Family A-Fare

What better way to traipse off to my annual December vacation than by telling a Thanksgiving tale – one about a Warwick hunter-gatherer family with a freezerful of healthy game-meat before the first shot of the Massachusetts shotgun deer hunting season is fired?

Yes, that long passed Harvest Moon in the midnight sky smiled favorably upon the Wayne and Tracey Kirley family, which has had one of those years a hunting family will never forget. 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. 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 holiday turkeys. “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 right on the doorstep, the Kirleys have killed three nice bucks totaling over 500 pounds field-dressed, plus meat from a 445-pound bear in the freezer. Quite a harvest season.

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 on the fourth Saturday following Labor Day for young hunters. 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 regardless of where you’re hunting. 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 and dropped it with two well-placed .243 bullets. 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 and 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, where Wayne arrived wearing a furtive, cat-that-swallowed-the-canary grin.

“Come with me,” he said to his son, signaling 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 hike by blindfolding his son and leading him by the hand to the top of the ridgeline where the dead bruin lay. On the scene, blindfold removed, the awestruck kid took one look and gasped, “Wow! What do you think he weighs?”

The answer was soon discovered … 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 bear rug, Wayne did his best to protect the fur.

“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 be happy with a 200- to 250-pounder.”

The tractor became necessary because the 2-wheel-drive 4-wheeler could not haul the bear up a hill encountered. So, Wayne stayed with the bear as Josh went home for the tractor. When he returned, they were able to roll the beast into the bucket, tip it back and drive it home, where Wayne was determined to quickly get it to the Grrrr Gear checking station in Orange, then back home to skin it before the meat spoiled. Because bears have heavy coats and a thick 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 to me.”

Good thinking. According to wife Tracey’s father, the Orange butcher who carved up the carcass had 150 pounds of fat with the packaged 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, which is good for you when properly prepared,” he said. “I guess it’s full of vitamin K2,” which sounds like it came straight out of the Paleo-diet playbook.

Could it be that some of that ancient, sizzling fireside delicacy will wind up on the Kirley Thanksgiving table alongside homegrown turkey and wild venison? You bethca. And, hey, while they’re at it, why not a little pan-fried backstrap of bruin seared to tender, tasty perfection in its own fat?

What a good, old-fashioned, New England meal – in fact, probably closer to the first Thanksgiving feast of Pilgrim and Wampanoag lore than what’s on the plate these days.

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

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