Lighten the Load: New Approach to Dressing Big Game

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The following method of handling big game has evolved over several years. It was originally motivated by the necessity to extract animals from rugged terrain, sometimes miles from the nearest road. It has since become 'standard operating procedure', whether distant from our vehicles, or right next to. The method has also evolved as such to produce premium-tasting table fare. Basically we 'de-meat' our animals in the field. We do it to produce a minimum of weight carried out, and we do it in a way that best 'cares' for the meat itself.

Have you ever returned from the game processor with your bag of venison thinking, "Hmmm, the deer sure seemed bigger than that?" Have you ever carried the hide from your animal to the garbage can, thinking, "Whoa, that's heavy - I carried that on my back, and for what?" Have you ever struggled trying to drag a dead deer across a hillside, knowing that if you let go, and it slides and rolls down into the ravine, you will really have your work cut out for you?

I have answered an anguished 'yes' to all of the above. But the anguish has motivated an effective alternative. Now we de-meat our game in the field. The results: we carry essentially only the meat out of the field - little more than what will go directly into the freezer. We can get our game out (relatively easily) on our backs, without the dragging, and struggle. We end up with great tasting meat that isn't contaminated during the more traditional ways of field care of big game.

Below is an outline of how we do it. The pictures are of deer, but the approach is the same for any big game animal. The basic premises behind what we do are: 1) we are only going to carry out what we will eat, or mount, and what we must take out to fulfill the game regulations; and 2) we will not contaminate our meat. Also, this method allows the meat (being removed, and temporarily remaining on the frame) to cool rapidly.

Here's how:

1. Get your game animal to a place where you can work. If possible, drag or carry the animal to a place where you can work on it without stuff (brush, mud, etc.) in the way. I prefer a slight slope, so I won't be bending over as much. If you can get the animal on the ground to a natural table - waist height - fantastic - you won't have to bend over much at all. If there is a lot of blood or internal fluids on the ground from the kill, drag the animal up and away. The idea is to not contaminate your meat. Generally an exit wound is messier than the entrance wound, so place the animal with exit wound down.

Turn over so exit wound is down.

Place your gun(s) and other equipment out of the way. Set out two or three large plastic bags. Get cloth game bags, knife, sharpener, bone saw, and other items out and handy. If it is evening, get out flashlights. If you have not already done so, notch your tag and complete any other 'legalities'.

One of my buddies uses prophylactic gloves. He uses the gloves to shield himself from poison oak, etc. that may be on the hide. Others may want to use gloves or other protection if worried about blood-borne disease.

2. Start removing the hide. With the animal oriented with backbone uphill, the first 'incision' into the animal will be down its backbone. That is correct. Do NOT 'gut' the animal. Gutting the animal will only get 'guts' on your knife, hands, sleeves, the ground, etc. If you do not want your animal to taste like what it has been eating, you MUST NOT get what it has been eating on your meat. The best way to accomplish this is to keep what it was eating inside the animal - and leave it there.

First cut along backbone.

Cut all the way down along the backbone.

Once under the hide, work with your blade up - cutting hide but avoiding cutting hair itself. (Cutting the hair itself dulls the knife faster.) You will notice that if the animal has not been dead long that the hide pulls from the animal very easily. You will also be allowing the animal to cool rapidly. Pull the hide down the side and around partway down front and back legs.

Start pulling hide down.

Cutting and pulling hide down leg.

3. Cut off the lower legs. Either use a sharp knife at the joint or a bone saw above or below the joint, cut the legs off below any usable meat. A good bone saw at this stage is wonderful. Cutting through the joint with a knife might save carrying one tool but can be awkward. Generally try to minimize awkward cuts to avoid cutting yourself. If you have a partner, having someone hold legs, or pull on hide, can be a great help. But watch your knife. As a rule, never work the blade of a knife toward you or your partner.

Cut hide, then saw through bone, or...

Pull hide down and cut through joint with a knife.

