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Handling Big Game



Some initial processing of the meat may be required at the harvest site or at camp followed by additional processing and freezing at the final destination.  If you decide not to process the meat yourself,  arrangement should be made with a commercial facilities.



Transporting wild game from the point of harvest to the place where it will be processed varies significantly for each type of big game.  The one thing that is common for transporting all species of wild game is - it must be kept clean and as cool as possible.  An appropriately sized cooler or refrigerator or freezer must be used.

Field Dressing


All big game needs immediate field dressing after the harvest  to begin the cooling process for the meat. The guts including organs need to be removed and the cooling process started.   A major cause of spoilage of meat is the result of improper cooling of the animal.  Preplanning is essential and taking the right equipment for field dressing the game is as important as remembering your rifle.

Capt. Clark

Thursday 12th August 1806 [Near Ft. Mandan, ND]


I was alarmed on the landing of the Canoes to be informed that Capt. Lewis was wounded by an accident-. I found him lying in the Perogue, he informed me that his wound was slight and would be well in 20 or 30 days this information relieved me very much. I examined the wound and found it a very bad flesh wound the ball had passed through the fleshey part of his left thy below the hip bone and cut the cheek of the right buttock for 3 inches in length and the debth of the ball. Capt L. informed me the accident happened the day before by one of the men Peter Crusat misstakeig him in the thick bushes to be an Elk.  ..... Crusat Seeing Capt L. passing through the bushes and takeing him to be an Elk from the Colour of his Cloathes which were of leather and very nearly that of the Elk fired....... Capt Lewis thinking it indians who had Shot him hobbled to the canoes as fast as possible and was followered by Crusat, the mistake was then discovered. This Crusat is near Sighted and has the use of but one eye.

There are a number of judgment calls and trade-offs that need to be made to ensure the meat is kept clean, allowed to cool quickly, kept dry and well ventilated.  Some hunters prefer to skin and quarter the animal immediately at the place of harvest.   The meat is then placed in cloth meat bags to keep the meat clean during transport.  This approach allows for quick cooling of the meat but it requires considerable care during the skinning operation to keep the meat clean. Other hunters have been equally successful in preventing meat spoilage by ensuring good ventilation and cooling of the meat without immediate skinning.  

Field dressing of game is the first step in acquiring safe, clean meat and must be done as soon as possible after the game is harvested.   The following items and equipment are necessary for field dressing:

  • String or tape for tag attachment

  • Sharp knives - skinning, boning and basic hunting knives

  • Saw/hatchet to split and quarter the animal.

  • Cheese cloth type bags to cover the animal to keep flies off

  • Ropes and pulleys for hanging the carcass and meat

  • Cloth/cheese cloth game bags for boned meat or quarters

  • Cover cloth or natural material to exclude birds and small animals

  • Rubber/latex gloves

Deer Size Animals (Deer, Antelope, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, average size Bears)

The first steps for deer size animals are as follows:

  • Put on rubber/latex gloves (protection against disease and contamination).

  • Remove all guts and organs from the carcass.

  • Clean the body cavity with a damp cloth to remove any blood or contamination.

If the carcass is to be left in the field over night and the weather is cool/windy, do the following:

  • Cut the legs off at the knees.

  • Spread the chest cavity with a stick to allow air circulation.

  • If possible using a rope/hoist, raise the carcass up ito a tree and cover with game/deer bags or after enclosing the carcass with a game bag place small logs or rocks under the carcass to allow air circulation.

  • Once the carcass is at the hunting camp further field dressing may be required.

If the weather is warm consider the following:

  • If possible move the animal into shade near a large tree and hang it.

  • If the animal is to be skinned, quartered or boned, cheese cloth type game bags should be available and ready for use.

  • Remove the hide and cover with a game bag or

  • If there is sufficient time, and the meat is to be back packed out, or the day heat is a concern, boning should be considered.

  • When boning, place the pieces in a cheese cloth type bag as they are removed to keep them clean.

  • Boned meat laid on the ground or on three boughs will require time to clean during cutting and wrapping and may result in wasting some meat.

  • The process of boning will in itself allow sufficient cooling of the meat to minimize spoilage.

