A Field Dressing Guide for Elk and Deer
The western sky was rosy with the setting sun as I walked down the abandoned rail spur toward the jeep. I had ten more minutes of legal shooting time on the last day of my muzzleloader whitetail hunt. It was the first time I'd hunted big game in any state outside Colorado, and I had tremendously enjoyed the experience, despite not bagging a whitetail buck. I had one good shooting opportunity, when a nice 8-point buck bolted out of the brush and stood broadside to me, but I had shot over his back in my excitement. Oh, well. Another time.
But wait. Three fat does came stepping out of the brush to cross the railroad tracks, 60 yards in front of me. I had an either-sex tag, and I had remembered Kent, the outfitter, explaining their mission to cull as many does as possible. At least I would be able to take home some good venison. I raised my rifle, centered the sight behind the shoulder of the lead doe, and fired. A massive blood trail confirmed that I had connected, and I found her piled up 25 yards away. Whistling as I worked, I quickly field-dressed her and propped her open to cool. I walked on down the railroad grade and met Kent at the jeep.
"Did you shoot?" he asked. I showed him my bloody hands. "I got some meat," I answered. "A nice fat doe."
"You didn't have to do that," Kent said. "Do what?" I replied. "Field-dress her," he answered. "We do all that at the barn." Kent wheeled the jeep around and motored through the fields to the deer, then got out and loaded the carcass on a platform sticking out of the trailer hitch. Pretty slick deal. He then explained that most outfitters don't like their clients to field-dress an animal in the vicinity of a tree stand because it discourages other animals to come into the area. They like to gut and skin their animals from a block and tackle in front of their meat locker. What a luxury.
Of all the animals that I have personally harvested and all the animals we've guided our clients into, I've had the luxury of loading a whole carcass onto a vehicle only a few times. Usually the animals my clients and I harvest are at least a couple of miles back in the wilderness area, and the only way to get them out is to quarter them up and pack them out by horseback. When you're talking about a 700-pound bull elk, that can be a tremendous project.
For those of you who are interested in how to take care of a large big game animal in a wilderness setting, I'll explain. After you've detached and signed your carcass tag, here's an A-to-Z guide to taking care of your meat in the backwoods.
You'll need a good set of field-dressing tools:
- Knife: Very important is a sharp, stout knife with a strong blade. I don't mean a Bowie knife with an 8-inch blade; a good lockback hunting knife with a 3-1/2" blade will do. Better yet, carry two of them.
- Sharpener: make sure you can sharpen your knives in the field. They'll dull quickly on a large elk by the time you get it skinned and quartered.
- Saw: you'll need a folding saw with a small-toothed bone blade.
- Cord: A good hank of strong 1/4" nylon cord is very handy.
- Game bags: I like to use expensive game bags—the Alaska brand bags are over $20 for a set of four, but they're worth it.
- Tarp: When skinning your animal, it's nice to have a six-foot-square tarp to keep your meat clean, but I don't like carrying such a tarp with me while I'm hunting.
- Garbage bag: a clean kitchen garbage bag to carry the heart and liver.
Elk and mule deer are very large animals. I've shot mule deer bucks that weighed well over 300 pounds, and a typical raghorn (2-1/2 year-old) bull elk will weigh anywhere from 450 to 600 pounds. Though the stories you hear of 1,200 pound bull elk are fairy tales, a very large bull elk can weigh up to 800 pounds.
An animal of that size has a great amount of mass, and therefore body heat. It is extremely important to make sure to dissipate as much of that heat as possible. For those hunters who have learned to reach up into a body cavity and carve out the vitals, forget it.
First, situate the animal so that he's flat on his back with his feet in the air. If you're on a sidehill or steep slope, take a length of cord and tie a leg off to a tree or rock to stabilize the animal. I've been on field-dressing projects where the animal ended up sliding downhill 150 feet by the time we were finished. If you're alone, tie off a foot so that the elk remains "belly up." If you’ve got help, have your helper grab a leg and lever the animal on its back.
When we field-dress an elk, we open the entire carcass from the anus to the throat. Start by lifting up a fold of skin from the animal's belly between your thumb and forefinger, then carefully puncturing the soft skin. Be very careful to avoid perforating the paunch. Then simply slit the animal open all the way up to the chin and down to the tail. When you hit the sternum, you won't be able to cut through the ribcage, and the same goes for the pelvis. That's fine—just cut down to the bone with your knife.
