Preparation and Knowledge Determines the Quality and Quantity of Your Table Fare
Many times, our planning takes us only to the point where we reach our intended goal. We spend countless hours preparing to accomplish a difficult task, yet fail to recognize the elements that are often encountered after we reach our goal.
Elk hunters are no different. Our goal is usually centered around some level of success, but our preparations don’t always include what takes place after we put the cameras away.
Field processing and packing of elk meat can sometimes be enough to rain on the otherwise glorious sunset of success, especially if we aren’t prepared. That figurative rain can become a downpour if we’re trying to do this in extreme heat. Add to these elements a long distance out of the backcountry to the nearest cooler, and we just hit flashflood stage.
For those who haven’t yet experienced the chore of processing and packing an elk of your own, it’s vital to be prepared ahead of time. In September and October, the clock is usually ticking, and a lack of preparation can lead to a needless loss of precious elk meat.
For those who have been involved in processing and packing an elk, but haven’t had to worry about doing it under the magnified rays of extreme heat, or over the course of several hours (or days), there are definitely a few things you’ll want to consider as you prepare for your next hunt.
When you can’t get the meat to a butcher or a cooler for several days, it takes some forethought and planning to save it. For this discussion, I’m going to assume you know how to get the meat off the elk, and focus instead on how to take care of meat once it has been removed from the carcass. If you need instructions for quartering an elk in the field, check out the Gutless Method video at www.Elk101.com.
It isn’t uncommon for temperatures in September to reach into the 90s in many elk hunting areas, and it’s possible for nighttime temperatures to stay above 50. This can provide a precarious situation for hunters to try and store elk meat. If you’re hunting in the backcountry, or you’re planning on hanging the meat in camp while you or others continue hunting, a little knowledge and preparation will go a long way.
There are three things to keep in mind that are bad for elk meat: 1) heat; 2) moisture; and 3) bugs. Getting the meat cool and keeping it dry and protected from flies is critical for preventing spoilage, bacteria growth, and damage.
Weather and temperatures are always a wildcard. We can go from snow and frigid cold to blazing heat in a matter of hours.
If temperatures are getting down below 40 degrees at night, and not getting above the 70s during the day, you’ll usually be just fine to hang the quarters from a meat pole at the kill site or back at camp, even for up to several days, in the shade. If temperatures are above the mid-70s during the day, you’re going to need to work harder to cool the meat and then keep it cool throughout the day. Or, find a local butcher that will allow you to hang the meat in their walk-in cooler until your hunt is over.
Regardless of how you plan to keep the meat for the next few days, one of the most important things to do is to get the meat cooled off quickly and thoroughly as soon as possible. Cooling the meat rapidly as soon as the elk is down will be a critical component of preventing the meat from spoiling over the next several days. Meat that isn’t cooled quickly initially stands a much greater chance of spoiling – even in cooler weather – than meat that is allowed to cool quickly in hotter weather.
Cool It Quickly
Hide: In order to allow the meat to cool rapidly, it’s imperative that you get the hide off the meat as soon as you kill the animal. The hide is an insulator, and if it’s left on the meat, it will trap the heat and cause the meat to begin spoiling quickly. Getting the hide off the meat will allow the meat to cool much more rapidly, even in relatively hot conditions. Once the meat cools initially, it’s simply a matter of not letting it heat back up by sitting in the sun or direct heat.
Getting the hide off quickly will also prevent your meat from becoming “gamey”, and add to the overall quality of the final product you’ll be feasting on for the next several months.
Ground: Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that the ground acts as a great insulator. If the elk is lying on its side for an extended period of time, it’s possible for the meat on the bottom side of the elk to retain heat and spoil quicker. It’s important in hot situations to work quickly to not allow the elk to lie on its side for too long. Work quickly, but not carelessly.
Hindquarters: One area of particular concern is the large muscle mass that makes up the hindquarter. If it’s really warm out, I’d suggest making an incision along the bone on the hindquarters to allow heat to escape more rapidly. The leg bone and overall meat thickness in the hindquarter holds a lot of heat, becoming an insulator for the heat trapped inside.
However, if it’s really warm out and you plan to let the meat hang for an extended period of time (either at the kill site or back at camp), I’d suggest leaving the bone in the quarter. I know, that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but if you debone the quarters and immediately pack the hot meat into game bags before it cools, the meat will be a large mass of heat and will actually slow down the cooling process.
