Sunday, December 4, 2016

Deer hunting, butchering + sausage-making | in Comfort, TX

I rarely leave town (hence the moniker Suburban Adventuress) so it was a super exciting month for me travel-wise to go on not one but TWO hunting trips, and both in Texas. 


Most photo credits on this page go to me or someone manning my camera by request, but occasionally I grabbed from our iPhoto "share," so the credit also goes to my lovely partners-in-crime and fellow hunters. All rights to the photos on this page reserved - unless you are one of those ladies.


This time, instead of flying into Houston, I would be flying into lovely San Antonio. I had never been there so I was very excited. They say it's the Venice of Texas. No! I say that. Every city with some kind of river system probably says that about their city (Bruges, I'm looking at you for trying to make "Venice of the North" happen), so why not San Antonio?


Is this also the Big Ben of Texas? Nevermind.



Fun fact or observation by me about San Antonio's Riverwalk: There are virtually no railings keeping you from tumbling straight into the water. Line it with a bunch of bars and I'd say that equals a bit of a problemo! But for whatever reason the government of this city doesn't see this as a big deal. Maybe there's not so much litigation in San Antonio. I'm no statistician, but if you're looking for some litigation action I'd like to tip you off right now to an opportunity in and around this Riverwalk.



Fun fact #2: the bridges of Riverwalk smell like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Does that mean the bridges are made of the same cutesy stucco that Disney uses? I'm not a construction worker so I don't know. But I did have the urge to break into the Pirate's Life for Me song, and I guarantee that people taking the drunk cruises sing that all the time.



Fun fact #3: you will stumble onto beer gardens out of nowhere without even trying, like oases in the desert. Maybe just walk on the side farthest from the river when you step back out onto Riverwalk, though, after visiting one.



And now what San Antonio is famous for: The Alamo. I wasn't really paying attention on the day they covered this in school - assuming they covered it at all. I'm from Florida, not Texas, so you never know. That is both an acknowledgement of the fact that states focus more on their own state history, as well as a bit of a dig on Florida in general. Florida is like the Austin of states though - keep it weird, Florida.

I took a guided tour of the grounds and there was a big focus on how the Colonial settlers bravely took a stand at this former mission because they realized the water-rich lands of San Antonio were the perfect place to grow just about anything. I started thinking about our drought here in southern California and wondered if maybe it was time to stage another coup and divert all these rivers out to San Diego.

Then I remembered that we can't even approve a new stadium for the Chargers here, so we're not exactly dealing with the Davy Crocketts of our day now, are we?


After walking all over the place listening to the tour with a bunch of people who seemed bored out of their minds (except me! I find war stories very interesting), I decided to bail on it and check out the infamous Buckhorn Saloon. Don't get your hopes up if you come here looking for a bunch of old salty dogs bellied up to the bar, all looking to chew the fat with you over a beer or whiskey. This place is also a bona fide museum, and at 10:30am no one was drinking like I had hoped. The bar was empty! That old saying, "It's 5:00 somewhere" is lost on them.


I lied and told them that I was thinking of throwing a party here to have them waive my admission fee. Unless that is against the law, in which case we all know that I make stuff up for this blog.

They have the most amazing taxidermy here. I don't know if you love or hate it, but I am fascinated by it. Especially this wall of deer with misshapen antlers. This was to be a bit of a premonition of how we would conduct our upcoming hunt and I didn't even know it. Think of "predator wildlife management" and you'll get the idea.


They also had super weird stuff. Here, a whole room dedicated to a reenactment of the Bonnie-and-Clyde final shoot out, including the real car with all the bullet holes from the fight. How did the windows survive?

It is possible that this was just a mock-up of the real car and not the "actual" real car. I didn't read the fine print.


They also had the remains of a real-life mermaid called Sirena. People were so gullible just a few short decades ago! If I had a time machine I would WHOOSH back and have a fortune-making field day, using only the meager DIY skills I've acquired off Pinterest.


Next I drove myself up to Comfort, Texas, to really get this adventure weekend with my original hunting mentor - Georgia Pellegrini - underway. The little town of Comfort is actually quite charming.

