Field To The Table: Getting Your Elk Home
by Tom Thorson
You have chosen your game unit (GMU), applied for and drawn or purchased your license, and you have decided where within the unit to hunt. Where you choose to hunt within the unit becomes critical; you must ask yourself, "How do I get an animal that weights 400 to 900 pounds into my freezer?" You’ve worked so hard to get your elk on the ground. Wasting the meat would be such a terrible loss, also illegal, and you owe it to the elk to properly field dress, transport, and process it. Elk meat is truly one of the finest—if not the finest—culinary game animals in the world. We all have our limitations when it comes to hunting. If you travel from out-of-state, the altitude and dry climate will contribute to increased limitations. How will you get your prize back home to enjoy? We all have joked about bringing a knife and fork on the hunt so we can eat it right where we shot it. That might be funny, but not practical! Let me provide you with some "food for thought" as you venture into the woods in pursuit of the majestic elk.
Consider these questions:
- How many additional hunters in you group? Are they truly friends or acquaintances (it’s very important to answer this question honestly)?
Is your vehicle 2 or 4 wheel drive? Do you have tire chains for it?
Do you have an all-terrain-vehicle (ATV)? Does the area you’re hunting allow access with ATVs?
Do you have horses or access to horses? Do you need to make arrangements before your arrival? (The US Forest Service or Colorado Outfitters Association may be able to help with this.)
Did you bring backpack frames or a game cart?
Is your area a Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) unit? (Refer the Big Game Brochure to familiarize yourself concerning CWD.)
Your Elk is on the Ground
With respect, in the best manner, and as simply as possible, finish the animal quickly. You owe it that. Some people may jump right in and have at the work. Take a minute! Get some photos, offer congratulations all around, organize your tools for the next step, and, if you find it within yourself, offer thanks to the animal—possibly by offering the animal a last bite of grass (an old European tradition). Before you continue, get your license and fill in the information required. (See Big Game Brochure for details.)
"Close to the Road" Harvest
If your harvest includes being able to drive right to the animal, consider yourself lucky. Try to get your vehicle on the downhill side of the animal; you might be able to slide the animal onto your tailgate and then into the back of your pick-up. You might carry a sheet of ¾ plywood in the bottom of your pick-up to use as a ramp. A small winch that attaches to the bed of your truck works well. Then there is the old-fashion way—every man/women/boy, grab a leg and heave-ho!
"Drag to the Nearest Road" Harvest
The next-best situation is to be able to drag your animal to the nearest road. Always try to find a road that's lower than where you are so you will be able to pull the animal downhill. (If you must pull the elk uphill, refer to directions described later under Back Country Harvest.) Pull the animal head-first; the hair on the animal grows front-to-back, offering less resistance to the ground and making it easier to drag. A good technique is to use a horse halter along with a long, large-diameter lead rope. The halter allows you to pick the head up slightly and pull from the front of the animal. (If you don’t have a horse halter, you actually can tie one by being creative with rope and knots.)
Before starting dragging, cut the legs at the knees—four fewer things to snag and get caught. (You can remove the lower leg of the elk with just a knife. Find the knee joint and cut at the base of the knee to expose the joint. Rotate the knife completely around the joint to cut the ligaments, then just roll the joint over and the cartilage from the knee will separate, allowing you to remove the lower leg.) If you have people in your group to help, and the terrain is steep, tie a rope to the hind legs and have someone act as a "rudder", pulling one way or the other to "steer" the elk. (When it is steep, the animal’s rear sometimes wants to pass the head.)
Keep ground conditions in mind when dragging an animal. Is it snow-covered, wet, grassy, or dusty? With the animal gutted, the chest cavity is open so whatever you are dragging it across is going to get into the chest cavity. Snow, water, or grass will not affect the quality of meat, but a chest cavity full of dirt might not taste so good! I’ve heard of guys who sew the chest cavity closed, but I’m not so good with a needle and thread. You might use rope to squeeze the chest cavity closed, or, take a game bag with the bottom cut out and slide it over the animal. Or you can wrap the chest cavity with a game bag then secure it with rope.
