Thomas Baumeister put up a slide of a regal bull elk, followed by an image of tenderloin steaks ready for the grill.
“This is the dream,” Baumeister told the roomful of expectant big-game hunters at Missoula’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional office. “But nobody talks about how you get that big elk back to the trailhead and to your table. We get to get our hands dirty tonight.”
The opening of a new elk “shoulder season” that started Aug. 15 means more hunters face the challenge of getting their meat out of the woods before it spoils. Tuesday’s “Plan to Hunt” workshop offered step-by-step suggestions for how to meet both the ethical and legal obligations of warm-weather game handling.
“If you’ve hiked 5 miles in and the temperature is in the 90s and you get a chance to take an elk, you have to ask yourself some questions,” added FWP Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold said. “The first is: Should you? Am I capable of getting this animal out and keeping it edible? You can harvest an elk, but you really have to plan ahead.”
Before heading into the woods, early season archers and rifle hunters should investigate the location of nearby commercial meat processors. Those who prefer to process their own game should come equipped with cooler and ice.
“The shoulder season is similar to early season antelope hunting,” said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “You’ve got to be really attentive to getting animals field-dressed immediately. I hope hunters are calling ahead of time and seeing if there’s space in the meat locker.”
Gevock said interest in the elk shoulder season was growing statewide, and could have real benefits for wildlife management. The season only applies to private land where elk often bunch up in large herds. Adding more hunters to the landscape should encourage those elk to disperse back into their historic public land ranges.
“We’re going to learn a lot in these first few years,” Gevock said. “We’re just a week into it. But we know this is only a supplement to the general season.”
General season hunters benefit from the colder weather in October and November. Tuesday’s workshop offered several tips on both traditional and newer butchery techniques.
Traditional field dressing starts with cutting open the deer or elk’s abdomen and removing the internal organs. This vents the carcass from the inside and gets rid of the quick-spoiling soft tissues and digestive juices in the guts.
But it leaves much of the meat uncooled – especially the side of the animal insulated by its own skin and the ground. The big humps of muscle along an elk’s shoulders and thigh can hold lots of heat. The animal needs to be quartered quickly and lifted off the ground to ensure those areas get lots of air circulation.
Baumeister suggested more hunters try the “gutless method.” Start by cutting the hide – either down the chest or along the backbone, and removing it from the top front and back legs. That first half of the hide becomes a work tray that keeps the rest of the meat off the ground.
The front legs of deer and elk aren’t attached with a ball-and-socket joint like human arms. Instead, they’re held on by a flap of tendons and ligaments that separate with a few quick knife strokes.
The back legs do have ball-and-socket joints. But they also come off easily by drawing the knife along the lines of muscles that attach the leg to the hip bones. Then a careful dig with the knife tip separates the ball from the socket and the whole thigh comes off like a big roast. The pieces of meat go into game bags.
Baumeister recommended a careful choice of knives for gutless butchery. He preferred relatively short blades that can be easily resharpened. Other game handlers preferred a new type of game knife with disposable, surgical-quality blades.
He also warned that anyone using the gutless method must take care to keep proof of sex on one of the legs. That’s managed by preserving some of the hide with sex organs attached to one thigh as the carcass is dismantled.
Hunters are required to keep all unspoiled parts of all four quarters, plus the backstraps and the tenderloins. They are not required to keep neck or rib meat, although Baumeister noted those can be the best-tasting parts of the animal with proper cooking. The hide and head aren’t part of the requirement. But many hunters attach their licenses to the antlers or legs – only to get in trouble when those parts get separated from the meat on the way to the commercial butcher.
“You become very selective about what you bring out,” Baumeister said. “The dressed meat is about one-third of the animal. But the hind leg on an elk can weigh 80 to 100 pounds.”