  • If the meat will be left in the field over night, tie the meat up off the ground in a shady area.

Other items to be considered to keep the meat clean, cool, dry and ventilated are:

  • Do not place warm meat in plastic bags because they can trap heat and accelerate spoilage.

  • If the meat will remain at the hunting camp, hang bagged meat in the shade where there is good air circulation.  

  • If it warms up during the day the meat can be covered with a sleeping bag to minimize the possibility of warming up.

  • Protect the meat from rain and never leave meat submerged in water for an extended period of time unless it has been cooled and is enclosed in a water tight bag.

Capt. Lewis

Thursday August 1st 1805.


I ordered two of the men to skin the Elk and bring the meat to the river, while myself and the other prepared a fire and cooked some of the meat for our dinner. we made a comfortable meal on the Elk, and left the ballance of the meat and skins on the bank of the river for Capt. Clark and party. this supply will no doubt be acceptable to them, as they had had no fresh meat when I left them for almost 2 days except one beaver; game being very scarce and shy above the forks.

Large Animals (Elk, Mouse, Caribou, large Bears)



If there are any trees or scrub brush available the legs can be tied to gain access to the abdominal cavity and facilitate gutting.

Skinning On the Ground


If there are any trees or brush available, the legs can be tied in different positions to aid skinning. It is best to skin one side and then the other. When finished, leave the animal on the hide and prop up with all four feet in the air to aid in cooling.

Skinning Using a Meat Pole ( remove the head from the animal)


  • Saw down a 3-4 inch diameter tree long enough (at least 6 feet) to tie up between two larger trees as high as you can reach. Tie a hoist to one side of the pole.

  • After removing all legs at the knee, tie one hind leg to the hoist, raise up to the pole and tie off.  Repeat with the other hind leg and tie it off.

  • Skin down to the third rib at the bottom of the rib cage.

  • Cut between the third and fourth ribs to the backbone on both sides and saw through the backbone.

  • Tie the hoist close to the side of the meat pole and cut a slot between the third and fourth ribs midway along the rib.

  • Tie one side of the hoist to one rib and repeat for the other.

  • Raise the rib cage to the pole and secure the hoist to prevent slippage.

  • Finish skinning the ribcage and neck.

  • The animal can now be quartered/boned.

  • If left in the field, the quarters or boned out meat must be covered with mesh type cloth bag and positioned for good ventilation.

Transporting Big Game

Transporting Big Game

Before the hunt it is important to prepare a meat transport plan starting with moving the carcass from the harvest to the hunting camp, from the camp to your vehicle, and in some cases to an airport for air shipment.  If you will be transporting game across state lines, you should be aware of any requirements pertaining to the transport of carcasses where you are hunting, in the states you may be traveling through and in your home state.


If you hunted in Canada or Mexico it is equally important to know the rules for transporting harvested game and the requirements for transporting your guns into the country and returning to the US.

Capt. Clark

Sunday the 15th December 1805.


I Set out early with 16 men and 3 Canoes for the Elk, proceed up the River three miles and  thence up a large Creek from the right about 3 miles the hite of the tide water drew up the Canoes and all hands went out in three different parties and brought in to the Canoe each Man a quarter of Elk, I Sent them out for a Second load and had Some of the first Cooked against their return, after eateing a harty diner dispatched the party for a third and last load, about half the men missed their way and did not get to the Canoes untill after Dark

Special Requirements


  • Some states require the harvest tag to be attached to the head or antlers whereas other states require that it be attached to the largest piece or portion of meat.

  • Attached to the meat does not mean attached to the bag the meat is in, but rather in the bag and attached to the meat.

  • The tag must remain with the meat until it is eaten (including while it is in cold storage).

  • In Washington State it is illegal to possess or transport big game animals unless evidence of the animal's sex is left naturally attached to the carcass until the carcass is processed or stored for consumption.

  • When you are field dressing or packing out carcasses some states emphasize that you may not allow your game animal to be recklessly wasted.