This can be very difficult work—be sure you are prepared. Answer honestly if asked to help pack out an elk!
When preparing the animal for field dressing, orient the animal such that the head is downhill, if possible. The reasoning for this is to use gravity's force to hold the internal organs away from the pelvis.
Proof of the animal’s sex must be left on the animal’s quarters. If it is a bull, you may to choose leave one testicle on each rear quarter, or both testicles on one side with the penis on the other. With cow elk, you leave the udder attached, possibly half per side.
When opening the animal, gravity helps ensure that intestines and other organs don't get in the way, reducing chances of them getting punctured. Introducing those fluids into the chest cavity can taint the meat. If that happens, complete the job and then be sure to wash out the cavity with water, snow—even wet grass.
Once you've opened the animal from the tail to neck, rotate it so the head is uphill. This makes it much easier when removing the internal organs. Tying each hind leg to an opposite bush, rock, or tree will help hold the animal open for easier access.
With all things in place, pull the windpipe toward the chest cavity and cut it off, leaving about ten inches to use as a handhold. (You can cut a three-inch slit in the windpipe to get a better grip.) Pull the windpipe and the intestines toward the rear of the body cavity. This method will allow you to remove everything at one time and prevent an inadvertent puncture of the intestines or stomach.
If you have never field-dressed a large game animal before, I recommend you look at some tips widely available on the internet.
Separate the shoulders, placing them hide-down on a stump or log or anything that would keep the meat clean. The front quarters are very straight-forward with no difficult bone separation or cutting. The rear quarters are a bit more complex.
Start by removing the tenderloins. Where you split the pelvis during gutting, take your knife and start separating the meat from the pelvis bone until you find the hip socket. Pull on the hip socket joint, opening it to expose the tendons internal to the socket. Use the elk's bone structure to guide your knife until the rear quarter is separated from the main body. (Be sure to keep the "proof of sex" attached.) Now, roll the rib cage so the spine is up and use your knife to cut between the rib cage and the bone center between the two loins. Cut down using the bones as a guide; when you hit the upper ribs, follow the ribs until the loin is free. If you start on one end or the other, you will be able to cut and pull the loin away, making it easier to see what you’re cutting. You should have just the rib cage left; de-bone the ribs, saving any meat encapsulating the ribs.
(You can also quarter the animal into larger quarters. This process is very similar to what I just described but you split the spine with an axe or saw, leaving each quarter attached to half the spine that it is split from. The ribs are also left attached to the front quarters using this process.
Place the four quarters in individual game bags and the loose meat in a fifth bag. Be sure to attach the harvest tag to one of the quarters before you bag it, then mark the bag in some way so you can easily find which contains the tag if you are asked to produce it.
This complete procedure may be used to prepare an animal for carrying out, whether over your shoulder or on a backpack frame.
This process is very similar to the previous method but eliminates getting on the inside of the animal. Orient the animal on its stomach, then open the skin along the spine, then skin down both sides of the rib cage. Once the hide is removed, you have access to the loins and can remove them and place them in a clean locations. Continue with the skinning process until you get to the upper quarters, then remove each of them. If you want to remove the tenderloins at this time, cut from the last rib back toward the rear quarters; now you have access to remove the tenderloins.
Depending on the weather, time of day, distance you need to pack out, etc., you may choose not to field dress the animal but de-bone it instead. You can use the major bones (leg, hip, and shoulder) to guide your knife as you make cuts to remove the meat from the bones. By doing this you can arrange the meat at home, or at your local butcher shop; they will be able to recognize what the cuts of meat are when packaging them.
