Typical hunters spend months in preparation for that moment when a coveted big game animal is in their sights. Many of these same hunters, however, give little thought to what they will need to do after they have killed a dream animal. That's unfortunate, because what happens after the kill can determine whether a hunt becomes a cherished lifetime memory or a recurring nightmare.
The list of potential problems that can occur after an animal is down is nearly limitless. They range from spoiled meat because an animal was not properly handled to having an animal confiscated because it was improperly tagged.
Once you've bagged the trophy and are standing by its side after weeks or months of preparation, here are some of the issues you should be prepared to deal with.
Many hunters spend months preparing to hunt a trophy animal, but give little thought
to the processes that need to occur once the animal is down.
In an era when quality digital point-and-shoot cameras can cost less than $150, there is no reason for any hunter to not document his experience with good photos.
It's shocking how many hunters spend years waiting to draw a tag for a premium hunting area. When the day comes, they spend thousands of dollars on guns, optics, ATVs, tents, and every imaginable piece of equipment.
Then they take to the field without a camera. Once they bag their trophy, instead of having beautiful images of themselves with their animal at a scenic kill site, they end up with crappy cell phone photos of the animal's head and cape in the back of a pickup truck.
Setting up good pictures only takes a few minutes. With virtually any digital camera you can view the images after you take them to see whether they are any good. If they aren't, spend a few more minutes until you get some good ones.
There is no better way to immortalize the experience of a hunt than with pictures. Taxidermy is costly and a stuffed head can't capture the essence and experience of a hunt as well as a few good pictures can.
In this age of digital cameras, there is no good excuse for bad pictures like this one.
A man who has guided elk hunters for 27 years told me he is surprised how many hunters show up without a knife. Field care is a critical issue for many reasons. Is the hunter going to mount the animal? If so how? Dressing and skinning for a full shoulder mount is going to be much different from a European mount.
If the animal will be boned in the field, it is nice to have a clean tarp or plastic sheet to work on. If meat will be carried in a pack, it is important that it be properly cooled and placed in bags that keep it clean.
Weather conditions are a critical factor in taking care of meat. An antelope killed under the hot sun of August will need to be dressed, skinned, and put into coolers immediately. After gutting, a deer killed in cold, snowy conditions can hang in camp for days without any worry about meat spoilage.
Weather conditions are an important factor in determining how a hunter will handle the meat from his kill.
State game laws are always a consideration. Virtually all require some sort of proof of sex of the animal killed but they differ on what that means. In some states fresh antlers with the quarters is sufficient to establish animal gender. In others, a head or genitals must remain attached to one of the quarters. For example, in Wyoming, either the head or tail of a deer must remain attached to the animal so game officials can determine whether the carcass is that of a whitetail or mule deer.
How the meat is handled is also an issue. Wasting meat from a game animal is a serious offense in every state. In some states and on some kinds of animals that means a hunter must take the meat from between the ribs. In other states and other animals the rib meat can stay with the carcass.
Once again exact laws vary from state to state, but in most cases an animal must be properly tagged before being moved from the spot of the kill. Some tags need to be marked with the date of the kill and other information. Some tags must be signed. Some states have metal self-locking tags. Most need to be tied to the animal. I've known more than one hunter who had to cut off a bootlace or jacket drawstring because he forgot to bring any cordage to secure the tag.
Some states require that certain kinds of animals be presented to a game department official for inspection and tagging within a specified time after the kill. For example, within 72 hours of killing a bear in Wyoming, the hunter must "present the pelt and skull to a district game warden, district wildlife biologist, or Department personnel at a Game and Fish Department Regional Office during business hours for registration. The pelt and skull shall be presented in an unfrozen condition in order to allow collection of two (2) premolar teeth to be utilized to determine the age of the black bear and to allow examination of the pelt to determine the sex of the black bear."
In Utah, successful mountain lion hunters have 48 hours to bring the lion to a conservation officer or division office "for permanent tagging. Information collected includes: date of harvest, sex and age of the animal, body size measurements, area(s) hunted, number of days afield, weapon type and hunt methods."
Sometimes a hunter must possess a conservation or habitat permit in addition to a tag. Failure to comply with the specifics of the state where the animal is taken could result in a confiscated animal, a fine or both.
States have different requirements for tagging, but in most cases the
animal must be tagged before it is moved from the kill site.
After a hunter kills an animal several miles from the nearest road is not the time to figure out how to get it back to the truck. In much of the West, archery elk hunts begin in August when the weather is quite hot. A hunter who kills an elk in a roadless area and intends to bring the quarters out on a pack fame might discover that the meat has spoiled if the process takes longer than a day.
A hunter who hopes to use an ATV for game retrieval had better know the regulations for the area he is hunting. A few years ago a hunter killed a nice bull elk across a rugged canyon. Using an ATV, he was able to access the kill site from an old logging road. When he got back to his truck, a U.S. Forest Service officer was waiting to write him a citation. The fine was $75. Given the circumstances he considered it well worth the cost for not having to quarter the elk and carry it to the head of the canyon. He was fortunate, because in some areas fines for illegal ATV usage can be hundreds of dollars. And if a violator is also required to pay for reparations for damage, the price can go into thousands.
My son had a moose tag for an area that did not allow motor vehicles of any kind or horses. We had to be prepared to deal with that problem. During the hunt we passed up several moose that were in spots where retrieval would be difficult. The eventual kill site was reasonably close to a gravel road and we used a wheelbarrow to get the quarters to the truck.
In an area where motor vehicles and horses were prohibited,
a wheelbarrow was the solution for retrieving moose quarters.
A hunter who must leave an animal after it is down for any reason is wise to carefully mark the spot. I once killed an antelope on an expansive sagebrush plain. After dressing the buck, I left to get my truck. When I returned, I came in from a different direction and nothing looked the same. I spent an hour wandering through the sage before I relocated the buck. Now I leave a hat or something else easily visible to pinpoint the location.
Marking a downed animal with something easily visible like a blaze orange hat
can make it easier to relocate if you have to leave it for any reason.
Again every state has different rules for transporting game animals, meat or even antlers. Some states set up roadblocks and check stations during the hunting seasons. Animals or meat not handled properly are subject to confiscation and the hunter can face hefty fines.
If a hunter donates an animal to a friend who then plans to transport the meat or the animal out of the state where it was harvested, many states require a special permit. Wyoming charges $8 for an interstate wildlife transportation permit that must be obtained at a Game and Fish Department office. Idaho has a downloadable proxy form that must be "signed by the person who killed the animal specifying the numbers and kinds of wildlife, date taken, hunter's name and address, license, tag and permit numbers."
Plan before the hunt
Every hunter should be prepared for the success of harvesting a game animal. That means knowing exactly what the legal requirements are once the trophy is down.
Flint Stephens pays his mortgage by writing about investment markets, but his real passions are fishing and hunting. Stephens grew up pursuing fish and wildlife in Ohio, but while attending college in Utah, he fell in love with the mountains, deserts and a girl from Moab. After several years as a journalist in Illinois, the draw of mountain adventures brought them back to central Utah in 1986. Stephens enjoys horses, freelance writing and photography. He spends his spare time making certain his children and grandchildren are completely addicted to outdoor pursuits.