Have you ever wanted to experience -- first hand -- what is involved with hunting your dinner?
It sounds a little primal, but as people increasingly ask where their food is coming from, there's a growing movement of those looking to source food beyond the farm–to-table experience.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is part of that movement. Last year, he updated his Facebook status to say that he wanted only to eat the meat “from animals I’ve killed myself."
Luckily, several outdoors companies are now catering to those who not only want to hunt for their own food, but learn how to prepare it as well.
I decided that I wanted to try my hand at hunting my own food. For me, my epiphany came after departing from the quiet, tony island of Canoan -- tucked away within the archipelago of the Caribbean’s St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
I was aboard Captain Yannis’ Catamaran and hopping the Tobago Cays, where we docked in Mayreau Cay’s unprotected and biodiverse Salt Whistle Bay.
Beneath the glittering surface, sea urchin, white jellyfish, trumpet fish and rays swam in abundance. With Captain Jerry’s approval I dove down and carefully, squeamishly scooped up a few urchins from the seafloor. Back onboard, I bravely cracked open the hard, white, prickly shell with a knife and rinsed out the guts from inside. Armed with a spoon, lemon slice, and pinch of salt, I slipped the yellow, yolk-like meat into my mouth and swallowed.
This was a small catch, but it triggered a desire within me to take ownership of what I consume -- from the hunt, to the dinner table.
“People want to know where their food comes from and being a part of the process demonstrates that,” says Damien Nurre, owner of Deep Canyon Outfitters in Central Oregon. “We often get a father teaching his son or daughter to hunt. They learn that process is part of the game, you take care of what you shoot.”
Most of these are thoughtful meat and fish-eaters with a conscience, curious to channel their inner Daniel Boone by hunting and gathering satiating grub.
“Not all hunters are gun lovers who want to kill,” says Nurre. “That person is out there, but 99.99 percent of people who hunt with us are passionate about the outdoors. Hunting is the great excuse to be a part of the natural world. It’s the overall experience: getting to consume what you harvested and then reminisce about the day with your buddies.”
That’s not to say the thrill of the primal isn’t enjoyed. “At the end of the day, most of my guests are exchanging recipes for how to prepare dinner.”
Getting out in nature often requires little more than gun, the right paperwork and some safety classes. To hunt and fish in America, you are required by law to have the proper licenses. Some states require additional hunter’s safety certification.
“You get it at Wal-Mart. It takes ten minutes,” says Adam Gilkey, owner of High Caliber Outdoors. The hunter’s safety card can be obtained online. Most hunting and fishing outfits will pit-stop to obtain a license for those in need.
There are countless outfits that offer guests the chance to hunt their own food. We picked three companies that offer a unique hunting -to-table experience.
At Deep Canyon Outfitters, the hunting ground is big open country, a diverse ecosystem and juxtaposing topography. Just 45 minutes from Bend, the hot, dusty, desert dotted with sage bush contrasts with grassy savannas and volcanic mountains.
Groups average three people for a three-hour upland hunt of pheasants, Tucker partridge and California Valley quail. “I hunt only what I want to eat," says Nurre. "My guests consume everything they shoot on the property.”
There’s breakfast at the lodge and 1.5 hours shooting clay targets for warm-up.
“We practice with you until you’re comfortable holding and then shooting a shotgun,” says Nurre.
Deep Canyon guests can take cooking classes and help with meal preparations. Groups up to three are $475 and $150 per person per night for overnight stays. It costs an additional $50 to dress your prey and $100 a head for the cooking class.
At Frontiers Travel they believe that meals mean more when you’re involved in hunting the food.
“You don’t get that in a grocery store. You relive the experience when you unwrap the venison or elk steak from the freezer. Same with a wall mount every time you walk into the den,” says Joe Codd, from Frontiers Travel.
Frontiers Travel is a global company with properties across the country and around the world. One of the properties they work with is Three Forks Ranch that stretches across 200,000 acres, 40 miles north of Steamboat Springs, at a 7,200-foot elevation where a moderate level of fitness is ideal. Rolling terrain and prairies diverge steep, lodgepole pines. Views are hugely expansive, where 100 miles in all directions finds absolute wilderness.
Guests hunt for elk, white tail deer, mule deer, red stag, pronghorn, as well as fish for trout.
After hunters hit their mark, it’s total hands-on with field cleaning – if you want. That can mean pulling back hide and removing entrails.
“You learn a lot without having to stick your hands in there. That’s often plenty for a first timer,” says Codd. Most hunts go till dark, so the last thing many want to do is clean and cook.
Eating elk post-hunt isn’t optimal, however, the tenderloin is often prepped as an immediate appetizer prize. Antlered meat is best hung and aged a few days to firm up and lose some gaminess. Aged elk, white tail deer, mule deer, red stag, and pronghorn antelope from hunts by others contribute to kitchen lessons instead.
A five-day elk hunt with lodging, guides and meals runs $10,000. Hunting white tail deer is less. A cheaper and similar option is another Frontier property, Linehan Outfitting in Montana. Five days hunting white tail runs around $4,500 with all aforementioned accoutrements.
With High Caliber Outdoors, duck and goose hunting begin at sunrise. Guests can get involved from setting up decoys, to cleaning and Bradley-smoking the birds. But these outfitters also specialize in handfishing aka ‘noodling,’ where the hunter uses bare hands to catch flathead catfish hiding in holes along the river bank.
“It’s my family’s pastime and history, traditions I’ll pass to my son,” says Gilkey. “Most of what I catch I don’t eat. It’s the rush. We take pictures, film; let them go. My father and his brothers all lived off handfishing. My wife, mom, and sister-in-law go too. Now it’s about fellowship, to spend time with friends and family."
Handfishing is afternoon sport, as the giant whiskered fish hunt at night and nest by day.
“You gotta drink while handfishing,” says Gilkey. “Totties -- whiskey and Pepsi build courage for sticking your hand in a dark hole. Those guys bite, although, some are like dogs. You can literally rub their bellies.“
Gilkey provides the Rubbermaid gloves and suggests old tennis shoes and jeans to protect from nibbles and rocks. Catches reach 42lbs. Gilkey averages 5-10 a day and releases nearly all – especially those over 20lbs since they are breeders. New “noodlers” can learn to skin, clean, and filet the fish before deep-frying.
“If you’re afraid to put your hand in the hole you can be the one to plug the other end,” says Gilkey. “Just as important to plug the hole as catch the fish. We pour whiskey on the wounds and go on down the road!”
Guests stay in a handcrafted all-wood cabin. Hunts run $450 a day with accommodations. A bonus: Gilkey specializes in taxidermy. Ducks run $250, an open-mouthed bobcat, $750.