Hunters have many choices for game processing
Joann and Mike Frey have owned Clark Fork Custom Meats for 21 years. They have become so busy with domestic meat that they have had to curtail wild game processing quite a bit but are still doing what they can to help hunters. (Monte Turner/Mineral Independent)
Mineral Independent | September 6, 2023 12:00 AM
With archery season starting and the general rifle season opening day on Saturday, Oct. 21, for so many people, the best season of the year is almost here.
Those who process their own animals finding a meat processing plant isn’t an issue. For others who prefer to have professionals handle this for them, they know the local industry has changed in the last 3-5 years in several butcher shops.
“I’ve had an awful lot of people relying on me over the years and now we can’t offer the full services like we did. At this point we can only accept clean, boneless, trimmed and ready to grind wild game,” said Mike Frey.
Frey and his wife, Joann, have had Clark Fork Custom Meats in Plains for 21 years at 15 Mollys Lane. Today with 11 employees they are processing farm animals at a pace they have never experienced, and therefore, wild game is being done more as a favor to friends and customers, but conditions are placed on any meat.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that just because it’s been taken off the bone doesn’t mean they can just bring it in because it still has to be cut down into grinder fist-size pieces. They have to get the sinew and gristle and fat off and no hair whatsoever. That means we don’t cut steaks, roasts or chops from wild game,” he explained. “Most people understand and respect what we can and can’t do anymore and I just want my customers to know that I wish I could have the drop off process that we had for so many years, but we can’t anymore. I don’t like to say no, but I have to when it comes to skinning, carcass butchering and fresh cuts. When a hunter shows up with meat that was boned out and placed in game bags directly from the field, it won’t be clean enough or cut to size and I have to send them back to get it the way we can accept it. This has been so hard because these are the people we’ve serviced for so many years and they helped us build the business and now I have to tell them I can’t accept meat the way we used to,” he sadly explained.
But once it’s been ground, a tough decision needs to be made: summer sausage, German wieners, breakfast sausage, hot dogs or a plethora of other delectables to choose from. One important tip Frey shared is to never, ever put meat into scented trash bags.
“I need to add that to my sign on the front door,” which lists the requirements for acceptance of wild game.
Clark Fork Meats is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (406) 826-0169 for details.
H & H Meats at 1801 South Avenue West in Missoula (406) 549-1483 is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays during the hunting season. But when the season starts producing more animals, Saturday stretches to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Brad May has been there for 30 years and said that during the hunting season they take anything in any condition.
“If it’s not handled correctly in the field, that usually means less meat because of hair, pine needles and other issues like bloodshot, but we’ll get ‘em taken care of the right way for the customer,” he said.
If an animal is being dropped off after hours, hunters are to call (406) 544-8451.
“If I can’t meet somebody at the shop by 9 p.m., then they’ll have to wait and bring it in the next day, unless it’s really hot out as we’ll get someone down there to accept it.”
Actually, H & H Meats stops all production of commercial butchering during the hunting season to strictly take care of hunters.
“We literally quit taking any domestic animals during the big game season,” May explained.
Besides steaks, chops, burger and roasts, their options of bratwurst, smoked sausages and jerky are still big sellers. “Nothing has changed here in the last 30 years,” he chuckles, “Except the prices.”
In 1993, Jerry Stroot started Superior Meats at the location of 4212 Mullan Road East in Superior. A big expansion a few years ago that was expected to help during the hunting season but it drew more commercial business in his direction that keeps their shop busier than one can imagine.
However, like the Frey’s, he has customer’s that he has taken care of for so long that he can’t stop being of service to them either.
When it comes to ungulates, “We’re going to take as much as we can. I mean it’s going to be on a weekly basis where we’re sitting with our domestic stuff, which we’re booked out completely through the rest of the year. But we’re going to try to take in as much as we can with the wild game. We’ll take in carcasses, provided we’ve got the room. I’d prefer they are skinned but we’ll do that, too. It’s the carcasses we’re going to run into hiccups with as we have to keep the game separate from the domestic animals,” Stroot shared.
“I don’t see a problem with taking in the trim (boned out and clean meat) for burger, sausage, salami and products like that anytime during the season.”
He also suggested checking with them a few days before hunting to see where they are with critters-in-the-cooler, knowing that could change quickly. Well known for their muscle jerky and other specialty fun-foods, Superior Meats will be able to process your animals anyway you want them and in any condition they are received. Call (406) 822-4702 Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays 8 a.m. until noon.
All three meat processing plants stressed the importance of getting big game cooled as quickly as possible. More meat is lost to spoilage than any other reason and the first six to eight hours are critical in getting the meat cooled.
Skinning, quartering and laying or hanging them in the shade makes a huge difference and air circulation is an important factor. Worst case scenario if a hunter can’t get it skinned and must hang it whole from a tree, split the hide into the muscle down the entire backbone until you can return and pack it out. This allows some heat from the front brisket to be released rather than staying inside the cavity.