The problem with this "selfie" culture of ours is that you see the photographer in the photo while the original subject (the town of Comfort!) is totally lost. Unless you are a lover of old flagstone pavers, in which case you will love this photo of Comfort.


Most of us stayed at the Meyer Bed & Breakfast, a charming set of rooms and cottages set on a creek with lots of deer and steer to ogle.


I kind of went crazy with the Panoramic function on my phone.


And yes the steer were off limits! So don't go dreaming, like I did.


The creek, where a thousand deer (it seemed) taunted me.


The breakfast room. 


You can watch the "bee show" outside over breakfast. The players change, but the show remains the same.


My room. Red walls always sound great in theory, don't they? But maybe just for vacation, unless you like living in a real-life game of Clue or have an actual library or study you are painting red. And then you'd better also have a box of cigars on the table, a secret doorway into a wine cellar, and a velvet chaise to complete the look. Throw in some taxidermy too for good measure. Or at least an old portrait of someone, bonus if the person pictured is an actual distant relative.


Our first "field trip," and where we spent most of our days, was at the glorious Hillingdon Ranch. You can buy a book about this generations-long-managed property at this link (like I did). 


Here's a mash-up video I made of some of the more relevant video from the trip. It's as disjointed and unprofessional as all my videos, so don't expect me to have suddenly gotten better at this or you'll be sorely disappointed.


We adventure getaway participants pretty much got to know each other inside a crammed-full van. We bonded over the fact that we were rocketing around curves and over hills at harrowing speed, all at the trusty hands of Nicole, Georgia's assistant. Nicole didn't have any particular expertise in driving a van, and in fact wore glasses so I'm not sure she has especially great vision either. I'm not knocking people who wear glasses! I wear them too sometimes for my astigmatism - but I'm also not signing up to drive a bunch of people around rocky terrain at high-ish speed. 

This is not to say that this was the only risky, white-knuckle moment of the adventure getaway - in fact, it was really just the tip of the iceberg. But it might be a good time to point out that we were required to sign liability waivers.


Upon arrival at Hillingdon Ranch we met our true salt of the Earth hosts: the Leslie family. They have owned and managed this land for generations, and their matriarch is a fascinating woman in her 90s named Dottie. 

Dottie comes from a time when one got around acres of hills on horseback, not ATV... when one hunted for meat and grew a garden. Her home was built by hand and in stages, with wood and stone pulled from the surrounding land. The photos and paintings on her wall tell a story of adventure and romance, love and loss. She greets you with a hug as tight as if you were her very own grandchild. 

I wished I was, frankly! 

And NO I'm not just saying that because it would give me access to her amazing hunting lands. That is very cynical of you.


Here is Dottie in her youth. I joked that in this photo she looks like Sandy from Grease after she turned all bad-girl, but she just shrugged and said "Smoking was very in style back then!" Her biggest gripe to me was the fact that she fell recently and injured her hand, making it impossible to pull the trigger when she was trying to shoot an interloping opossum on the property. 

I'm not judging other grandmas (or great-grandmas, as the case is actually), but she's out here making everyone else's grandmas seem just haggard, and I don't just mean looks-wise. 


Her son Roy took us to their outdoor range for some target practice and a safety briefing. His son Blake helped as well.


I confirmed that the Leupold sight on my Browning X-Bolt was still pretty much spot-on.


As did the other ladies... this is Elizabeth.


Emily:


And Christy:


L-R: Emily, Annette, Christy, Me, Georgia, Anjuli, Sheryl, and Elizabeth. Roy is pushing up a daisy.


On the drive back near Dottie's for dinner we rode by the only neighbor to the Leslies who isn't related to them or an old family friend. Those neighbors house some very exotic animals on their property - African exotics - and on occasion those exotics (like Axis and Sika deer) jump over to the Leslies' properties and kind of push out the native white tail deer. Here you see Scimitar Horned Oryx, which are actually extinct in the wild.


These are Wildebeest. Fascinating animals! They tend to do so well here because their native Africa has made the heat of Texas feel like a walk in the park. This is the problem with many exotics - they are actually naturally selected to survive in tougher environments and can thrive and "take over" an area previously populated with our own native animals. I don't want to mention the movie Jurassic Park to be silly and make a point, but I think you know that an imported animal can be a bad idea for a variety of reasons.


