camp, we prep the deer for the processor. Rusty shows me how to carefully cut the hide away, an intense process that feels like an insurmountable task. Rand jumps in to help. His steadfast hands and confidence guide me through the process. We remove the backstrap, quarter it and store everything in a walk-in cooler.
I wouldn’t have known where to begin if it weren’t for the expert guidance from Rusty and Rand, two generations on either side of me. But the more I know, the more I want to know. I need to dive deep into the whole process of butchering, prepping and cooking wild game, so I go to the experts.
The first person I reached out to is Tre Wilcox, the chef de cuisine at Abacus back in 2006, responsible for the impressive venison risotto dish that hooked me on wild game. He currently runs Tre Wilcox Cooking Concepts in Plano, where he offers cooking classes and corporate team-building cooking competitions.
He marinates his venison for a minimum of 24 hours, vacuum-sealed in a canola and olive oil base, with fresh garlic, flatleaf parsley, thyme and a touch of oregano. His game rub consists of toasted fennel, juniper berries, black pepper and coriander seed, pulsed together in a spice grinder. He doesn’t serve it cooked to a purple-rare center, but opts for a hot medium-rare.
His technique? Don’t rush it out of the pan or off the grill.
“Let it rest,” he advises. “That meat should rest the same amount of time it cooks before you slice it!”
Jesse Griffiths is the definitive resource for wild game meat prep, educating hunters on how to take their harvest from carcass to plate. He is the chef and owner of Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club in Austin. He also operates the New School of Traditional Cookery, which specializes in hunting, butchery and cooking classes. I own his book Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish.
When I call Griffiths, he had just signed 1,276 copies of his new cookbook, The Hog Book, which demystifies how edible feral hogs are. Griffiths’ main contention with hog hunters is how they transport their harvest by directly icing the meat.
“People ice their deer and hogs,” he says. “It really affects the quality and texture of the meat.”
He recommends putting quarters in heavy-duty contractor trash bags inside the cooler with ice around it.
“I feel like keeping animals cold and dry is the key,” he explains.
After skinning and gutting, Jesse says to keep the animal in proper refrigeration for at least 24 hours before you cut any meat off. In a perfect world, he’d let a deer set for a week before cutting into it.
Mike Hughes started Broken Arrow Ranch in 1983. He pioneered the process of providing non-native, exotic game to restaurants around the country. After those first initial steps of processing (skinning and gutting), they let their deer set for three days, says Mike’s son Chris, who runs Broken Arrow now.
Hunting is an act of patience. It teaches you to be conscientious and respectful of where your food comes from. There’s a part of me that wishes my granddad had fulfilled his intentions and taken me hunting with that Remington rifle, but I had to initiate this journey on my own, with his legacy and hunting ethos guiding me. I learned to appreciate the bounty before engaging in the harvest.
A popular term in hunting is “field to plate.” For me, I guess it’s been backwards — plate to field. The incredible meat on my plate now — sourced, processed and cooked by me — has been the most satisfying quest in my hunger for adventure.
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