The gutless field dressing method can be used if you can get the elk quartered quickly. The goal is to get the meat away from the hot visceral insides as soon as possible. If you want to haul an elk out whole, gut it right away.
There is a video below on gutless field dressing and quartering elk in the field provided by Dax McCarty of Wagonhound Outfitters.
When doing the gutless method, most people will start the skinning process by making the long, “lengthwise” body cut on top of the spine, from base of the head to the tail. Then they will cut around the elk’s chest behind the shoulders and skin the front legs from there. If you don’t need to take the hide home, you can start at the top and leave some hide intact on parts that you don’t cut into.
We usually skin it the same way we described on the skinning elk page. I prefer to keep the hide in one piece, because I find it harder to keep hair off the meat, when making an extra hide cut around the chest. I’m particular about limiting getting hair on meat. So, I skin it the ordinary way before doing the gutless field dressing method. A hide in one piece can help to keep the meat away from the ground, as well.
If you're caping a trophy, you'll need to leave lots of hide for the taxidermist to work with. Here's the caping page with a video: Caping An Elk for a Shoulder Mount
Packing elk meat is difficult, but big game retrieval can even be done alone. There are ways to make it easier, even without expensive equipment, horses or help.
Regardless, if feasible, point all legs downhill before starting the gutless field dressing. Once the front shoulder is skinned, lift the leg up away from the elk. Start cutting the connective tissue beneath the leg. Keep pulling it back over and away from the spine while cutting the tissue.
You will eventually see a large, round cartilage at the top of the shoulder. Cut wide around that arc of cartilage. The front leg will come free with a few cuts through some thin muscle on top. You can hang it in a game bag to cool or put it down on a plastic table cloth on the ground.
Once the back leg on that side is skinned, notice where the back leg pivots when the leg is moved around. The ball and socket joint is what creates that pivot point. From the pelvis, cut toward the joint until you reach the joint with your knife.
Cut muscle and cartilage away from the joint and the “socket” will eventually separate from the “ball”. Cut the meat still holding the leg to the pelvis and bag it. Or, remove the meat from the leg bone and bag it. Hang it, to cool, or set it aside on the table cloth or tarp.
Cut away as much meat from the neck as you can from that side. (Good for chili and stew.) Cut down along the top of the spine. You will find a nice long strip of meat there that goes all the way down the spine on each side (back strap). Separate the meat from the spine as you move all the way down from shoulder to the elk’s “waist” area.
Cut off anything that looks edible remaining above the ribs and neck area.
Between the last rib and pelvis, make a slice below the spine without cutting into entrails. Reach up under the spine and find the fillets on each side of the underside of the spine. They may be covered with waxy fat and tissue. You might have to cut the ends to pull them free, but they are nice and tender and easily pulled out.
Unless you have seen these and removed them with the regular gutting method, you might have trouble with this when gutless field dressing. You kind of have to know where they are to get them out without gutting the elk or deer. Most people think they are the best cut of meat on the animal.
Bag and hang these smaller pieces with the back strap, or set aside in a clean place, if it won’t be long before packing it out.
We leave the ribs. There’s not a lot of meat on them and they don’t taste like good, fatty beef ribs. Some people cut the meat out between the bones and the “skirting” below the ribs, as well.
Flip the carcass over and repeat on the other side. You’re now ready to cut the meat off the leg bones, or haul it out as is. See our deboning elk page for more information.
When you use the gutless field dressing method, the innards are still intact and have not had a chance to soil your healthy meat. If you’re going to do it, get it done soon and quickly.
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