Pulling up front leg for easy removal.

4. Remove the legs, whole (on that side). Next I have my partner pull up (rotating toward the backbone) the front or back leg on the side I am working on. With minimal cutting of connecting tissue the front leg will come completely off, and by cutting through and around the ball-and-socket and along the pelvis, the rear leg easily comes off. Carefully place each leg on the large plastic bags that you have already set out. Note: while separating the rear leg from the frame, you will be operating near the abdominal cavity. Take it slow. You do NOT want to puncture an intestine or other organ (even if you do accidentally open up the abdominal cavity).

Remove rear leg/rump. Careful not to cut into body cavity and especially careful not to rupture intestine.

Place meat on bags to cool, while staying clean.

5. Keep your area clean and your knife sharp. Take a break from time to time to sharpen your knife. It will give your back a rest if you have been bending over. Take your time - don't hurry. If you have a partner, he / she can be sharpening alternating knives, but still take the time to be safe and deliberate. Call home and tell the family you 'got one' - and are working on it in the field, and that you will be a while.

6. Avoid damaged areas. My approach is this; stay completely away from areas that are damaged by bullet(s), arrows(s), etc. If you have used a high velocity bullet - this means staying away from the meat that has been blood-shot from the shock of the bullet. I would rather leave a pound or two of questionable meat in the field, than later accidentally serve a 'yucky' piece of my game to a person I am trying to impress, or convince that my wild game meat is so good.

7. Remove the 'backstrap', neck meat, and the tenderloin. The loin (or 'backstrap') is a 'strap' of meat on each side of the backbone for nearly the whole length of the animal. Generally tender it is easy to remove.

Now go for the backstrap along top of vertebrae.

The loins (backstrap) comes off as a long 'strap' of back meat.

At the front shoulder the backstrap 'transitions' into the neck meat. The neck meat is somewhat marbled.

The tenderloin is actually 'inside' the animal. Carefully work with hand and knife (if necessary) avoiding puncturing the internal organs. The tenderloin is so tender that you may simply be able to tear it out (on smaller animals), thus avoiding the possibility of a 'slip of the knife'. Place the extracted meat on the plastic bags out of the way.

The tenderloin is in the chest/stomach cavity under the vertebrae and rear of the ribs (right under knife).

With minimal or no cutting, pull tenderloin out from under vertebrae.
Careful - do not rupture internal organs.

8. Remove flanks, ribs or rib meat where desired or required. There is not much meat accompanying the ribs of a normal deer - hardly worth messing with in my opinion. However, I abide by the applicable game laws, and in my state we are required to not waste meat, including rib meat. So, at this stage, I take the flank (side / stomach) meat, if not damaged, and I take my knife and carefully cut out the meat from between the ribs. Some may prefer to simply cut away the ribs as a 'rack'. Internal organs will be exposed by getting the tenderloins, and cutting between the ribs, so take the meat carefully to avoid puncturing internal organs.

Now for the ribs/rib meat. Going after the tenderloins I have already 'opened'
the chest/stomach cavity - but I pull the ribs up and away and work away from the organs.

9. Remove neck and any other remaining meat on that side. Pull the hide up toward the head. During the process as a whole, make any additional transverse or other cuts in the hide to make things workable. Remove neck and other significant portions of meat. If some pieces of meat are dirtier than others, or more hair has ended up on them (you're not an 'expert' yet) you may want to put these pieces in separate bags. Note: by placing the meat on the bags you are allowing the meat to cool. As the de-meating process progresses you will find that you are creating a small 'pile' of miscellaneous pieces of meat, including the meat from the ribs.

I have worked around the damaged meat and removed the flank (stomach) meat and neck meat.

10. Cooling the meat. Moisture in the meat and protective tissues will evaporate and cool the meat at almost any temperature. However, if its hot outside, you may want the meat set in the shade, or perhaps by a stream, or wherever necessary to help it cool. If flies, yellow jackets, or other pests have joined you, you many need to put the meat in the cloth game bags and eventually in the plastic bags. I have found, though, that if we have not 'gutted' the animal we attract fewer pests.

