Game Meat Processing:

The Spoils of the Hunt, or the Hunt Spoiled?



Big game meat processing requires careful attention to details and speedy action in warm weather. A friend of mine gave me permission to share his true story about the results of his wild game processing during a recent elk season.

On the third day of the season, Bill had started the long hike in the dark of morning to get to a remote elk haunt before daylight.

He followed the familiar horse trail near Helena, Montana until he came to an elk trail that went straight up the steep mountainside. The temperature in the area had been ranging from the thirties at night to about 60 degrees for a high, a set up for problems with big game meat processing.

That morning he was determined to avoid the other hunters he had been seeing the last couple of days. He was headed way up above a drainage he had not been to before.

The plan was to be high up on the cool side of the mountain by 5:30 a.m. It wouldn’t be an easy area to traverse. The footing was terrible because of the harsh angles and loose rock. (Another retrieval and game meat processing barrier?) Despite the warm temperatures, there was a little slippery snow on the ground on that side. Most hunters were avoiding that area for obvious reasons. Bill was undaunted and knew there would be elk up there somewhere.

His thighs burned in rebellion for hours, but as the climb finally became a little tamer, he found heavier elk trails that indicated he was in the company of his quarry. Late in the afternoon, one of the elk trails led him to a very large grassy hillside with sage scattered across it and dark timber surrounding it.

Meeting Elk

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Getting Elk Meat Home Easier

Almost immediately he heard elk chirps, but the cows clearly sounded like they were moving away. He decided to follow them since the wind was in his favor.

He used the sage as best he could, stooping to hide his silhouette as much as possible. Once he reached the middle of the park, he suddenly realized he wasn’t alone. He froze and studied the huge antlers moving above the sage about a hundred fifty yards away. Since Bill was in the open, he began to inch backwards toward some sage, but it was too late. The big bull lifted his head, spotted him and turned to bolt.

Bill made a quick shot with his Browning 300 Winchester Magnum. The trophy six-pointer disappeared into the timber. Without moving around too much he found some blood and slowly walked into the edge of the tree line. The bull was just standing there broadside about thirty yards away.

Experienced hunters know that as long as an elk is still standing, well placed lead is cheap insurance. He emptied his rifle, but suffering from shock, the bull didn’t even flinch.

Bill anxiously reloaded his rifle, hoping to speed the process up before darkness would unmercifully arrive, so far from his truck. The bull started slowly walking away from him. One more undesirable shot from the rear dropped the animal. Darkness then swallowed the mountainside with astonishing speed.

Night Descends

Undoubtedly, Bill was a little unnerved to find himself alone with such the formidable task of big game meat processing and retrieval ahead of him, now so deep in the darkened heart of unfriendly wilderness. Bill figured the night air would cool into the thirties in a couple of hours, . With relief he decided it would be safe to leave the elk overnight and get a good night’s sleep.

He slipped and slid down the steep, dark mountain to his truck and finally relaxed contentedly behind the steering wheel about 8:00 p.m.

The Next Day

Bill “slept in” until 6:30 the next morning. With a good breakfast in the tank he took his backpack with all the small pockets loaded with the necessities of the retrieval and big game meat processing task that awaited him. He would fill the large compartments with elk meat.

It was a little after 9:00 a.m. when he got back to the big bull. It was comforting to see it safely reserved for him in the friendly, bright atmosphere in which he had first encountered it. He skinned, quartered and deboned it, and had it all in game bags by noon. The temperature had climbed into the upper sixties. He knew he would have to hurry to get the game meat processing completed and in a refrigerator as soon as possible.

Race Against the Heat

For the first trip he loaded about 115 pounds of meat in the backpack , then made the return trip to load up again. It was obvious that two more trips before dark would not be possible. So, for the second trip, he used a larger backpack and stuffed the remaining 200 pounds into it.

The weight on his stout frame was daunting. It made the descent slow and dangerous. Bill found that he could most safely descend the loose footing on his backside. With his heels dug into the earth in front of him, he laid back on the pack with his rifle across his lap and his hands on the elk rack tied to the pack frame like handle bars. (I’m wondering if a screech of “Geronimo!”, could be heard in the valley below.)

