Field Dressing Your Elk
The Gutless Method
Quartering Your Elk Without Field Dressing Click Here for Fred Eichler Video
Note: Once you have used the gutless method, you will probably never used the conventional method again. It's that simple.
In Elk Hunting 201 we walked you through the conventional method of field dressing your elk. Now we want to show you another method that many experienced elk hunters have switched to. Not only will this method save you time, and effort, but also it is far less messy and you will not have to worry about dealing with the gut.
Tools & Stuff
Start with a quality sharp hunting knife (two is better) with strong blades and no-slip handles. This is another one of those times you really don’t want to go cheap as many inexpensive imported knives are made of low-grade steel that doesn’t want to hold an edge and can break with only a minor amount of lateral pressure to the blade. Benchmade, Buck, Gerber, Kershaw, SOG, and Spyderco make excellent hunting knives. You will also need a sharpening stone. I carry a folding diamond dust sharpener and a small ceramic V-shaped sharpener for quick jobs. If you need to do some serious knife sharpening, you can’t beat a Lansky sharpening system. Mine has three separate hones. They take up a little more room, but when it comes to getting the job done on almost any knife, they are tough to beat. You will want to have a lightweight saw for removing the skullcap if you decide to take the antlers home without the entire head. To round out your gear you will need four or five heavy-duty cotton game bags, and about 50 feet of nylon cord. If you can afford to spend a few extra bucks, you can get ultra-low stretch cord at many backpacker shops like REI or EMS. This really comes in handy back at camp when it’s time to hang your game up to cool and keep away from critters. I’ve had some of the less expensive cord stretch out during the night due to the weight and find the game bag hanging substantially lower than where I left it the night before. It’s your call.
Let’s Get ‘Er Done
1.Roll the elk onto its side and position its feet heading downhill. If the animal is on a slope and you need to stabilize it, use the 50-feet of cord to tie it off to a nearby tree or a good-sized rock.
2.Using your knife make a cut through the hide from just behind the elk’s skull down the spine all the way to the tail.
3.Make another cut through the hide just behind the scapula (shoulder blade) around to the brisket.
4.Skin the shoulder. Some prefer to leave the hide on to keep out the dirt until putting the shoulder into a meat bag. I prefer to remove the hide as soon as possible to begin cooling the meat down and preventing bacteria growth from kicking into high gear. Either way works, it’s your call.
5.Lift the leg and remove the shoulder and place in a game bag.
6.Remove as much rib and neck meat as you desire. This is where a fifth game bag comes in handy.
7.Skin the hindquarter on this side and remove by cutting against the pelvic bone until you reach the joint. Cut remaining tendons and ligaments and place in a game bag.
8.Remove the back straps by cutting down the spine from head to tail and peeling this piece away from the spine and upper ribs. Place in game bag.
9.Remove the tenderloins - located inside the carcass on either side of the spine - by either cutting through the tops of the ribs or by pulling them free by reaching under the spine between the ribs. Place in game bag.
10.Flip the animal over and repeat the process.
11.If you have a long way to pack out your animal, you may want to bone out the quarters right on the spot and remove the lower legs at the joint with your saw to save having to haul the extra weight back to camp.
There you have it, one elk in bags without most of the mess, stink and fuss of having to field dress it.
Conventional Field Dressing Method
Now the real fun,..spelled “ w.o.r.k.” begins. Ok so you have somewhere between five hundred and a thousand pounds of elk lying on the ground at your feet. What do you do?
While it is not impossible to dress out your elk alone, the task will be much easier if you have a hunting partner to help. A partner comes in handy for help in stabilizing the animal and when it comes time to pack the rascal back to camp.
1. The first thing you will want to do is to position the animal with the head uphill and the tail downhill. This will help facilitate draining blood and fluids from the body cavity once you open the critter up.
2. With a sharp knife, make a deep cut completely around the rectum making sure not to puncture or cut the intestine. Pull the end of the rectum to make sure that it is separated from the tissues connecting it to the pelvic canal. Take a piece of string or a strong rubber band and tie off the end of the rectum to prevent droppings from escaping and touching the meat.
3. Roll the animal onto its back. This can be a challenge if you are alone or if the animal is on a slope. If the animal is on a slope and there is no way you can move it to level ground, then look for a nearby tree or bush on the uphill side of the animal. Take a length of rope and tie it off on the uphill front leg then tie the other end to the tree or bush tightening the line to keep the animal on its back or as close as you can get. If you have a partner, have him steady the animal on its back while you straddle the critter facing to the animals rear. If you put your right leg right behind the elk’s leg to your right and your left leg in front of the elk’s leg to your left, this will further help to stabilize the elk as you begin to work. If you are working alone, this same ‘sit astride’ technique works about as well as any.
4. Make a shallow cut through the skin just below the breastbone. If you plan to cape the animal you will want to ask your taxidermist how he prefers you to cut the cape and remove the hide. At the point of the initial cut insert the index and center fingers of your other hand through the cut facing the elk’s back end. Carefully insert the knife with the blade facing away from the body between these two fingers. The fingers form a guide for the blade as you begin to work it through the hide all the way to the back of the elk. Note: if you are dressing out a bull, you may want to remove the genitals prior to making this cut. Bull elk often urinate on themselves and by removing this part you minimize the possibility of contaminating the meat with urine. To do this, just prior to the penis and sheath, direct your cut around the genitals to the left and to the right coming together again near the cut you originally made to free the rectum. Now skin the entire penis and sheath from the animal all the way back to the testicles. Cut the muscles and tendons pulling everything to the rear of the animal. Some states require that evidence of sex remain attached. If this is the case in the state in which you are hunting, be sure to leave either one testicle (bull) or some portion of the mammary gland (cow) attached to the abdominal wall. If your state does not require this, you can continue to remove the genitals all the way to the rear. Some minor cutting and tissue remove will be required to accomplish this. Make sure that the hide is cut all the way to the pelvic bone.