11. Turn the animal over, and repeat. Working on the remainder of the deer is basically a repeat of the first side, but with noting the following. Turn the animal over in such a way as to keep the remaining meat (and work area) clean. Move uphill or to a different place if necessary. Do NOT allow any internal fluids to flow or spill over the remaining meat.

12. Maintain legality. Know the pertinent game laws. Where we hunt, proof of sex is required, and must still be 'attached'. Thus, we leave appropriate genital or other organs attached to one of the back legs, OR, we leave the head attached to one of the fronts. This will take some thought and some care. In the pictures we leave a front shoulder attached by a strip of skin to the head. (It was an 'antlerless' hunt.) The head and exposed meat were placed in separate bags, though left technically attached. Thus we were able to take out the head (containing fur, dirt, hair, etc.) all the while keeping the connected meat clean.

13. Continue de-meating. If you have a long carry, or simply wish to reduce weight, take the meat off the leg bones entirely. Work on the legs as they lay on the plastic bags. Simply cut the meat in muscle groups off the leg bones. Note: if you have sawed the ends off the legs as described above, the sharp edges of the saw cuts may tear your game or plastic bags.

De-meated deer. If you want the heart or liver - now is the time to go get it.

14. Heart, Liver, etc. The heart and/or liver, if desired, should be removed last. I recommend placing such in separate bag or bags. Other meat should be out of the way and potentially already 'packed'. You will be entering the 'insides' of the animal, potentially damaged by bullet, arrow, or whatever, and thus risk contaminating hands, knife, and everything your hands and knife subsequently touch. Bags should be plastic to not allow fluid transfer to meat, backpack, etc.

On the other side we leave the head and quarter attached (proof of 'antlerless').
Also on the plastic are other random pieces. Remember, we are leaving a basically
de-meated deer. Though 'connected' the head will not be allowed to touch the meat.

15. Bag your meat and head for home (or camp). I have found that if I have kept the meat clean of internal fluids and generally clean of blood, I can place the meat in game bags and put the bags straight in my pack (or over my shoulder). If necessary, the game bags can be placed in the plastic bags, and then in your pack or over your back. But, caution, do not leave the meat in plastic bags for long periods of time. The meat must to be able to 'breath' and continue cooling. Generally I place my notched tag in one of the bags with the meat.

16. Clean up. Depending on where you are hunting - clean up. If you are on private ground you may need to come back and clean up everything, or simply drag the remains to an out-of-the-way place. We hunt more 'wildernessy' country and the 'night creatures' clean up nicely for us once we leave. After one hunt I went back a few weeks later to see what was left of a deer kill, where I had left 'all but the meat.' I was amazed. I could not find a bone, a drop of blood, a hair, not even a 'bent blade of grass.' Note: on depredation hunts I have also placed the de-meated carcass at the edge of the field where the creatures were coming to get their 'groceries'. Seeing what is left of what was one of their 'buddies' slows down the crop damage - at least for a while.

17. What's next? Keep your meat cool, dry, and aerated. You may take your meat to your favorite meat processor, or you may simply continue what is already an initial butchering process. Why let other people mess with what goes in your mouth? Make it a family affair, cutting, wrapping, and grinding meat. If you cannot store your meat in a cool place and have to wait before butchering, the 'chunks' of meat you brought out of the field can be frozen whole, and then thawed or partially thawed before final butchering.

If you butcher the meat yourself, which is not hard to learn, you will have all the more satisfaction in your table fare. We have found that much of the 'gamey' taste of wild game was not from the fact that it was a wild animal, but was from the way the animal was handled. Give this method a try. The first time you do it, you may take an hour or several. But with some practice, an average deer can be de-meated in less than an hour; elk and other larger animals obviously take longer. Once de-meated, time spent up front can be quickly made up when you can put your results on your back - instead of having to drag.