  • Alaska requires all moose and caribou meat including rib meat to be packed out.  (Canada also has similar requirements for preventing wastage of game meat)

  • If you have hunted in another state you need to check the rules for transporting the bone-in meat across state lines.  For more information on importing meat from outside Washington State go to Chronic Wasting Disease Introduction.

  • Check with state or province fish and game departments to ensure you have the latest requirements for game transport.

Harvest Site to Camp


The hardest transport leg is from the harvest site to the hunting camp and again terrain, temperature and time will play a major role on how its done.  Any of the following types of equipment can be used for transporting the carcass:

  • Backpack frame for quartered or boned meat

  • Skid or sled method to drag the carcass while keeping it off the ground

  • Wheeled cart for hauling the carcass

  • Horses/mules/llamas/goats for packing out meat quarters

  • ATV's/snowmobiles/4 Wheel drive vehicles for hauling or pulling

  • Boats for hauling meat across lakes

If the terrain is very rough special equipment such as block and tackle, ropes, and winches may be required. The size of the retrieval team will vary depending on the distance to camp, the time available to get the carcass out and the size of the animal.  To save time and effort it may be simpler to quarter or bone the carcass, pack in cloth meat bags, and haul out the pieces.


At this step, safety of the hunters and the potential for major spoilage of meat have to be weighed against retrieval of the entire carcass.   The decision made must meet the test that the action taken did not result in reckless wastage of meat (this may vary from state to state).

Vehicle Transport/Air Shipment


With the carcass at the hunting camp further field dressing may be needed for the remainder of the trip.

  • If the animal is large it may need to be cut into quarters to improve handling and keeping the meat cool.  Provisions should be made for transporting covered quarters for large animals in a SUV or truck.

  • Deer size with the skin on can be transported without quartering by placing them on a rack on the roof of the vehicle provided the weather is cool and there is good circulation around the carcass.

  • If the carcass is visible, you should check with state authorities to see if there are restrictions on "public display" of the animal.

  • During warm weather, boned meat may be put in containers with ice or under a tarp with bags of ice between the tarp and meat (remember cold air sinks so ice is more efficient if placed above the meat rather than under it).

  • As required arrangement for processing the meat should be made in advance with a locker or butcher.

  • If the meat is to be shipped by air you must get the air transportation regulations and determine packing requirements, weight restrictions, cooling requirements, cost and delivery arrangements.

Capt. Clark

14th & 22nd December 1805


 All employd in finishing a house to put meat into. all our last Supply of Elk has Spoiled in the repeeted rains which has been fallen ever Since our arrival at this place,-We discover that part of our last Supply of meat is Spoiling from the womph of the weather not withstanding a constant Smoke kept under it day and night.


Processing Big Game

Once the game has been field dressed and transported out of the woods the next steps are aging, skinning, butchering/boning and preserving/freezing.  There are a number of decisions that need to be made during these steps such as having the game process by a commercial facility or doing it yourself.  In either case you will need to decide on how long the game should be aged, what type of meat cuts and size meet your needs, whether the meat is to be boned, if some of the meat will be used to make sausage, and how the meat will be preserved.



Meat that is hung to age before being cut and wrapped is generally regarded as more tender and flavorful.  However, aging is not required for the meat to still be good table fare.  Aging is a preference, not a requirement. It should be done with the skin on and with protection from flies.

  • The ideal place to age meat is in a temperature and humidity controlled cooler, similar to those used by a butcher or meat marker.

  • The optimal temperature to age meat is 33 - 40 degrees F

  • Depending on temperature, meat can also be hung outdoors, in a shed or anywhere in the shade where the sun does not contact and warm the meat.

  • Meat may be hung (in the shade) when daytime temperature get as high as 70 degrees F if the meat was properly cooled immediately after it was harvested and night time temperatures drop down into the mid-40's or lower.

  • To help regulate the temperature of the meat, keep the meat covered with blankets or sleeping bags during the day and uncover the meat at night.

  • Meat that is hung in sub-freezing temperatures may freeze which stops the aging process and results in freezer burn.