This is Larry Jay. He's an old classmate and friend of Roy Leslie's and had the good fortune of being able to acquire some of this land on Hillingdon Ranch. Together he and his wife Sharron run the Block Creek B&B, which hosts more photographers than hunters due to the number of bird species regularly seen on the Jays' land. The sightings are so extraordinary that some famous National Geographic bird photographers regularly convene here to capture species for the publication.


The Jays have a stunning home they have remodeled, keeping the outside of the original structure on the inside and building around that. I'm not sure if this will translate very well in a camera photograph, but below is the impression from a bird which had flown into the glass of their door and left a perfect impression, face and all. By some miracle, both bird and window survived the collision.

I'll bet you'd love to know what kind of bird it was? Well Larry told me, but I can't remember if he said "dove" or "owl" so unless you want me to lie, you're just going to have to use your detective skills and figure it out yourself.


Another interesting fact about the Jays is that they practiced taxidermy to put their kids through college. Once the kids were through school they stopped, but their home is full of exquisite examples of their work, like this lamp of deer hooves. 


This is the charming cottage they let as their Bed & Breakfast. No offense to Meyer B&B but I would have much preferred to stay here! Simply because it's on the property where we were spending the majority of our time. And it is stunning.


This is the history of ownership for most of the acreage of Hillingdon Ranch. Fascinating to see how it changed hands (and stayed within the Leslie family), and for how much the parcels were purchased. 

It's useless to try to offer these amounts for land today. Haven't you ever heard of inflation? $100 was quite a lot of money back then, so quit wishing you invested in real estate way back then.


This is the spread the Jays put out for our dinner. We had such fun in the balmy air under the moon and stars!




Lots of useless chit chat... and possibly some useful wisdom mixed in on occasion as well. I would love to see a Venn diagram of Useless ChitChat to Wine Consumption, with the overlap representing Useful Wisdom.


The next morning brought the realness of deer hunting, at least theoretically. I was lucky enough to be paired with Blake Leslie for my first deer hunt and I was both apprehensive and excited all at once. I was prepared for the triumph of taking my first deer, which I would gut and skin and butcher and cook, while simultaneously wanting so much just to see one, observe it, photograph it, and possibly pet it and befriend it.

So deep is my love of animals - and irrational - that I catch myself anthropomorphizing them all, even deer. Sure they are cute as buttons, but by all accounts not a whole lot sharper than cows, and I have no problem eating cows or thinking about them being harvested. It almost seemed as though I willed all the available deer away with my mind! Of course I don't believe this, but it's how it feels when you wait for hours quietly watching, holding still, and breathing shallowly, only to have no deer show up.


Blake is an expert in wildlife management (literally, he is degreed in this) so it was a delight to just sit with him and learn. He's also a ranch manager at a very prestigious hunting ranch, so he's an expert in hunting as well. If you didn't already know this, hunting and wildlife management go hand in hand.

This is the back of his truck. That bar resting diagonally actually fell from the weight of all of our guns the day before. He said he had never heard of that, but my head is here to tell you that it DID fall and I know this because it originally fell on my head as I was riding in the back seat. Would the waivers cover that?


This is the view out to the feeder from our deer blind. I have to confess that I've never actually seen an animal feed from or near a feeder, so I'm partially convinced that they exist entirely to give hunters a focal point to aim at.


This is me doing just that. If you don't see any deer, you have nothing else to do in between talking to your hunting buddy.


My favorite story Blake told was about the time he rescued and cared for a bobcat kitten for a few days on his property before it presumably rejoined its mother. This is the bobcat. Can you even stand how cute it is!?


For lunch after our first hunt, we had a lovely picnic on the Jays' land.


All of the meat we ate the entire weekend was venison prepared in various ways. Here you see a delicious venison stew on the left, and venison chili on the right. It occurred to me to photograph it after I started eating, so I'm sorry it's a little sparse. Man was it good!


Overlooking a creek running from the waterfall.


The waterfall. 


Evidence of a snaky friend. I heard more than one horror story on this trip about snake bites, so I had my high boots on and my eyes constantly roving the landscape for them.