Properly preparing the meat in the field takes time and should not be a rushed effort. There are times when speed is important due to an approaching storm or when its getting very late in the day and darkness is not far off. Taking the time to do it right, however, will allow you to carry just the edible meat and leave waste behind. De-boning reduces the weight needing to be carried!
Leaving Elk Overnight
If you find that leaving your elk overnight is your only option, here are some thoughts.
If the animal is quartered, whether packed in games bags or not, hang the quarters from tree limbs. Get it up in the air and away from animals interested in "stealing" your kill.
If the animal is whole, open the chest cavity to provide for air circulation to retard spoilage.
Place articles of clothing—on or around the animal—to leave human scent and discourage scavengers. You may even urinate around the animal to leave scent.
Camp Care and Game Bags
You have your elk properly field dressed, in game bags, hauled into camp, and loaded onto your truck. Now you have to keep your elk cool.
Find a shady spot to park your truck to keep your elk in the shade, or hang a tarp to make shade. Be sure air is allowed to circulate around the animal. If you’re hunting during the early seasons, know where there is a place that offers cold storage. Or have coolers with you and be prepared to get ice if needed; pack the meat in the iced containers or pack ice around the quarters. If feasible, place ice in the chest cavity.
If it's been a cold night, the internal temperature of the meat should be low enough to hold the meat for a time. Use your good judgment—don't allow the meat to spoil.
If you have the whole animal in camp, hanging, you must do some additional work. Outdoor temperatures will dictate what you may need to do. When temperatures are warm, get the hide off that animal and slide a large game bag over the meat. If the temperatures are moderate, be sure to at least skin the hide off the back of the elk’s neck. The hide is the thickest there and will hold in heat, perhaps spoiling the meat. Prop open the chest cavity with a stick to ensure air circulation.
Don’t spend your hard-earned money on this trip and then go cheap on game bags! They are what will keep your animal protected during its journey to your favorite butcher shop or home. There are excellent bags available—shop around. (One sort I have had good luck with is oversized, white cotton pillow cases.) I have also seen where the hide of the animal is left on the quarter, acting as a game bag. If you choose this method, keep in mind the outside temperatures should be cold enough to cool the meat under the hide.
If your budget allows, take the meat to your favorite butcher to prepare it for the freezer and table. You may be asked
How many "servings" for each package? Two? Four?
Bone-in or bone-out? (I would recommend boneless; this ensures that bone marrow isn’t smeared over the meat during band-saw cutting. There may be CWD concerns when the bones are cut.
Do you want suet (fat) added to your ground meat? Fat helps hold the ground meat together when cooking, and some may say it adds flavor. My opinion—why add fat to this wonderful, healthy meat?
Would you like some jerky or sausage made?
Do you want the meat vacuum-sealed or wrapped in freezer paper?
If you are a do-it-yourself kind of person, gather some friends or family to help with cutting and wrapping. A couple of extra hands will make the job much easier. There are many helpful books, DVDs, and web resources available to ensure a quality job.
Aging the meat prior to butchering is open for debate. Some people swear by this and others are of the opposite opinion. It was shared with me once that a large slaughter company in Colorado did a study on aging beef. The temperature and time were both monitored which determined the best time to butcher the beef. It’s the fat in the meat that breaks the meat down, providing a fine, more tender piece of beef. My conclusion—there's not much fat in elk meat so aging isn't important.
Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator. The slow thaw will provide you with excellent table fare. There are many cookbooks and recipes available. Watch your local cooking scene; sometimes you can find cooking classes on game. Keep in mind when cooking elk that it is very lean. Don't over-cook, and serve it when it's red or pink on the inside. With little fat, the meat will get tough when cooked well-done.
Elk hunting is truly a grand experience. Part of that is the preparation and hard work required to execute an elk hunt and finishing afterwards. Hopefully, going through Elk Hunting University has helped you be successful in the hunt. Share this experience with friends and family—strangers, too! Your "final grade" will be posted after the season. And it’s self-graded!
Proceed with caution: Elk hunting can be addicting!