When you come to the testicles, don't cut them off. The same goes for mammary glands if you shoot a cow or doe. In Colorado and many other states, you must leave evidence of sex on the carcass. Simply cut the skin between the two testicles and leave one testicle attached to each hindquarter. Then slice down through the hams to separate the hindquarters from one another until you hit the pelvis. It's important that you cut straight down, or otherwise you'll find yourself cutting deep into a hindquarter. The goal is to hit the exact middle of the pelvic bone with your knife.
Once you've parted the hams, take your sharp knife and score out the anus of the animal. Now you've got him slit from stem to stern. Once this has been done, get out your meat saw. Cut through the sternum until you've completely opened the ribcage. Then saw through the pelvic bone. Be very careful not to perforate the bladder, which is directly underneath the pelvic bone. If you cut it, you'll spray urine over some of the best meat on the hindquarters. Keep the saw blade parallel to the bone and cut carefully.
Set your saw aside and pick up your knife again. (By the way, this is when I HATE camouflage patterns on knife and saw handles. I'd much prefer blaze orange. Carefully note where you place your knives and saws, because it's easy to lose them!) Now cut the animal's windpipe just under the chin and grab hold. Your mission now is to separate the smooth muscle tissue holding the entrails from the carcass. Gently slice this tissue while you pull on the windpipe, and pretty soon, the entire gutpile will come rolling out. Make sure to completely remove the colon and the bladder, which can sometimes hang up on the pelvic bone. This is a great source of bacteria and also heat, so it's very important to remove all of the entrails.
At this point, your animal is considered field-dressed. If you like heart or liver, carefully remove the organs from the rest of the innards and put them in a plastic bag. I like to lay them on the snow first, if there is any, so they'll cool off and drain blood.
Now you've got a decision to make—do you skin and quarter the animal immediately or do you come back later and finish the job? Here's how I make the decision—if I have horses or manpower nearby to ensure that the animal can be moved to camp, a hanging pole, or to a vehicle, I'll go ahead and start skinning and quartering.
If I know it's late in the day, I don't have horses or help nearby, and I won't be able to pack out the animal that day, I'll leave it intact with the skin on. If this is the case, you do have to be concerned with predators visiting the kill site. Some predators are really no problem, such as coyotes and mountain lions. Lions are efficient enough predators that they like to kill their own meat and generally won't bother a kill with man scent all around it. Coyotes, if they do visit your kill site, will generally go for the gut pile first, and in all my experience, I've never had trouble with coyotes.
Birds and flies are your biggest concern. On one hand, you have to worry about cooling your meat, because if you don't, it will spoil quickly. On the other hand, if you simply prop the carcass wide open to cool, you may come back the next day to find 10 or 20 pounds of good meat pecked away by birds, or you'll have blowflies go to town on it. I've had more problems with birds and flies than any other animal. Stellar's jays, bluejays, crows, magpies, and even vultures have pecked away at my kills.
I cool the animal according to the seasons. If it's early fall and warm, I spread the animal out as I gutted it, belly up, and prop it open as well as possible to allow cooling. It's very important to cool the shoulder and hindquarter regions. It there's any shade available, I pull the carcass into the shade. To avoid loss by birds, I gather up a big pile of branches and pine boughs to lace over the open carcass. The goal is to allow air to pass through, but to keep flies and birds out. It usually works pretty well, because birds don't like to crawl into spots where they can't easily fly out.
Bears are another story. If a bear gets into your kill, chances are he'll eat a lot of it, and no manner of propping or positioning the carcass will make any difference. Only one tactic comes to mind, and that is spreading cayenne pepper on the hide, or possibly urinating in five or six spots around the kill site to spread your human scent around. I personally have had no difficulties with bears, but I know several hunters who have.
If it's late in the fall and there is snow on the ground, I fill the carcass with snow to begin the cooling process, then lay it ribcage down, spread-eagled on the snow. That way birds can't get through the hide to the meat.
This doesn't mean, however, that you can sip coffee until noon the next day before you mosey on out to pack out your kill. Every hour that you leave your carcass on the mountain is another hour that birds, bears, heat, or flies can ruin your meat. Get up at dawn, get your crew together, and get to work. Please note that "wasting of game meat" is a serious game offense in Colorado and many other states, so if you've pulled the trigger on an animal, you've obligated yourself to packing out all the edible portions of an animal, not just the choice cuts.