Hiking back from our picnic. It was a genuine hike because the Jays (and the Leslies) own so much land. What was I gesturing about here? Talking about the landscape? Predicting the likelihood of snake attack? Describing the appearance of Bigfoot? No one can say.


After striking out on deer, we had a class in deer (and hog) butchery. Having done an incredible class with Jesse Griffiths butchering wild boar, I focused on the deer this time.

This is Emily helping Roy hoist the deer up by the feet, which is no small feat.
(Pun Police arrest me now!!!!!!)


This is Georgia explaining how we're going to go about this. Do you ever wonder how your meat gets to the market, or to your plate? I always do. I'm fascinated by cuts of meat because I love meat.


First you have to skin the deer.




After skinning the deer, you can start cutting the choice pieces right away. This is a very proud Me with a gorgeous deer loin. You reach straight in through the rib cage to the back and cut along the spine, then back up the other way on the other side. 


Sometimes you're using a small but very sharp knife to cut through some tough tendons and bone. This is Erin taking off the hoof with Roy's super-sharp pocket knife.


Jayme and I did the same, but taking them off higher up on the leg also required some serious muscle on our part. We were relieved to get them off!


Then we took off the shoulders, legs, etc. and butchered them into choice cuts on the table.


Does this look delicious, or gross to you? To me it looks delicious, so if it looks gross to you then I guess that's why I went on this adventure and you didn't. Butchering outdoors may be full of laughs, beer, and stories for days, but it's not for the faint of heart I guess.


After our butchery class, we had another pretty amazing experience: we had a demonstration by a real-life falconer.


He described how he didn't name the birds other than assigning them a number, because "they are partners, not pets."


By "partners" he means partners in hunting. I'm not sure if you know this, but every time a hawk is released to hunt with his/her falconer, it is set free anew. When the falconer comes upon the bird after it has made a kill, the bird decides whether or not to relinquish a portion of its kill to the falconer - always with some reward for doing so. You can imagine that if it did not choose to share, or chose to leave the life of falconry forever, it could easily perch with its kill up in a tree, laughing at the hapless falconer below. It's extraordinary to me, this partnership that they do, in fact, have. It's just as beautiful as the one between a horse and her rider, or a hunting dog who retrieves for her owner.


He was also so generous in allowing us to practice falconry with his highly-trained birds. Here he is giving a very specific lesson on exactly how to hold your body to give commands and receive an incoming hawk.


Red-tailed and Harris Hawks are preferred by falconers because they get along with other birds of their breed, and also take to instruction very well.


I know their bones are especially light to accommodate flight, but they are substantial, heavy birds in my opinion.


I don't know how the falconer doesn't fall in love with them. I think that he does, but he lies to himself so the birds don't completely rule the roost, so to speak.


We came back from falconry class to another delicious venison meal and accompanying wine. The falconer had also brought along a few other of his rescue birds for us to meet.


This little cutie here is just the cutest little screech owl you ever did see! 
Would it change your opinion of how incredibly cute he is to know that he is also a bit grumpy and given the chance, a bit of a biter?


I love this photo so much I can't stand it. This little stinker gave Troy (who is a professor of evolutionary biology, with a special focus on studying aggressive behavior and communication in the female American goldfinch) a bite when he tried to help him back onto his perch!


Observe this cute little monster here:


After enjoying the birds and dinner we went to Luckenbach, Texas, and watched some good ole Texas two-step. You won't catch me doing any of that on camera (or off), I can tell you that!


So the next day, a Saturday, we made sausage with the deer Troy had harvested, also using fat from one of the wild boars taken the week before. Did you know that both venison, and boar meat, are too lean for sausage without also adding in some of the fat from a boar?


I'm going to give you the recipe for this in its entirety right here. You're welcome! Actually, thank Georgia, not me. This is her super-secret recipe that we followed verbatim to make some pretty delish ones, if I do say so myself.

Venison Sausage

Sausages are one of the oldest prepared foods. Traditionally, sausages made use of the less desirable animal parts and scraps that could be cured in salt and put in the cleaned, inside-out intestines of an animal. Today, things aren’t done much differently than they were in 589 BC. Sausage is simply a combination of meat, fat, salt, and spices, stuffed into natural animal casing. The combinations of flavors are endless and it is a chance to experiment with your favorite ingredients.

