The old adage, “The job’s never over until the paperwork’s done,” can be projected to big-game hunting thusly: “The hunt’s never over until the meat has been properly cared for.”
Proper care of the meat of an animal you’ve taken means field-dressing the animal and/or quartering the carcass, then cleaning the meat and preparing it for the butcher, all while keeping it cool. While a big bull elk takes more work than small Southeastern whitetail, both go through the same easy process and require nothing more than a few basic tools and some simple skills.
There are two basic ways to care for meat in the field. The first is old-fashioned field-dressing, or gutting, a process designed to both remove the entire digestive system, as well as the heart, lungs and windpipe, and facilitate cooling before internal bacteria begins to multiply and taint the meat. This is the most common method of meat care when the sportsman has easy access to mechanical or four-footed transportation, like an ATV, truck, or pack animal, and the carcass can be transported to a clean, civilized area to be skinned, washed and cut up. Here’s how to do it:
Quick tip: While rapid field-dressing will promote cooling, when transporting the carcass whole from the field, I like to leave the skin on simply because this will keep the meat cleaner and free of debris that would otherwise need to be trimmed away later.
A popular alternative to field-dressing is to simply quarter the animal, leaving the guts inside the body cavity. It’s cleaner and quicker, and the only meat you leave are the ribs. After making sure the animal is dead, here’s what I do:
Getting rid of body heat and keeping meat cool is key no matter when or where you’re hunting. Big ice chests and lots of ice are standard fare. Once my meat has been washed to remove blood and debris (hosing it down with lots of water is highly recommended), I place it in heavy, 3mm garbage bags inside an ice chest with plenty of ice. The plastic bags keep the meat from soaking in water, which would remove a lot of the flavorful juices.
Another great option for keeping it cool is using a portable walk-in cooler like this one from Koola Buck. They’re not cheap but work great and will keep working for decades—and if you are someone who regularly invests thousands in their hunting seasons, it’s not hard to view this any differently than a new scope or rifle.
Promptly caring for downed game in the field helps ensure you’ll end up with the most flavorful meat possible. It’s a source of pride for my family and shows great respect for the magnificent animals we hunt. Want to see how it’s done? Outfitter Fred Eichler has a great YouTube video showing a step-by-step field-dressing process on an elk.
Several “little things” can make field-dressing quicker, easier and cleaner: