Hunting For The Dinner Table: How, Where, and When to Get Healthy Meat
by G. M. Moore
We know humans have been hunting since we evolved on the savannahs of Africa millions of years ago. It's in our nature to hunt and until the last several hundred years we hunted only for food because hunting was dangerous and difficult. If you broke a leg hunting three thousand years ago, that was pretty much all she wrote. Luckily, since the invention of guns, hunting got a lot easier and people started to hunt for other reasons, like status and trophies mounted on their living room walls. But I digress . . . Let's get back to the food issue. Since people have hunted for food, we have developed traditions and rituals surrounding the hunt, like people everywhere tend to do. I have my own rituals; you'll have yours, too. When I go hunting, I like to have some serious fun with stories, libations and such around the campfire before heading out to harvest elk early in the morning. It's in our nature to hunt and it's a heck of a lot of fun, too.
Though hunting has developed into a significant industry, with people paying thousands of dollars to harvest trophy animals, the majority of hunters still head out to put food on the table. It's the original incentive to hunt. For me and my hunting buddies it's extremely gratifying to serve elk burgers or tenderloins to our friends while we tell the story of how we harvested the meal. In this article I'll discuss the basics of how to hunt elk for the dinner table and we'll go over why we do it, why it's good for us, and, more importantly, where and when to hunt. As all experienced hunters will tell you, the hardest thing about elk hunting is putting yourself in front of that elusive perfect shot.
One more thing: In Colorado—and most of the contiguous United States—we have killed off most of the large predators that kept the elk population in check. Without natural controls, the elk population would grow larger and larger leading to significant problems for us. A 600 pound elk coming through your windshield at 70 miles per hour can be a significant problem. Or they might eat up all the grass in a rancher's meadow where he wanted to graze his sheep or cattle, and break down a bunch of fences to get to that grass. Or, and this is really important, they'd be getting overcrowded and transmitting diseases like brucellosis or necrotic stomatitis amongst themselves, or dying from starvation because they managed to eat all of the fodder in their area before winter ended. In short, without us hunters managing the population, taking on the role large predators once had, they'd get in big trouble on their own. Population management is an important part of maintaining healthy herds and healthy rangeland. Without natural predators, it falls to hunters like you and me to do the job.
As I mentioned earlier, elk meat is very healthy. It's free range and organic. Nobody puts antibiotics or hormones in their food to fatten them up. That happens naturally in high mountain meadows with highly nutritious foods. Nobody prods them with cattle prods to load them on trucks. They live pretty happy, healthy, low-stress existences for the most part, so animal welfare advocates aren't up in arms like they are over how domestic livestock are raised.
Elk meat is lean and rich in protein, B vitamins, and iron. If you like to eat red meat like me, this is the really good stuff that "organic" people pay top dollar for, if they can get it at all. But as hunters, we can get it for the price of a cow tag and a bit more for our hunt. Last year I shot a nice, fat cow north of Hayden. She probably weighed 550 lbs on the hoof. By the time I got her home, cut up and in the freezer, I had about 140 lbs of super nutritious meat to last through the year. I figure with the extra $250 I spent on gas and food and a little more for camping equipment, that works out to about $2.14/lb, an excellent price for high-quality, nutritious, low-fat red meat.
Now, some people say hunting is cruel and to kill an animal is wrong. I agree that to kill an animal for the wrong reason is wrong, but for the right reason it is absolutely necessary. I'll tell you what's cruel; letting an animal starve to death, or letting an animal die of a disease that you could have helped to prevent. Or, how about hitting it with your car and letting them run off injured only to die of starvation and in pain? Compared to this, a quick kill by a well placed bullet is humane. If you've ever watched a pack of wolves take down an elk, you know that elk suffered. As responsible hunters we have the duty and responsibility to practice shooting so when the time comes we can dispatch that animal quickly and with minimal suffering. Always practice shooting and take only clean shots. Enough said.
Trophy Hunting vs. Hunting for the Table
I've talked about the benefits of meat-hunting like it being healthy and the need to manage animal populations, and each hunter will have his or her own personal reasons. Now let's talk about how it's different from trophy hunting. Some will tell you it's easier—and it often is. You might consider it the "gateway drug" for hunters. I started by hunting cows for a number of years before building the confidence and skills to move on to hunting big bulls.
A trophy hunter will spend a lot of time scouting to know where the big bulls are, and scouting is important for cow hunters too. They may pay guides thousands of dollars to get them on private land or pack them miles into the forest to find the big daddies. They will spend days, if not weeks, working themselves into the right spot to be there at the right time. They will blow bugles and cow calls; they'll buy decoys and expensive camo to get in close. Hunting for trophies requires a unique skill set, tremendous patience, often a good deal of money, and usually several preference points. Hunting for the table on the other hand is whole different ball game.
A few of the differences include:
Your objective is different—cows not bulls.
You are typically hunting with a rifle—not a muzzle loader or a bow.
You can usually draw the tag (limited license) you want the first year.
I know some of you are thinking "But I hunt for cows with my muzzleloader" and yes, some people do, but this article is written "in general", and in general, people hunt in later seasons and with rifles for meat.
Meat hunting is typically ambush hunting, not stalking. You usually wait to find them migrating, get yourself into position and wait for that fat cow to walk by.
By the later rifle seasons the elk are more skittish because they have already experienced significant hunting pressure; this is one reason you may have to take a longer shot, 100 to 300 yards or more, not 25 to 100 yards.
As you probably already noticed, trophy hunters usually hunt in earlier seasons set aside for muzzle loaders or bows or the first two rifle seasons. Meat hunters tend to hunt in the later rifle seasons. This means that the animals have probably begun to migrate and there is often snow in the ground. After the first few snows come in at high altitude, the animals start to head for lower altitude where food is easier to find. They start to herd up in large groups for safety and head out into open country. For many years I've watched a group of several thousand elk gather on the winter wheat fields northeast of Craig in November. This pattern repeats itself throughout the state wherever large herds are in the Colorado High country. For elk, the herd instinct is strong and you should use this to your advantage.
Now, this hunting later in the year brings up an important point—snow. Snow is your friend and your enemy. If you're hiking around in the woods all day with your pack and your rifle, and your GPS and your water bottle and your maps, etc., you can work up quite a sweat. When there's snow on the ground and the sun goes down it gets cold fast and you can be stuck deep in the woods freezing your kiester off! If you're not careful, you can get into real trouble, quickly. Remember that and be prepared for a cold walk out. Those guys who were hunting bulls back in mid September had it easier. The days were longer and there's usually no, or very little, snow around and it's not as cold and snowy as mid-November or December. Now the flip side of the coin is that you can track in snow. You can read where the elk are and follow them. Also, snow makes elk move, and when they move they're easier to find.
I hunted for a number of years in units (Game Management Unit, or GMU) 3 and 301 , west of highway 13, northwest of Craig. It's rolling sagebrush country with lots of public (BLM and state) land. In early rifle seasons, the elk hunting usually stinks but in the late rifle seasons (3, 4, and the late, late season in December) it can be fantastic! When the snows roll into the Elkhead Mountains northeast of Craig, the elk head west southwest to lower altitudes near Maybell and along the Yampa River. They migrate through these sections right across the public land—where you can be waiting.
It is very important to remember that this pattern repeats itself around the state. What you need to do is go to the Natural Diversity Information Source's Colorado Hunting Atlas. There you will find topo and unit maps on which you can place overlays. What you want to do is look at the summer grazing area, winter grazing area, and migration path overlays. As a meat hunter you want to place yourself along those migration paths so when the snows make the elk move for winter pastures, you are there waiting. In the December late (cow only) season, you may want to go directly to the winter grazing areas. You're smart—use your judgment and you'll find them.
Now to recap the last few paragraphs remember these points:
Meat hunting is usually later in the year, like the 3rd rifle, 4th rifle, and the late, late hunt in December.
Shots are longer—so practice, practice, practice! That 30-30 used for black timber hunting won't work near as well as a 300 win mag or a Remington 7mm mag. (If you don't already have a shooting range to use for practice, you can find one on the Shooting Ranges map.)
Be ready for cold weather and pray for snow!
Study your maps and know where elk summer range, winter range, and paths between them are.
Remember elk behavior—snow makes elk move. They burn lots of calories, they always need food, and they will always move to find it.
Hunt uphill from where you parked or camped—elk are heavy!
Okay. So we know when to go, a bit about how to find elk, and what to be prepared for, but how do you know what license to apply for? You should start by reading the Lesson 3 - Applying for a License and Lesson 9 - What Now? "Plan B" Licenses.
There are so many choices the process can be a little daunting. Colorado Parks and Wildlife's Hunting and Plan Your Hunt pages offer a number of resources to help you plan your hunt. I very often use the statistics page, and then let the following questions guide me:
Where are the big elk herds?