  • The normal time for aging the meat under the optimal temperature is 1 to 2 weeks taking into account the following factors:

  1. The aging process begins at the time of harvest.

  2. Time should be reduced if carcass is subject to higher temperatures.

  3. When an animal has been stressed, lactic acid build up in the muscle is reduced during aging.

  4. Aging is an enzymatic process that reduces acid build up and breaks down protein for more tender meat.

  5. Some big game do not require as much aging (Antelope should only be aged 4 to 5 days).

  • For best results the carcass should be skinned after the aging period.  If you skin the animal  earlier, it will lead to a dried crust of meat on the outside of the carcass.  This will cause overall drying of the meat and will need to be trimmed off before packaging.



 It is usually best to skin animals just before butchering or at a time that the carcass can be placed in a controlled atmosphere (walk-in-cooler) with appropriate cloth coverings and humidity. The equipment needed for skinning includes:


  • Curved skinning knife or all purpose hunting knife

  • Hanging method (tripod, mounted hooks, rope, block & tackle)

  • Clean table area for the skinned carcass


Care must be taken during skinning to assure that the meat stays clean.  In some cases, touching the hair side of the hide to the meat can impart a strong and unpleasant flavor.  Scent glands are located throughout the hide (antelope) or on the legs (other big game) and during skinning it is important to turn the hair side of the hide away from the meat. Throughout the skinning process it is important to wash your hands and utensils frequently to prevent contamination of the meat.


Skinning is best accomplished by hanging the carcass either from the neck or hind legs and then taking the following steps:


  • Usually it is easier from the hind quarters to the head but from head to hind quarters will work (it is more difficult to hang from the head and keep the carcass stable).

  • Cut the hide down the legs, put the knife under the skin and cut outward to keep from cutting hair and also to reduce dulling of the knife.

  • Fold the skinned hide away from the meat.

  • Remove hair from the meat as you skin.



It is preferable to proceed with the butchering/boning process while the animal is still hanging and immediately after skinning. All boned out meat should be placed in plastic tubs that can be covered with plastic wrap and temporally refrigerated for later final processing. Roast and steak sections should be segregated from burger meat etc. Covering the tubs will prevent crusting/drying until final processing. After removal, all bone should be properly disposed.


If you lack a clean space to hang the carcass and clean areas for cutting and wrapping the meat, you should consider having the meat aged, butchered and wrapped by a commercial facility.  Arrangements should be made in advance so the meat can be taken directly to the butcher. Request that the meat be boned and all fat removed and discarded. If you decide to do the butchering yourself, you should have the following:

  • Sharp knives

  • Bone saw

  • Clean butcher paper covered table to lay the meat

  • Plastic wrap/butcher paper or vacuum packing material

  • An alternate method, with the legs still attached to the hind quarters, is to bone the sirloin tip, round and shank sections from each leg and placed them in a tub.  The boned hind leg(s) can now be removed at the pelvic joint (rump knuckle) and disposed.

  • For the remaining parts of the hind quarter(s), remove the loin steak section and then the rump section.  Meat suitable for burger, stew, etc. should be removed and placed in a separate tub.

  • The front quarters and neck still hanging can be removed by cutting around the meat to the neck vertebrae where it is joined to the head and then sawing through the vertebrae. These quarters can be taken to the boning table.

  • Here, working on one  side at a time, one approach is to remove the front leg by pulling the shank of the leg away from the body and then slicing through what looks like an armpit between the shoulder blade and the ribs.  The front leg is attached to the body entirely by muscle; there is no joint or knuckle between the shoulder blade and the ribs.  The front leg can then be boned.  

  • A second approach, without initially removing the leg, is to remove the two shoulder roast sections form the outside of the shoulder blade and then by boning the underside of the blade, remove it at the arm bone knuckle and dispose.  The meat can now be boned from the front leg and the leg disposed.

  • Bone out the rib steak section and the meat outside the rib cage, brisket and neck.  Repeat the boning for the other side of the rib cage.  Again, keep the steak/roast meat separate from the burger, stew meat, etc..  The meatless rib cage can be disposed.

There are different ways for butchering/boning animals and the following discussion covers an approach that works well with deer sized animals and quartered larger animals.   Keep in mind that deer size animals can be also handled in two section - the front half and the hind quarters.  


