Hunting in the southern states can be frustrating sometimes and not just because a whitetail gave you the slip or busted you in your stand.
By Alan Clemons, Southern Managing Editor
This weekend at my home in Alabama the daytime temperatures pushed 70 degrees. Temps at night weren’t much cooler, either, dropping only into the 50s. Combined with a full moon last week, hunters lamented the combination of unseasonable heat and bright light at night. Weather in the southeast in winter never is a sure thing, even in December and January.
Packing out a deer anytime is part of the overall process of hunting, which we all know. Getting it cleaned and cooled, either in a walk-in cooler or on ice in a portable cooler, is part of hunting. During unseasonable temperatures, it’s even more important to get it cooled down to prevent the venison from spoiling.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a walk-in cooler or a processor nearby, that’s great. But some hunters drive several hours and need to use a cooler to transport meat. Making sure it’s packed appropriately for the drive can help reduce the chance of spoilage.
“Getting them cleaned and cooled down is the first thing,” said Tony Dolle of Orca Coolers, which is based in Smyrna, Tenn., near Nashville. “If you can hang a deer and let it cool down, especially if you can skin it, goes a long way. Cutting it up and wrapping it with cloth or butcher paper before putting it in the cooler also will protect it from any water from the ice and keep it cooler longer.”
Orca Coolers are roto-molded, insulated plastic coolers that have joined the market with others such as Yeti, K2 and Pelican. They’re heavily insulated, have sealing gaskets in the locking lids and keep ice and other things inside cooler for longer periods. They’re also more expensive than other coolers, which some hunters see as a tradeoff for durability and keeping things cold.
Skinning and cleaning deer at camp often is a quick fix before completing the more laborious tasks of trimming specific cuts at home or taking the deer to a processor. If you do all the prep at camp, however, it’s best to plan ahead with good knives, resealable plastic bags or butcher paper, and plenty of ice in the cooler for transport.
Dolle suggests a couple of easy things to do before hitting the road and then when you’re in camp to make your ice and cold items last longer.
“Before you leave the house, anything you can get cold or frozen before you leave, do that before you get it in the cooler,” he said. “If it’s already cold then it’ll last longer in the cooler – milk, eggs, beverages or whatever. If you have items that can be frozen, freeze them first before packing in the cooler.
“The second thing you can do is to get the cooler cold before packing it. Not everyone has access to a walk-in freezer, but if you can and can get the cooler cold, that makes a difference.”
Dolle suggested a solid block of ice works best instead of bagged or loose ice, which may melt quicker. Edges of loose ice cubes touching other items, especially anything that’s not cool already, will melt quicker. But bagged ice is easier to buy and transport; keep it in the bag, or at least have one sealed bag on the bottom and pack items around it before covering with another one or with loose ice.
“Don’t open the lid until you have to,” he said. “People hold the lid open and it’s like your daddy always said … you’re not trying to cool everything outside. Keep that lid closed and it’ll make a difference of hours with a cooler that has a full-frame gasket and locks, because that’s what those are designed for. If you don’t have seals for coolers, I don’t care what anyone says, the cold (air) gets out and changes the temperature inside quicker. If need be, you can wrap duct tape around the lid edges to create a seal and that helps, too.”
Packing a cooler that will be used repeatedly can be done with more efficiency by planning smartly, Dolle said. Put sodas, water or beverages on one side so if someone opens the lid they’re not scratching around looking for something. Packages of meat, cheese or other items should be packed around the bag of ice. Reducing the time of the lid being open while you search for something helps keep the cool air from escaping.
If your cooler has a drain plug, make sure it’s tightly sealed. Drain water from the cooler so things aren’t floating around. Dolle suggests using the water for washing hands or boots, or to give your dog a fresh bowl to drink. Nothing wrong with recyling that water if it’s clean.
When temperatures are warm, even with the more insulated Orca or other coolers, keep them in a shady area away from sunlight. This also helps reduce the melting process inside.
“A lot of it is just common sense things that you can do to keep your meat or camp items colder a lot longer,” Dolle said. “Plan ahead and it’ll help, no matter which cooler you have.”