Salt and pink curing salt are the two most important ingredients. As you experiment, write down the amounts of each ingredient that you use so you can go back and adjust.

Ingredients:
3 1/2 pounds venison shoulder or haunch, cubed
3/4 pound hog shoulder butt, cubed
3/4 pound hog or domestic pig fat, cubed
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon pink curing salt #1 (see Note)
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup ice water
Natural pork casings, soaked in a bowl of saltwater

Method:
1. Before you are ready to grind the meat, put it in the freezer for about 1 hour, until the meat is firm but not frozen.
2. Grind the meat and fat through a medium die, taking care to alternate pieces of meat and fat.
3. Place the meat in the bowl of a stand mixer and add everything but the water. Mix well with the paddle attachment for about 1 minute, or with your hands for longer.
4. Add half of the ice water and continue mixing until the meat and fat are emulsified. The meat will develop a uniform, sticky appearance.
5. Work the meat through your fingers, squeezing it against the sides of the bowl.
6. Continue adding water until the meat is loose but not watery.
7. Heat oil in a small skillet. Cook 1 tablespoon of the mixture in the oil to taste the seasoning and adjust as necessary.
8. With a sausage stuffer, stuff the mixture into pork casings 6 to 8 inches long, pricking the casings with a sterilized needle as you go, to prevent air bubbles. Twist off the casing into links and let sit overnight in the refrigerator.
9. To cook, heat oil in a skillet and sear over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, turning often. The internal temperature should be 160°F.

*Makes 5 pounds*

These are the ones we made. Aren't they just amazing looking?


The fact that I'm posing with them like they are strands of pearls tells you how much I value food.


We had a little downtime after making sausages, so I went outside and found this little guy. I let it crawl up my arm.


I love June Bugs.


After lunch we had another bird show of quite a different variety. This time Larry Jay showed us beautiful photos he had taken of native species of bird through the eyes of a photographer, not a hunter.

In addition to his lovely photos, we had the good fortune of being able to inspect a cache of preserved birds on loan to us by Richard Heilbrun of Texas Parks and Wildlife. Richard was one of our hunting guides, and in addition to teaching us about tracking wild animals, he shared the knowledge gained from his Master’s degree in wildlife ecology to give us a lesson on an incredible array of non-game birds. Think songbirds and falcons, screech owl and woodpeckers.


Have you ever wanted to get a much closer look at an Indigo Bunting? I have. To touch one and really inspect everything about it was incredible.


Try not to feel sad that these birds have passed on. They are preserved for just this purpose: education. To see them alive in the wild would be divine!


A cardinal in all his glory. You might be afraid that touching them would mess them up, but feathers are remarkably hardy.


So thus far, as far as we knew by afternoon, no one had harvested a deer. Have you ever gone on a hunting trip where no one got anything? It's like this great big expectation just hanging in the air.

But then Anjuli returned with Troy. They had gotten a spike! That means this deer's antlers were way too small for it's size/age.


A spike is basically a young deer with under-developed antlers. This can happen from the large-antlered deer being over-hunted and thus "selected" out of the breeding pool, or it can happen when exotics are introduced into an environment and take over that environment.

In the case of the Whitetail deer on Hillingdon Ranch, it's the introduction of exotic species like Axis and Sika deer which are crowding out the Whitetails. Axis and Sika and natives of Africa, brought over to neighboring properties often for canned hunts. They are larger and used to much tougher environments in Africa, so they thrive and eat all of the native plants, leaving nothing for the Whitetails.

Here's Roy telling us how to confirm the age of the deer by the teeth. This was after a demonstration of how to field-dress it first, of course.


Roy telling the story of his first deer hunt, aged 9. Funny and impressive! I told you, I love nothing as much as I love diving, hiking, or hunting stories.


Have you ever heard of Conservation Hunting? It's when you do the opposite of what most hunters do: you're looking for smaller bucks (not young bucks with good horns, but bucks with underdeveloped horns) or old bucks. You're weeding out the weaker and the old as predators would do in the wild. Typically, predators don't go for the huge, healthy male. They don't want to risk injury. So the by-product is an evolution of the healthiest, fastest, smartest, etc.

