SANDSTONE, MINN – Travis Pennings knows where his meat will come from.
At sunrise on opening day of the rifle deer hunt in Minnesota, he watched it step into the corner of the alfalfa field in front of him.
The buck walked into the open, and Pennings lifted his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle. A bald eagle glided on a line heading south above him. Gunfire sounded in the distance.
“Baah,” he bleated, just loudly enough.
The animal stopped.
For Pennings and growing numbers of hunters across the United States, hunting is not only a passion but also a way to get food. Even as hunting declines as a pastime, the share of hunters who say the most important reason they hunt is “for the meat” more than doubled, from 16 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2017, says Responsive Management, a Virginia-based research group.
These hunters enjoy the same things about hunting that older generations did — the lure of the woods and fields, fresh air, a challenge, moments of solitude and those of camaraderie. All that is also suffused with a heightened reverence for the natural world, the animal, and the way its death brings life.
“There’s that respect of the animal in the pursuit and the kill and afterwards, and all of that is tied together at the end with a meal,” said Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who lives in Montana. “You know what ridge, what lake, what stream that came from. That connection is super important. That’s a rhythm that’s been a thread through the history of hunting. Now, we’re getting away from ‘Hey, look at those horns on the wall.’ ”
Some hunters say it’s more ethical to kill an animal living in the wild than to buy meat raised in confinement, and they view hunting for food as a natural extension of the popularity of farmers markets or restaurants that serve local ingredients.
Those ideas, championed by celebrity hunters such as Steven Rinella and organizations like Tawney’s, have led to a renewed convergence of hunting, environmentalism, concern for animal welfare and food culture.
“Rather than go to Whole Foods and buy something that’s locally sourced, I’m going to go and locally source it myself,” said Pennings, a 31-year-old civil engineer who lives in Minnetonka. “I pull the trigger, I go all the way to putting the meat in the freezer and packaging it in individual meals. In my own right, I get to honor the animal.”
Pennings grew up in Appleton, Wis., and started hunting with his dad and uncles when he was 12. His grandfather knew how to butcher a pig or a cow and sometimes butchered deer for friends who needed it. “He was a farmer and just a jack of all trades,” Pennings said.
Pennings started butchering wild game in college. Now, he estimates, 70 percent of the meat he and his wife consume is wild game he killed — mostly venison but also turkey, fish, grouse, pheasant, duck, geese and elk. Two large bucks provide enough venison for a year, which Pennings often pan-sears with garlic and mushrooms.
From observer to participant
In September, a Minnesota-based group called Modern Carnivore released a seven-part film on YouTube called “Awaken the Hunter Within,” which follows three new hunters learning to hunt and butcher wild game. One of the group’s goals is to expand and diversify the pool of hunters, said Mark Norquist, a Brainerd native who founded Modern Carnivore 10 years ago.
He tries to persuade anyone who loves the outdoors — canoers, hikers, campers — to take the next step. “The opportunity is to move from being an observer in that natural environment to being an actual participant in it,” Norquist said.
Eating the hunted food is an important part of the experience. Modern Carnivore posts wild game recipes such as pan-seared duck breast with highbush cranberry sauce, goose pastrami and buffalo squirrel legs.
On opening weekend with his father, uncle, brother-in-law and cousin in early November, Pennings was joined by Phil Bratsch, who lives in Bayfield, Wis. Bratsch grew up in Bloomington and, after “bouncing from office job to office job” in the Twin Cities, he and his wife moved to the shore of Lake Superior five years ago to start a cider apple orchard. He’d never been hunting, but this year he took a hunter’s safety course, practiced at a shooting range and paid $180 for an out-of-state Minnesota deer tag.
“I wanted to learn a new skill, learn to be a little more self-sufficient,” Bratsch said. “A lot of it is getting our own meat, knowing where it came from, being involved in it from start to finish.”
On the morning of the opener, he was in a stand a few hundred yards away when Pennings saw a white-tailed deer on the edge of the alfalfa field. It was too small to shoot. He raised his binoculars and said, “There’s another one behind him.”
As the bigger buck came into view, the small deer skipped away and both headed toward a buckthorn thicket. The buck stood perpendicular to Pennings, its “vital zone” of lungs and heart exposed behind its front right shoulder, when he pulled the trigger.
Boom. The buck lingered, moving slowly. Pennings fired twice more and the deer fell on its back.
Pennings closed his eyes and exhaled — he said later he was relieved the deer had died quickly — and then the work began.
Pennings and his uncle dragged the buck across the field, its warm body leaving a trail of green in the frosted alfalfa. Pennings stripped down to a short-sleeved shirt and knelt with a knife as Bratsch, who’d left his deer stand, walked up to watch and help.
Pennings sliced the animal’s belly open, sawed through its sternum and pulled its organs out of the rib cage. Clumps of green vegetation fell from the stomach. He left the organs on the ground for the coyotes, and steam poured from the deer’s empty body.
“Now it’s about cooling everything down, and these are really good temperatures for that,” Pennings said. “I’ll probably get 40 pounds of meat off this one.”
Pennings’ cousin, Ben Pennings, had also left his stand to drive a tractor over to move the carcass.
Hunter to butcher
Everyone made their way back to the house, where Pennings scrambled up the trunk of a pine tree to tie a rope to a branch and hang the deer by its neck. He then went to work, holding his knife like a paintbrush and circling the deer. The dogs, two chocolate Labs, whined and gave the carcass a wide berth.
Pennings spread the rib cage wide and lodged a stick inside to keep it open. He cut away fat and guts from the inside, rinsed it with cups of warm water, and sliced out the two tenderloins, handing them to his uncle to wash and put in the refrigerator.
Pennings cut the deer’s legs off at the knee and skinned the animal from the neck down. He let it hang for a couple hours to cool, and went inside to cook the tenderloins on the stove. They tasted like steak — lean red meat seasoned with salt and pepper. “That’s a celebratory thing,” Pennings said. “You eat those in camp.”
After a lunch of venison chili, Pennings returned to the animal. It had cooled and its muscles were coated in what felt like cellophane. The fat on its back looked and felt like cooled candle wax. Pennings quartered the animal, removing one thigh at a time, and then carefully cut out the backstraps — the strips of dark red meat along the spine. He filled a green cooler with chops and steaks and scraps for brats or ground venison. The deer looked less and less like one. Back home, Pennings would cut the meat into portions and shrink-wrap them for the freezer.
But later that day, he and Bratsch walked back to Pennings’ deer stand. Ten feet from the spot where Pennings shot his deer that morning, Bratsch shot a 4-point buck.
“My whole worry was taking a bad shot and injuring it,” Bratsch said. “It went down instantly. It didn’t even take another step. I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better.”
He gutted the animal under Pennings’ watchful eye, let it hang for a couple of days in the cold, and then took it home.
“Drove it home on top of the Subaru and hung it up and processed it Tuesday,” Bratsch said the next week.
He’s got a freezer full of venison now too, and a new Wisconsin hunting license, and he plans to hunt for another deer soon.