The grinding slide left bits of gravel embedded in his skin and scooped plenty of earth into his shoes and underwear, as well as wearing holes through the fabric of his pack. I’m sure Bill was able to laugh at the hair-raising situation, once his elk meat and horns were safely in the back of his pick up.

In the Refrigerator at Last

The dirt wasn’t improving Bill's game meat processing skills. He removed debris from the elk meat the best he could that night and shoved it into a refrigerator in his garage. The three hundred plus pounds of meat filled the refrigerator so tightly that he had to tie the door shut with a rope. “That should do it! That stage of the big game meat processing task completed!” The next morning he left on a three day work-related trip with a great feeling of satisfaction that comes only with a successful big bull harvest.

I’m sure you’re cringing by now after adding up all the negatives related to Bill’s game meat processing errors. Upon returning from his trip, Bill returned to the task of cutting and wrapping his year’s supply of meat for his family. As soon as he opened the refrigerator the putrid smell overwhelmed him.

He wretched as he tried beyond hope to find some of the spoiled meat worth saving. The sad end to this story is that every ounce of that hard-earned meat had to be discarded.

Bacteria Waste No Time

Shortly after a game animal dies, the meat begins to be a breeding ground for bacteria that are doing their best to steal your quarry. All we can do is take as much action as possible to slow the growth rate down to a safe rate through good game meat processing techniques. With enough circumstances in their favor, bacterial overgrowth may simply explode and the treasured food supply is lost.

Bill’s impatience opened several “gates” by which bacteria entered the carcass. Had he been able to be more patient, the bull would have soon died from the double lung shot, avoiding holes in edible meat. Perhaps he shouldn’t have shot it at all, if he wasn’t willing to work through the night to complete the game meat processing. “A man has got to know his limitations.”

Battling the Enemy

By not, at least, gutting the bull in the dark before heading home, Bill had made another decision that would allow more bacteria to multiply than otherwise would have. A careful gutting process removes “gazillions” of them out of the scenario.

It is possible that Bill could have saved his meat from spoilage, had he been able to cool it quickly enough. The “danger zone” for bacterial overgrowth is between 41 and 135 degrees. That temperature range is prime for the multiplication process of those little unseen critters.

During the night, the hot visceral contents added points to the bacteria score in the “spoil” column. The night air was not cold enough to bring the flesh down anywhere near forty degrees, especially with all that heat being held in by the thick hide. The warm daytime air made matters worse for the temperature abuse of the meat.

It is vital to skin and gut big game quickly after killing it. As soon as possible, “divide and conquer” by cutting the meat into smaller pieces to allow heat to escape.

Bill’s Spoiled Hunt

After Bill deboned his trophy bull, his lack-luster descent off the mountain no doubt added insult to injury (excuse the pun) as dirt was added to the meat through holes worn through his backpack compartments. The overstuffed pack fabric itself acted to hold in heat. It would have been best to use just a pack frame with the game bags of meat tied on in the open air, while somehow avoiding the dirty slide down the quickest way to the truck.

Stuffing the room temperature roasts into the refrigerator was the final infraction that gave it over to the microbes that had been working on it for many hours.

A refrigerator or freezer can cool only very small amounts of warm food at a time, with good air circulation in the unit. Even meat that had been treated properly before being crammed into the fridge so tightly would have turned the whole thing into a bacteria incubator.

For all his hard work, Bill only has two ivories and a nice set of antlers as spoils (again, please excuse the pun) of the hunt. I am grateful that Bill was humble enough to let me share the story of his game meat processing mistakes, so that it might help others to avoid a similar heart-breaking experience.

May your hunts be productive and supply a bounty of fresh, naturally healthy meat from your big-game hunting excursions. Hunt within your limitations. Take all the necessary steps in game meat processing to avoid wasting the treasures of the hunt.

See the Hunter's Meat Map to get a general idea of how to separate the cuts of meat. See our packing meat, skinning, gutting, quartering and deboning elk pages for more big game meat processing tips.

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