If you leave the meat on the bones, definitely make an incision along the bones to allow heat to escape, but leaving the meat on the bone as it hangs will allow air to circulate around it and actually allow it to cool more rapidly. If you do plan to debone the quarters, allow the individual sections of meat to cool individually before you pack them into a game bag and load them into your pack.
As you remove each quarter, get it into a quality game bag right away! This will keep the flies and other bugs off the meat and prevent any egg-laying/future larvae, etc. from happening.
It will be imperative that you have quality game bags that won’t allow any flies to get inside or lay eggs through the material. Make sure all open areas of the game bag are securely tied or tightly cinched. I have seen bees chew through cheap game bags to get to the meat, which will then enable flies to get inside and lay eggs.
After you have the meat bagged, hang the bags in a cool, shady spot. I like to construct a makeshift meat pole as soon as we get an elk down, and use it to hang the quarters as we pull them off the elk.
Even if I plan to debone the quarters, I’ll put the full quarter into a game bag and hang it in the shade until I have all the meat off the carcass, and then go back and start the process of boning out the quarters. Removing the meat from the bone while the quarters are hanging is much easier, and the meat will have already started cooling down.
If you’re packing out the meat but can’t pack it all at once, leave the quarters you aren’t able to pack hanging in the shade – not on the ground. Keeping the quarters elevated with air circulating around them will allow heat to be drawn out of the meat more quickly. If meat is laid on the ground, the ground will again act as an insulator and keep heat from escaping.
When you get back to camp, you have two options: either hang the meat from a meat pole or take it into the nearest town and have it processed or stored at a butcher. Sometimes, local wild game processors will charge you a minimal fee to hang your meat in their walk-in cooler until you are ready to head home.
If this isn’t an option and you are hanging the meat from a meat pole at camp, be sure it is in the shade – not just at 9 a.m., but throughout the day. Take a minute and look at how the sun will track and how it might change where shade will still be hours later.
As long as the meat was able to cool down initially, and as long as the nighttime temps get down into the 40’s and don’t get above the mid-70’s during the day, you should be fine to leave the meat hanging there for 3-4 days. Be sure to check it each day and ensure that it isn’t in an area where it will end up in direct sunlight. The meat should be cool to the touch, and as long as it stays in the cool shade, it should be just fine until you get it in to a butcher.
Moisture is the Enemy
As I mentioned in the beginning, moisture is an enemy to elk meat. Moisture magnifies the rate that bacteria can form, and speeds up the process of meat spoilage.
To keep meat dry, again, use a quality game bag. Synthetic game bags are helpful, as synthetic material does a great job of wicking away moisture. Any moisture that is on the meat is going to be pulled to the outside of the game bag and evaporate, which will aid in protecting the meat.
Additionally, placing a small tarp over the meat while it is hanging will help keep rain from soaking the game bags. It also provides additional shade.
Coolers and Dry Ice
Once you’re ready to place the meat in your vehicle and head home or to the butcher, put it in coolers. An elk quarter lying in the back of a truck – even for just a couple of hours – can start to spoil with direct sunlight on it.
When you put your elk meat into a cooler, keep in mind that moisture will build fast with ice, so avoid using ice if at all possible.
If you’re traveling a short distance back home and the meat has been hanging at camp and allowed to cool completely, simply place it in a large cooler will protect it from the outside heat and allow it to stay cool. If you are traveling a long distance, though, you’ll need something in the cooler to keep it cool.
I usually stop at the nearest town and purchase dry ice. Many small grocery stores – especially those in elk country – carry dry ice. If you use it, be sure to place it in the bottom of the cooler, and then cover it with a layer of cardboard and/or a thick blanket before you put the meat on it. If the dry ice contacts the meat (even if it’s in a quality game bag), it will “freezer burn” the meat pretty severely. The dry ice should last for 10-12 hours, depending on how much you buy, and it will keep the meat plenty cool for the trip.
Also, be sure you have coolers that are large enough to hold the quarters. I’ve found that a large cooler will usually hold one front shoulder, a hindquarter, and half the miscellaneous meat. This means I’ll usually need two large coolers for each elk I plan to transport home.
There is nothing in the world like fresh, organic, well-preserved elk meat. Having a good knowledge of field care and a plan of action for taking care of and preserving the meat in any weather is vital to enjoying the fruits of your labors for the next 11 months. Make sure you’re prepared for the challenge.