If you're working with a crew of people with backpacks, I recommend boning out your kill. There's simply no point in packing out a skeleton's worth of heavy bones. If you've got packhorses, I quarter the animal, leaving the ribcage behind. At any rate, start by skinning the animal. This is where the tarp comes in handy. Lay the tarp down to give yourself a clean surface, and start by slicing up the forearm of the animal. Skin one side of the animal, then the other. The cleaner you can keep the carcass, the better. If you don't have a tarp available, keep the raw side of the hide clean and use it to protect the meat. Skin it out all the way up to the head. If you want to save the hide for tanning (and elk leather is really beautiful), be careful not to slice the hide. Remember to skin out the testicles and leave one on each hindquarter. If it's a cow, leave a mammary gland or the vulva attached.
To quarter an animal for packing out, we start by lifting up the front leg and separating the shoulder from the ribcage with your knife. There is no bone attaching the shoulder to the ribs, just muscle. It's easily done. Drop the shoulder into a game bag. (I must insert a note here about game bags. You need at least five game bags for an elk. Whitetail-sized game bags will hold only one quarter of an elk. The Alaska game bags are a complete set of heavy-duty breathable muslin. It's important that the meat is not wrapped with an impermeable layer such as a garbage bag, because the meat will become clammy and start to spoil. If you don't bring game bags, your meat will certainly end up coated with dirt, hair, leaves, pine needles, etc.)
With the shoulder gone, you can strip out the backstrap on that side. The backstrap is the loin meat that extends all the way from the point of the hip to the head. It's fabulous meat. Start just forward of the hindquarter and cut across the loin. Find the spine and slide your knife down next to the spine until you hit the ribs. Then start at the ribs and follow the bone upward until you meet the spine. Slice forward rib by rib and peel the loin out all the way up the neck to the head. Drop the backstrap into a game bag. Repeat the procedure for the other side of the animal.
Now you're left with a ribcage and hindquarters. There's some pretty good sausage meat on the ribcage, so I bone that out with my knife and drop it in with the backstraps. Now there's nothing left on the ribs except the tenderloins on the inside. Strip these out just like you did the backstraps and drop them in a game bag. I don't pack out the ribcage for several reasons. First, after you've stripped off the rib meat, there's nothing left to eat. Secondly, if there is any concern about chronic wasting disease, the disease is concentrated in the spinal column, which we are leaving behind. Thirdly, it's heavy and cumbersome.
Now the only meat left is the hindquarters. Using your meat saw, cut the quarters from the pelvic bones and wrap them in a game bag as well. Now your meat is ready to pack out. You've got two shoulders, two backstraps, two tenderloins, rib meat, two hindquarters, and a heart and liver. If you have a trophy, you'll also have a head and cape. If you have a decent rack but you don't want to mount it, you may have a skull and horns and an elk hide for tanning.
When packing meat on a packhorse, remember that the load must be balanced. Make sure to tighten your cinches before you start loading the panniers. A good-sized elk is a load for two horses, so don't overload your beast of burden. Load the hindquarters so that the outside of the elk is in contact with the outside of the horse. You don't want the jagged edges of the sawn pelvic bone rubbing against your horse. Load one hindquarter on each side of the horse. Then load the shoulders on each side of your other packhorse. Shoulders are light, so you can drop a backstrap in each pannier with the shoulders. If you want to pack out the hide, roll it up like a rug and drape it over the top of the saddle, then tighten the top straps of the panniers across it.
To pack out the head, our technique is to bridge the antlers with a stick by tying off to each beam of the antlers. Wrap the stick with a jacket or a saddle blanket, and set the antlers across the top of the saddle, beams pointing to the rear. The stick rides on the animal's rump and keeps the tines from digging into the pack animal. It's very important to wrap the stick with cloth, however, or it will rub on the horse or mule and sore him badly. If it's a small head, you can drop it in one pannier and balance the load with the heart and liver on the other side.
So how much does all this weigh? Well, the rule of thumb is that a skinned and quartered big game animal usually weighs half of its live weight. If a bull weighs 600 pounds, then the shoulders, hindquarters, and backstraps (without the 50-pound ribcage) will weigh about 250. The hide weighs about 50 pounds and the head, skinned out, with a decent 5x5 rack, weighs about 30-40 pounds. The liver and heart can vary, but generally weigh about 15-20 pounds together.
