In my last column I listed my choices for the best- and worst-tasting fish. This week, I unveil my lists of the best- and worst-tasting North American game animals and birds.
But before I do that, I’d like to dispel a myth about the eating qualities of whitetail deer. Regardless of their age, where they’re from, or whether they were in the rut, all whitetail deer taste the same.
I’ve eaten 6-month-old deer from Hoosier cornfields and 6-year-old bucks from the Selway Bitteroot Mountains in Idaho, and can unequivocally say they taste exactly the same. I have likewise eaten bucks during the peak of the rut with swollen necks that tasted exactly the same as 6-month-old fawns from the same state.
What make some deer taste better or worse than others is how they were handled during and after they were harvested. Meat that isn’t cooled quick enough or is contaminated tastes bad. Otherwise, I would challenge even the most discernible pallet to tell the difference from one whitetail to another.
Most Indiana hunters will likely agree with my exclusion of whitetail deer from the list of worst-tasting game animals. Some might, however, feel slighted that they also did not make my list for best-eating game.
The five worst-tasting game species:
5. Bears that have been feeding on dead fish. Unlike deer, bear are what they eat. I have truly enjoyed both black and grizzly bear meat when they got fat on a steady diet of berries.
The same bears are almost too smelly to skin in the fall after a month of eating dead fish, however. I dare anyone to eat them. The old saying about eating bears is spot-on when told in reference to rotten, fish-fed bears: If you like eating bear, you’re gonna really like dog.
4. Squirrels. Squirrels are hard to skin and their meat is tough. This why the most popular way of preparing them is in a stew. I have a problem eating meat I have to boil for four hours just to make it edible.
3. Mule deer. I’ve eaten mulies and whitetails from the same field in Montana and couldn’t believe how different they tasted. Even the backstraps on Mulies are tough and gamey.
2. Pronghorn antelope. I really love pronghorn antelope hunting, but haven’t done it in 10 years. That’s because I can’t stand the way they taste. American antelopes taste a lot like the mesquite brush they live amongst and eat. And despite its fine qualities as tinder for smoking meat, mesquite tastes like cedar when eaten off the limb.
1. Canada goose. Even the breasts of Canada geese are hard for me to choke down. They are tough and have a distinct, gamey taste. Forget about roasting or grilling a goose; they need to be diced small and covered in a lot of sauce for most folks to consume them.
The five best tasting game species:
5. Caribou. Native Alaskans covet caribou meat for a reason. It is mild and can be prepared a thousand different ways. It doesn’t hurt that there are several million of them running around Alaska and northern Canada, either.
4. Elk. Elk meat is a bit rich, but has none of the gamey qualities of mule deer. It is also more tender than caribou.
3. Moose. Moose meat makes two days of butchering and packing worth the effort. If handled correctly, it can be very mild, and even tender.
2. Pheasant. Though all upland birds are a bit dry when cooked, I could eat pheasant every day. They are more moist than wild turkeys and, I believe, more tender and tasty.
1. Dall sheep. This year in Alaska, I ran into a dall sheep hunter who wrecked his plane in the mountains and just made it out alive with his gear and a fine dall ram. We needed to eat the sheep or it was going to go bad.
Three of us gorged ourselves on sheep steaks and tenderloins for hours. We all skipped the potatoes we had also prepared, so we would have more room for sheep.
Dall sheep steaks are as tender as good angus beef steaks and easily as great-tasting. Unlike most other game meat, dall is so good, it is still delicious if it is over-cooked.