Thank goodness for snow and a downhill pull! Effortlessly tugging the rope, my toboggan slid as though it were self-propelled. Ankle-deep, the powdery white stuff was a blessing. Fortuitous indeed, I'd brought my sled and it's a good thing. Not long before, I'd been hiding in my blind. Overcast skies kept things dark for a few minutes longer than usual. As daylight finally illuminated my surroundings I heard the welcome sounds of a buck grunting in the trees nearby. This would be my last deer hunt of the season. I'd decided to take the first deer that presented a shot. As it turned out, a doe emerged from the trees and stood motionless 75 yards away. Taking careful aim with my .50 cal. T/C I squeezed. A thunderous boom broke the morning silence and the billow of smoke lingered for a few seconds. Then, as I stuffed another sabot down the pipe, the buck emerged from the woods and stood in the same spot. With two tags in my pocket there was no deciding. Playing out the scenario one more time, I was rewarded with not one, but two blackpowder deer for my efforts. With the fun part done, I was then faced with moving 400 pounds of deer to my truck. Relieved that I'd brought my sled, both deer were loaded and easily pulled several hundred yards to my vehicle. Although not the be-all or end-all, the sled made retrieval a piece of cake.
On another hunt, I used a large tarp to slide quarters of a moose over a 300 yard distance to my vehicle. Labor-intensive it was, but again a skiff of snow made that strategy more practical than carrying it on our backs. The bottom line - a little creativity goes a long way when faced with the task of moving hundreds of pounds of meat from point A to point B.
In many respects, today's hunter is spoiled. For most of us, retrieving downed game is not an issue. Our states and provinces are laced with farmland, backroads, and cutlines. In turn, access to the areas we hunt is often straightforward. With emphasis placed on the words "relatively" and "effortless", by comparison hunters in some places are faced with a significantly more complex task when retrieving game. Think about it. While we can often drive right up to a moose or elk with a pick-up or ATV, load it whole and drive away, remote backcountry destinations don't offer the same luxuries. In my own endeavors to hunt bigger critters, over the years, my hunting adventures have taken me into more remote places and special areas where vehicles are prohibited. In turn, I've had to adopt creative methods of retrieving my game. From backpacks to sleds, game carts, using mountain bikes, and more, the options are numerous; all it takes is a little creativity.
Game Carts, a Great Alternative on Flat Dry Ground
As I hunt more places, every once in a while I come across landowners who allow hunting but don't allow me to drive on their land, either with a truck or an ATV. In turn, I'm forced to consider the alternatives. Without snow, and as long as the terrain is relatively flat, the best option is often a game cart. Visit any hunting supply retailer and you're likely to see a variety of options. Alternatively, Bass Pro (www.basspro.com ) and Cabela's (www.cabelas.com  ) are great places to turn. Several models are available but let me offer some advice. Not all game carts are created equal. Weight, durability and stability are all key features you'll want to look for if you're in the market for a new cart. I presently own a smaller version of what I'd really like. When I picked up my game cart several years ago, my thought was to keep it compact. In hindsight my emphasis should have been more on stability than size. For the most part, the bigger the wheels, the better. Likewise, a wider wheelbase is more stable than a narrower one. The wheel itself still has to be slender in order to navigate uneven ground and bump over debris. The frame itself must be sturdy and big enough to support the game you're transporting. Game carts designed to fold down for portability in transport are most ideal.
Sleds, a Super Option in the Snow
What about when the snow arrives? Snow can be a blessing or a curse depending on your situation. In many instances, even a thin layer of snow will create a world of opportunity for anyone with a sled. But again, not all sleds are created equal. If you're in the market for a sled, consider similar features. Most importantly make sure it is durable, lightweight, has a tapered bow (front end) to assist in cutting through the snow and navigating logs and other debris, and make sure it's big enough to hold the loads you plan to move. Several years ago I visited a plastics shop and found the ideal sled. It's got 16" sidewalls, it's durable, and it can easily transport two deer or the equivalent. As I spoke with the customer service guy, I learned that the shop had a bunch of seconds, sleds with minor imperfections. In the end, the price was right and I bought four of them. I now use them for all types of hunting and even ice fishing.
Mountain Bikes, a Slick Method for Small Game
More hunters are using mountain bikes to get a further into the woods these days. They're fast, quiet and maneuverable. Likewise, those same mountain bikes are being used to retrieve downed game, particularly for smaller game like deer and pronghorn antelope. While necessity is indeed the mother of invention, hunters across North America implement all kinds of creative strategies for using mountain bikes to retrieve game but the most practical is using or modifying some type of trailer. Historically speaking, Indians rigged a travois that would go around the saddle horn on their horse. In a pinch, that same principle can be applied to the seat post on a mountain bike. If you don't have a bike trailer, you can rig your own travois for your mountain bike. By tying logs together and rigging a triangular shaped trailer of sorts that can be dragged behind the mountain bike, game can be easily removed from the woods. Alternatively, if you've done a little more planning, then a custom-made trailer or perhaps more suitably, a trailer commercially designed to carry small children, can also be used to carry game.
Backpacks and Pack Frames, the Traditional Approach
What about those inevitable backcountry situations where neither a game cart nor a sled are practical? Sometimes we've just got to get down and dirty and haul it out on our back. In these instances, the options are limited. Your goal is to minimize the load and maximize efficiency. Small game like deer are straightforward to deal with. Even if we have to take it out of a steep ravine or through a bunch of timber, deer or other similar-sized game can be taken out whole or cut in half and carried. But what about larger animals like elk of moose? If you've ever killed a moose, you know that moving 1,000 plus pounds is no small task. The best approach is to take a deep breath, strategize, and eventually take it out one piece at a time. I often hunt bighorn sheep or mountain goat in the Rockies and when I do, de-boning and packing the game out is often the only alternative.
Pack horses are a welcome asset, but not always practical nor accessible. When left to my own devices, without letting any meat spoil, the best approach is to skin one half of the animal first, de-bone the carcass quarter by quarter taking extra care to remove all edible meat and load it into game bags and your backpack or on to a pack frame for transport. If you're a sheep hunter, you're well-acquainted with this process. This past fall I was on a caribou hunt in northern Quebec. I watched our Inuk guides do the same thing with our bulls. They simply quartered and carried the meat out on their backs. If you've never done it before, you'd be amazed at how simple this process is. The biggest advantage to this method is that we eliminate the bones almost entirely thus getting rid of a significant portion of the weight and body mass. I used the same strategy on a bull moose last fall as well. In the end, the entire rib cage and bone structure of the torso was left on the spot. I was even able to access and remove the tenderloins.
If you're in the market for a good pack, again, similar considerations apply. Comfort, convenience and durability are the three most important factors. External pack frames are practical in many instances, but I tend to favor the internal frame packs myself. Badlands (www.badlandspacks.com ) manufactures packs that are second to none. In my ongoing search for the ideal pack, no other company has been able to touch them. In my opinion, they make the most comfortable, strongest and most practical packs available today. On a past hunt, my partner and I took an entire de-boned sheep and head off of a mountain with a Badlands pack - that's over 110 pounds in one load and the pack performed incredibly!
Regardless of where or when you tip over your animal, remember there's always a way to retrieve it. ATVs and 4x4 trucks aren't the only answer.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.