5. Now that you have cut the hide and separated the genitals, you can go back to where you made the cut in the chest and make a second cut along the same path through the abdominal wall all the way to the rear. Be very careful that while making this cut that you do not cut too deep and puncture the paunch (gut). If you err and cut too deep you will know it almost immediately that you messed up as you will be rewarded with a unique and almost overwhelming stench that you never knew existed as gut gasses begin to escape. Once this cut is complete all the way back to the pelvic bone, you can reach into the area below the pelvic bone and extract the tied off rectum pulling it back into the cavity.
6. To remove the viscera (guts) you will need to reach as far forward inside the body cavity as possible and cut the windpipe and esophagus. This can be a bit messy, but it has to be done, so just get on with it.
7. Once you have cut the windpipe, the entire gut can be removed by using both hands to pull it away from the inside of the body cavity. You may have to make one or two small cuts if something hangs up, but the internal organs should all come out at once with little effort.
8. Continue to drain as much blood from the cavity as possible.
9. The next step is to begin removing the hide. While there are a few advantages to leaving a hide on if you have to drag the carcass some distance, the disadvantages far outweigh any advantage of leaving the hide on. As soon as the animal dies bacteria will begin to form in the meat. By removing the hide you allow the meat to cool faster thus slowing the process of bacterial growth. By cooling the meat immediately you are doing the best you can to preserve the quality of the meat. Unless you manage to kill your elk in camp or while it’s standing in the bed of your pickup, you will want to quarter the animal for transport anyhow.
10. When skinning an elk, a good place to start is just above the center joint in the leg. Inserting your knife at this point just inside the leg, you want to make a cut all the way to the chest. Then return to the point where you started the cut and cut completely around the leg cutting from inside the hide to outside. By cutting from inside to outside you avoid getting hair on your meat and your knife will stay sharp much longer since it isn’t having to cut through hair. Repeat this process for all four legs.
11. Once all four legs have been skinned you can begin the process of skinning the hide away from the body itself. I prefer to work my way from the original chest cavity cut up towards the backbone, working on one side at a time. Once the entire hide on one side has been cut away, lay the hide, hair side down, on the ground away from the body making sure not to get dirt on the exposed inner side of the hide. When the entire hide from one side has been skinned back to the backbone, you can begin the quartering process.
12. Quartering an elk is made easier with the use of a bone saw. There are any number of these made specifically for hunters available at your local sporting goods retailer. After skinning one side of your elk, with it lying on its unskinned side, you will want to remove the head and all four legs. The head can be removed using your knife and saw just behind the ears. This leaves the maximum amount of neck meat remaining. With your saw, cut the legs off just below the joint where you began the skinning process. Next separate the front quarter from the rear quarter by making a cut behind the rib cage. As hindquarters are heavier than front quarters, you will want to think about how far forward you make this cut. The farther forward, the more the hindquarter will weigh. Next you can remove the quarters from the opposite half by cutting right down the center of the backbone with your saw. You now have two separate quarters on that side. Take each quarter and place it into a clean game bag. Now fold the clean hide that you carefully laid out back into its original position, roll the elk onto the side you just quartered and repeat the process for the opposite side.
13. Once you have removed and bagged all four quarters don’t forget to remove the tastiest parts, the backstraps and the tenderloin. Backstraps are located along either side of the top of the spine. When cut they are long and triangular in shape. These should be carefully removed by making a longitudinal cut along each side of the spine followed by a second cut beneath each strap. Next look under the spine and with your knife remove the tenderloins, which lie in a similar location beneath the spine. These will be a bit shorter in length and round in shape. As this is my favorite part of the elk, I usually place these is a special bag all by themselves labeled, “if the airplane catches fire, save these first.”
14. Depending upon your personal preference you can now remove any additional rib, neck or other meat that you like.
If it is a long hike back to camp and you will have to haul the meat out on your back, you may want to consider boning your meat out before you pack it out. It may take you a bit more time, but boning the meat out can save you from carrying as much as fifty pounds of unnecessary weight.
I prefer using heavy-duty cotton game bags as opposed to the lightweight cheesecloth type bags often used for deer. A bull elk hindquarter can easily go eighty pounds or more and experience had taught me that these lightweight bags just don’t hold up as well as a set of sturdy cotton game bags.
Well you have had the fun part, experienced the messy part, and now the “less fun” part begins. That is hauling your elk back to camp. If you have boned the meat out, you can line your backpack with a regular large plastic trash bag, fill it with meat and begin your trek. If you have chosen to leave the bone in, securely lash a quarter to a good pack frame and start walking.
What about if you have to leave your elk or some part of your elk in the field? To protect the bagged quarters from birds or other critters I suggest hanging them from a limb in a cool spot in some trees. If there are no trees available look for some logs or limbs that you can rest the bagged quarter over. This will facilitate the cooling process while you are gone. Finally some hunters have been known to urinate around the site to discourage bears, wolves or coyotes from coming near the meat. For those of you who have yet to have this wonderful experience, this is one method of field dressing your elk.