Here's a gorgeous video which describes the concept best:


A couple other ladies on our trip had also actually seen "perfect" deer (ones most hunters would love to harvest) but could not shoot because they were... perfect. Our job here was not only to learn how to hunt and clean our animal and cook it, but also to manage this land from a Texas Fish & Wildlife perspective.

This is our group crowded around Anjuli's spike, getting a lesson.


Did you know that if you own acreage of the size the Leslies do in Texas, that Texas Fish & Game gives you a cull number based on estimated species population they determine is residing on your land? In the case of the Leslies' land, it meant that during deer season they had to cull a specific number - in their case I believe it was in the low 20s - to keep the ecosystem healthy. As the wolf video shows above, overpopulation of deer is bad for many other species. It is the true "trickle down" effect from a wildlife standpoint.

Here's my gun in Roy's truck.


I went out for my second hunt with Roy Leslie, who is Blake's father, and Dottie's son. This man is, to me, a living legend - a hilarious, quick-witted, easy-to-like nature expert who loves people and loves life, and I was excited to learn from him up in the highest blind on their land.


They call this blind "Don't Care":


We talked about everything under the sun. He was actually musing about the fact that another guide told one of my fellow hunters that the deer she was was too perfect to shoot... hinting that the other guide had been too strict in his judgment... when I saw my first (and only) deer while in a blind.


My heart was just pounding. The complex feelings I felt looking at Anjuli's downed deer washed over me again, and frankly I felt something akin to terror at the idea of shooting an animal like this. I'm telling you straight: I know how hypocritical this is. I know that we are meat eaters, and we were meant to harvest these animals for our food. By this point I had even skinned one, butchered it, and made sausage with it... so I can see the end result in my mind. But I submit that you are kind of a caveman if you don't pause in awe when your eyes first fall upon an animal like this.

He put up his head and looked our way.


These photos were taken with my zoom lens. For perspective, he was out about where that dried up larger tree is in this photo, below. I was initially observing him through by rifle's scope.


And Roy said, "Nope. He's too good. Too young, too perfect." He had to live to keep passing on those spectacular genes.

So I put down my rifle, picked up my camera, and relished the many minutes he gave us to just watch him.



Isn't he just perfect?


I even spied a nice mockingbird while shooting photos of the buck.


Also, soaring turkey vultures. We believe they were snacking on the gut pile from Troy's deer from a couple days prior. Circle of life, remember! The world of animals is not made up of herbivores alone.



So off I went, at the end of the day, with no deer again.


We even looked for deer while driving, ready to jump out, guns blazing (this in my mind, anyway) should the right spikey happen along. Of course I ONLY saw deer when we had no guns at hand!


 So we drank a beer instead.


A couple of other ladies had luck finding just the "right" kind of spike or old doe, bringing in lots of meat and helping the ranch reach their cull quota. The rest of us went out for some Mexican food, Texas style, at Honcho's in a neighboring town.


The margaritas were flowing, and would send us all off to sleep to dream of deer getting away from us all. Kidding!


Someone got an old doe on the last day, but it wouldn't be me. Here I am at the Plum Patch Blind, where I actually opted for a second, unplanned hunt this final day in a bid to bring home even more meat than my Yeti cooler could carry.


Alas, I didn't see a single deer this final day. It was hot and humid, and we all agreed that the deer were hunkered down napping in the shade instead of out foraging where we could spy them in the blind. But how lovely are the butterflies!


We all parted ways and promised to share updates and recipes for our incredible deer meat, perhaps planning another hunting trip together in the future. I feel like hunting with people is such a bonding experience that it makes you friends for life.


My final hours in Comfort were spent with the Leslies and another great hunting guide named David. I told him that next time I'd hunt with him, and maybe he'd help me get my first deer! His stories make me believe so, anyway.


We sampled some fine Texas grapes growing right on the vine on our walk out, courtesy of one of our guides named Jared. They were quite good... but that could have been the beer talking.


We gave Blake's beautiful hunting dog Holly (I know) a final farewell pat, and then we were off on our way!


Farewell, Hillingdon Ranch ... until next time. xo


Thanks for looking :)