Items needed:
1) Contractor-grade plastic bags (3 or more for a deer, 6 or more for an elk).
2) Prophylactic gloves (if desired).
3) Cloth (breathable) game bags (several depending on game animal).
4) Knife or knives.
5) Sharpener.
6) Bone saw.
7) Flashlights (headlamp style, especially if alone).
8) Day or heavier backpack.
9) Towels, or towelettes, soap and water (as desired).
10) First aid stuff (just in case).

Carrying out an entire de-meated deer in my backpack.


jim boyd's picture

Great article! We rarely

Great article!

We rarely process deer in the field but I want to go to Colorado next fall and I know an elk will be on a much larger scale - but this looks like a great way to do it with a minimum of fuss.

The stressing of avoiding the abdominal cavity and the guts is key - we quit gutting deer many years ago - while they are hanging we just reach in and get the terderloins in the same manner as shown.

Good lesson here too... aim true and DO NOT bust the guts with the shot.

I was a little unsure of what you did when you flipped the animal over... I guess in this case, they just let it rest on the de-boned rib cage?

I am wondering if a small tarp - say 8 x 10 - would not be a great thing to have to put under the animal while you clean it... would prevent some of the grass, dirt and debris intrusion that could screw up the process.

The new plastic syle tarps are so light now - you could probably add it to your pack and not really notice the weight and heck, it might be nice to have on a non harvest day if a wicked rain storm comes up (maybe is it more appropriate to say WHEN a wicked rain storm comes up - we know one is coming eventually!).

An alternative to the tarp might be a section of plastic sheeting - we call is visqueen - that is 8 x 10 - that would weigh mere ounces and could serve the same purpose.

Remembering to bring the bags is key, along with the gloves... there is nothing nastier than your hands after cleaning an animal.. I guess some pre-moistened wipes would come in handy for that.

Good read and very informative!

barleypaw's picture

have you gotten your elk yet?

hi there, i'm new to the site. I just thought I'ld chime in on using this process with elk. I have used this process once on an average size cow elk.  One thing that we found extemely valueable was a canvas game bag kit. Though it belonged to my buddy and he was irretated with the fact that I was filling his bags that he had owned for several years and had never been able to fill them himself, he was still willing to help(thank god).  The kit cam with four bags and a tarp that was probably about 8x10. I remember getting the hind leg free from the body and thinking that we were going to be able to pack it whole until we picked it up and realized that with the bone in it must of weighed in the area of 50-70lbs and thats just one! We hade a long hike ahead of us.  The suggestion of removing the meat from the bone entirely is a good one and pretty much necesarry with an elk. The tarp was a handy sort of work bench for boning the hind quarters out which did lighten up the load substatially but your still going to be hauling 150-200 lbs of pure meat(total). Another thing that we wished we did have and that I have added to my supplies since was a block and tackle pully sytem. It will vary on where the animal crashes down and how accesible her body is. In my case she rolled down hill right into a huge down, decaying tree. This made the only way we could roll her was up hill and that insn't happening with out mechanical help. One guy would have to hold a limb up while the other guy skinned away, it was not easy work, the block and tackle may be a little on the bulky side for field equipment but I gaurentee it will be worth having, and can make all the difference on saving meat because you'll be able to get it off the ground if it does indeed take two trips and a portion has to be left behind.

jaybe's picture

Yes - thanks for the article.

Yes - thanks for the article. Where I usually hunt, we always gut our animal and then drag it to the vehicle to take home. We usually aren't more than a few hundred yards from a road, so it's not the same as being out west where you may be a mile or two or more from your camp or where you left your vehicle.

I once saw a guy dress out a nice doe pretty similar to the way you showed. I had never seen it done before and was fascinated by how quickly he was able to get all the good meat off that deer.

Good post. Thanks.