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On The Trail: Family a-fare


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What better way to traipse off to my annual December vacation than by telling a Thanksgiving tale of sorts — one focused on a Warwick hunter-gatherer family with a freezerful of healthy game meat before the first shot of the Massachusetts shotgun deer hunting season.

Yes, that long passed Harvest Moon in the midnight sky must have smiled favorably upon the Wayne and Tracey Kirley family, which has had one of those years a hunting family never forgets. Some years are tough, day after day without so much as a glimpse of a distant whitetail flag waving goodbye; others, well, they’re quite the opposite, when for some reason beyond human comprehension you just seem to be in the right place at the right time more often than anyone could dream of. It just happens that way ... sometimes. Not often.

“I’ve got a lotta meat in the freezer,” said 49-year-old Wayne, caught at home Monday evening on the phone after slaughtering a dozen turkeys for the holiday. “We’ve got 12 (beef cattle) out back that I won’t need for meat this year. Maybe I’ll sell a couple.”

Thus far, with the Bay State shotgun deer season on the doorstep, the Kirleys have three nice bucks totaling over 500 pounds dressed plus the meat from a 445-pound bear in the freezer. First, 15-year-old son Joshua who’s since turned 16, bagged a 7-point, 121-pound buck during the one-day, Sept. 30 Massachusetts Youth Deer Hunt, held annually for young hunters on the fourth Saturday following Labor Day. Then came Wayne’s opening-day (Nov. 8) New Hampshire buck sporting a beautiful 12-point rack and tipping the scales at 195 pounds, a nice buck no matter how you rate it. But the Kirley crew wasn’t done yet. Uh-uh. Not by a long shot.

Wife Tracey made her contribution by bagging a nice 8-point, 175-pound New Hampshire buck on Nov. 14, four days before Wayne, hunting New Hampshire deer and Bay State bear along the Richmond, N.H./Warwick line, spotted the big bruin sauntering through the Warwick woods south of him and dropped it with two well-placed .243 bullets. As you can imagine, his work had just begun. Then all he had to do was field-dress the cumbersome beast that would have tipped the scales at 523 pounds in the round, then get the 445-pound carcass home. Praise the heavens that son Josh was in a stand within earshot.

When the Franklin Tech teen heard the shot at around 8 a.m., he knew it was his dad. Confirmation soon arrived beneath his tree stand, when Wayne arrived wearing a furtive smile, kinda like the cat that swallowed the canary.

“Come with me,” he said to his son, signaling for him to descend his tree stand. “I’ve got something to show you.”

“What?”

“You’ll see.”

Wayne made quite a playful ordeal of the journey by blindfolding his son and leading him by the hand to the top of the ridgeline where the dead bruin lay. Blindfold removed, the awestruck kid took one look at the beast and gasped, “Wow! What do you think he weighs?”

He would soon discover the answer to that question … the hard way. But first they had to return home to retrieve an ice-fishing sled for assistance in dragging the carcass some 400 yards to a trail they could access with a 4-wheeler. Hoping to tan the hide for a rug, Wayne wanted to lose as little fur as possible on the drag.

“I’ll tell you we had a helluva time getting that bear out of the woods,” Wayne recalled. “I shot him at 8 and didn’t get home till 5. We needed the sled, a 4-wheeler and a tractor with a bucket-loader. I think in the future I’ll settle for beras in the 200- to 250-pound range.”

The tractor was necessary because the 2-wheel-drive 4-wheeler could not haul the bear up a hill they encountered. So Wayne stayed while Josh went home for the tractor. When he returned to the scene, they were able to roll the beast into the bucket and haul it home, where Wayne was determined to quickly get it checked in at Grrrr Gear in Orange and back home to skin it before the meat spoiled. Because bears have warm, thick coats and a heavy layer of insulating fat underneath for hibernation, Wayne knew the meat would quickly spoil if he didn’t skin it.

“They say the guy who shot that big bear last year (in New Salem) lost all the meat,” he said. “So, I wanted to get the hide off quickly and do everything I could to prevent that from happening.”

Good thinking. According to wife Tracey’s father, the Orange butcher who carved up the carcass packaged 150 pounds of fat with the meat. Asked what he planned to do with the fat, Wayne said his family will render it, fry it up and eat it.

“It’s delicious, very similar to pig fat, and good for you when properly prepared,” he said. “I guess bear fat is full of vitamin K2.” Placing value on such unusual food is straight out of the Paleo-diet playbook.

Could it be that some of that ancient fireside delicacy will wind up on the Thanksgiving table alongside homegrown turkey, wild venison and, hey, while they’re at it, a little medium-rare backstrap of bruin fried to tender, tasty perfection in its own fat?

Why not? Sounds like good, old-fashioned New England fare — in fact, probably closer to the first Thanksgiving meal of Pilgrim and Wampanoag lore than what’s on the typical plate these days.

Like they say, it’s tough duty but someone’s gotta do it it.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.