Where is there a lot of access (public lands)?
Where are there lots of leftover cow licenses?
In certain areas of the state, CPW is trying to reduce the elk population so it will be more in line with available food. Additionally, there is a list of areas where hunting opportunities are under-utilized. For example, there is a high plains elk herd around Castle Rock that gets little pressure. It has about 50% public land at the north end. Additionally, the hills north of Steamboat Springs need more hunters and the unit has about 95% public land.
A brief list of suggested underused units:
Unit 14, Steamboat Springs (95% public)
Unit 25, northwest of Gypsum (75% public)
Units 56/561, west of Salida (good hunting, but you have to be in shape at these altitudes)
Unit 51, Castle Rock
Unit 511, Woodland Park (good access, good feed since the Hayman fire—check out the rugged NW corner)
Units 12, 23, and 24, east of Meeker (Flat Tops has tons of public land and great elk habitat)
Unit 371, north of Frisco (high altitude hunting with 90% public)
CPW wants you to hunt, be safe, and have a good time. Call and talk to their Customer Service Representatives. The phone number for customer service is 303/297-1192. If you're new to elk hunting, that's okay; say so and they'll get you off on the right foot.
Ask about the Ranching for Wildlife (RFW) Program. RFW is a collaboration between landowners who own large tracts of land (minimum 12,000 acres) and CPW. It allows hunters' access to private land that they would not normally get.
We've been through a lot here but I want to make a few more comments about what to do with your elk meat before wrapping up (no pun intended!). Let's say you went through all of what we discussed, you went out, made that perfect shot, and you now have that cow lying in front of you. What next? Field dressing a 500 to 600 pound animal is hard work, so be ready! I've watched my partner get winded just cutting an animal up!
To help with the process, I take a small knife sharpener ($4 at almost any army surplus store) to the field with me because elk hair dulls knives quickly. I also take some stakes and about 100 feet of parachute-chord rope so once I open the animal up, I can hold the chest and gut cavities open by staking the legs apart. I also take bedding-sheet material with me and wrap the meat in the field. (I buy it at a fabric store—ask for muslin—for about $1 per yard, a fraction of the cost of game bags.) This keeps me cleaner as I pack it out and keeps the meat cleaner when I inevitably have to set it down to rest as I pack it out. Take a zip-tie to affix your carcass tag to your animal, too.
Remember, Colorado law requires the ethical treatment of the game meat. That means you cannot just cut out the tenderloins and back straps and head for the truck. If you do you can be arrested and you should be arrested! The law requires that you bring out, at a bare minimum, the two hind quarters, the two front quarters (shoulders), the back straps, and the tenderloins. I personally like to also bring out the heart, the liver, and the neck meat (good for burgers and sausage). If you are in a Chronic Wasting Disease unit I highly recommend you also bring out the head and have it tested by CPW for a nominal cost. If it tests positive, CPW will give you a replacement license for free.
Since it's probably late in the year when you get your cow, the temperature will be cold, and that will help preserve your elk, but keep the following points in mind: Bacteria causes meat spoilage and requires food (meat and blood), moisture, and warm temperatures to grow. To best preserve your elk meat you need to keep it clean, keep it cool, and keep it dry. Immediately after killing your animal, gut it from stem to stern and let it air out to cool. The dry part is very important and often overlooked. If you put your meat in a big cooler full of ice, keep the meat dry by physically separating it from the ice. (Many hunters freeze water in gallon milk jugs and surround the meat with those to keep the meat cool while keeping it dry.) Another thing to remember is that meat is sterile until you cut into it; minimize the surface area of meat that is exposed.
We went through a lot in this article because there's a lot to know about elk hunting. Be patient; persistence pays off. I hunted for several years before my first kill—now I get one almost every year. Hunting is to be taken seriously and you have to do your homework in the offseason. Know your hunting units and elk migration patterns. Study up on your statistics about herd populations and leftover licenses. Before applying for a license, know where the big herds are and where they go to spend their winters.
Practice your hunting and marksmanship kills, and get in shape. There are few more rewarding things in life than a successful hunt and the satisfaction you feel when you feed friends and family a food product that you know is healthy and good for them.
One last thing to remember—and I don't know who I am quoting, but here goes— "Luck is the residue left over when you subtract chance from preparation". In other words, the more you eliminate chance by being prepared, the more luck you will have! So . . . good luck and good hunting!