If you don't have horses, this is where packframes come into the picture. One man can carry out about a quarter of an elk in a load. External-frame backpacks are better than internal-frame backpacks, because it's easier to load large quantities of meat. If it's a short haul, you may want to haul out the quarters with the bones in, but if it's a long haul, you may as well set about de-boning the quarters. Bones are heavy. It will take a couple of guys a couple of hours to de-bone an elk. It's a simple concept, but the more experience you have, the better. Start with your knife and cut down to the bone, then core the bone out until only meat is left.
It's a good deal of work, but the good news is that once you've done it, there's very little butchering left to do. Meat is heavy and cumbersome, and if you pack out a whole elk by yourself, you'll be one tired puppy. The more help, the better.
Once you get your meat to camp or to a vehicle, then it's time to tag your meat. Notice that I said "tag your meat," not "tag your antlers". Game wardens, meat processors, and other professionals aren't interested in seeing tagged antlers. The carcass tag belongs with the meat, so wrap it on a hindquarter and make sure it's securely attached. You taxidermist will simply cut it off and throw it away, but your meat processor might not wrap your meat without it.
You're still not "out of the woods," however. Once your meat is packed out, you still have to be very concerned about cooling it out. Get it to a meat locker or a very cool shed or storage area as soon as possible. Anything over 40-45 degrees is too warm.
Most meatcutters advocate "hanging" an animal at least five days to give the animal's natural bacteria a chance to break down the meat fibers. Anything over seven or eight days, in my opinion, is too long. You can butcher an animal right away, but the meat will be somewhat tougher.
Whether you choose to butcher your own meat or have it processed is a personal decision. I prefer to butcher my own. I like to select the cuts and the sizes of the portions as I drop the cuts first into plastic sandwich bags, then wrap it in freezer paper. It saves money, too. Many meatcutters charge as much as $175 to butcher an elk, and it's an enjoyable Saturday afternoon of work while watching a portable TV with college football.
I've heard many complaints from hunters that they didn't get all the elk meat that they had brought in for processing. I've heard nasty allegations that the processors sold hunters' meat to restaurants and so forth. I think that's a bunch of baloney. All the meat processors that I know are honest, hardworking folks who are working full tilt 14 hours a day during the hunting season, dealing with dirty carcasses and unskinned animals. They don't have the time or energy to worry about stealing someone's choice cuts. I like to send the trimmings from my butchering efforts in to the locker plant to have bratwurst, Italian sausage, summer sausage, and other delicacies made.
A note on shipping meat—if you have to bolt for home and can't take your meat with you, it will be very expensive to ship. Budget about two bucks a pound for second-day air freight. A much cheaper alternative is to bring some coolers to the locker plant and have the meatcutter ship the meat via UPS ground, especially if it's late in the year. I wouldn't recommend this tactic during September, but in late October and November or December, you're in good shape if the meat is frozen hard before shipping. Think about it—have you ever seen a heated UPS warehouse? They don't exist. If you're shipping meat from Colorado to Minnesota or Vermont, for example, the route will be cold the whole way and the meat will arrive frozen just as solid as when it left the locker plant, at about a tenth of the cost.
If your meat is frozen and you're flying home, you can pay extra for the weight. However, with the new security rules, you may have to think twice about this plan, because frozen meat probably looks a lot like a bomb on an X-ray machine. Don't put dry ice in with your meat. If you do, and someone is shipping a dog or a cat in an airline crate, the dry ice fumes can kill the animal in the cargo hold. My clients report flying home with frozen meat, and after two or three layovers, arriving home with it still frozen rock solid.
I've carefully weighed the red meat gleaned from several average-sized bull elk, and 125 pounds of steaks, chops, roasts, and burger is about right. If you shoot an animal in the hindquarter or drag it half a mile down a muddy hill, your yield will be less. If that sounds like not very much, think about it this way—you can feed a family of four on a pound or pound and a half of elk meat, and that's every third day for a year. Counting in some meals of chicken, fish, or pork chops, that elk will last a family for a full year of organic, steroid-free, antibiotic-free, low-fat, low-cholesterol, completely natural, tasty red meat. What could be better?