by Robert Booz
I’ll never forget the first time that I went deer hunting. it was just outside of Killington, Vermont; my father had invited me to join the trip alongside his long-assembled cast of hunting buddies. We piled into cheap motel rooms, ate liverwurst sandwiches with brown mustard, and woke up in the still-dark cold of the late November morning to sip gas-station coffee and sneak into the woods to stalk our prey, the white-tailed buck.
It rained a lot that week. I was young, and still growing quickly back then, so rather than invest in hunting clothes that wouldn’t fit the next season, my father dug into an old trunk in our attic and fished out some of my grandfather’s ancient wool hunting plaid. In the rain-soaked woods, I stunk of wet dog and mothballs. No one got any deer that year, not even my dad’s buddies in their expensive camouflage, sans canine-naphthalene scent.
Perhaps we would’ve fared better if we had come to the Vineyard. The Massachusetts Division of Wildlife and Fisheries reports that today, the Island hosts an average of 45 to 55 deer per square mile. (To put this number into perspective, mainland Massachusetts averages ten deer within the same area.) As an added perk of an unhealthily high deer population, hunters are allowed to take more deer in season on the Island than on the mainland, and antler-less deer permits, otherwise difficult to obtain, are relatively easy to get here. And there’s ample time—archery season opens not long after Labor Day, and primitive arms season ends around the first of the year.
But the most popular time here is shot- gun season. Falling around the first week or so of December, it’s marked by a steep rise in the number of camouflage-clad, gun-toting folks across fields and forests. This is especially true in the state forest, which while public and easily accessible, can feel overrun with hunters. If you’re into solitude and a bit more cautious about your own safety, it’s worth applying to hunt on a Land Bank property, or seek permission to hunt on a friend’s private land.
Any farmer on the Island—heck, any- one with a garden—can tell you that deer pressure is a real problem, and any solution requires substantial investment. (The eight-foot-tall elk fencing capable of restraining deer can easily run $1 or more per foot.) But harvesting Island venison holds other benefits aside from helping farmers and your neighbor’s geraniums: Keeping deer populations in check preserves the general health of the ecosystem and biodiversity on the Island, prevents deer-car collisions, and even limits the incidences of tickborne illness. And, as an added bonus, you get some tasty venison out of the deal.
Venison is a delicious, lean meat with a wild, complex flavor. But Island venison is a special treat. Local deer feast on a diverse forest and field menu and acorns are a chief entrée—just like the much sought-after acorn-fed pork, acorn-fed deer yields venison of a deep purple-red hue with a luscious texture and an earthy flavor.
When cooking venison, I like to let the natural flavor of the meat shine. I’ll pan-fry or roast as much of the deer as possible in a simple rub of butter, salt, pepper, and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, then pair it with the tastes of the season—earthy squashes, root vegetables, and hearty greens complement the flavor of game meat. Other classic preparations include venison burgers, rich venison stews, and even pork-enriched venison sausage. (A word of forewarning: the meat’s very lean and can overcook when not watched closely.) Tis’ the season—the time’s ripe to get into the hunt, or befriend someone who’s already on it. Your mouth will thank you.