  • The first step is to carefully go over the carcass and remove all hair, contamination and blood shot areas that may be on the meat.   

  • For deer sized animals, when the carcass is hanging from the head, remove the hind quarters by cutting above the second or third rib from the backbone to the belly.  Repeat on the opposite side at the same rib location.  Then from the outside of the carcass, cut through the loin to connect the two cuts and saw through the spinal vertebrae at this point to separate the hind quarters from the rib cage.  

  • The hind quarters can be taken to the boning table.  At this point, the tenderloins should be removed from both sides of the backbone inside the lower rib cage.

  • Here, one approach for boning is to remove the legs at the pelvic section rump knuckle.  This is a little difficult until you have seen it done or have done it once yourself.  

  1. Spread the legs as much as possible.  

  2. Looking from the inside, or belly side of the carcass, begin cutting the meat around the pelvis by keeping the blade as close to the pelvis as possible.

  3. At some point you will encounter tendons that are holding the hip joint (rump knuckle) in the socket.  

  4. Sever all of the tendons and the ball will fall out of the socket.  

  5. Continue cutting to remove the entire leg from the carcass.  

  6. Boning of the individual legs can proceed as described below.

Final Processing


Lay individual boned meat sections on a clean butcher paper (shiny side up) lined area and remove sinew, hair, dirt/bloodshot areas and all fat.

  • Game fat has a tendency to turn rancid while in the freezer.

  • Fat not removed prior to packaging can be removed prior to cooking.


Separate into steaks, roasts, stew meat and meat to be ground into burger.  

  • About 10-20% beef fat added to the meat during grinding will produce a tasty and lean hamburger.  

  • Large muscles can be removed intact and then sliced cross-grain into roasts or steaks.  

  • Some people prefer to save as many good roasts as are available because they can be cut into steaks before cooking as needed.  

  • Examples of muscles (meat) that make excellent roasts and steaks are:   

  1. The rib and loin steaks that run on each side of the backbone on the outside of the carcass.

  2. The round which extends from the knee cap to the rump knuckle on the back side of the hind leg.

  3. The sirloin tip that is on the front side of the hind leg opposite the round.

  4. Roasts and steaks can also be cut from the front shoulders of larger animals like elk and moose.


Dispose of the bones and skin in an appropriate manner. (Some areas have skin drives for charity if you choose not to tan your hide).  

 Freezing Big Game Meat

The butchered meat can be preserved by wrapping and freezing.  Also the internal organs (heart, liver, kidneys, etc) and tongue which were removed during field dressing should be cleaned and processed for storage.  There are two methods to prevent freezer burn for packaging game meat for freezing.  It can be wrapped with freezer paper or vacuum packed:

Double wrap all meat before it is frozen.  The inner layer of wrapping can consist of a plastic bag, plastic food wrap, or wax coated butcher paper.  All work well depending on the size and cut of the meat being wrapped.  For example, 1 to 1 ½ pounds of hamburger will fit well into a Glad fold-top plastic sandwich bag.  Squeeze the air out of the bag, then wrap in butcher paper.  Steaks and roasts can be wrapped in plastic food wrap and then wrapped in butcher paper.  Or any cut of meat can be wrapped with coated butcher paper but be sure to put the coated (slick) side next to the meat.  Uncoated butcher paper may allow moisture to escape,  the meat to freezer burn, and the paper to stick the meat when it is taken out to thaw.


If freezer paper is used it is recommended that the meat be wrapped using the "drugstore wrap' or the "butcher wrap" technique.

Vacuum packing seals the meat in plastic bags by extracting the air using a vacuum system and then hermetically sealing the plastic bag.  Twenty inches of mercury is needed to provide an adequate vacuum for extended shelf life.


This requires special equipment which is available for home use but may not be practical if small quantities of meat need to be frozen.

There is a relatively new and inexpensive hand held vacuum system and plastic bags with one-way valves available in most grocery stores that can be used for vacuum packing small quantities of meat; however, shelf life will be shorter.


All packages of meat should be labeled with the contents and dates.  The packages should be frozen rapidly and this can be done by spacing the packages to allow for good circulation.  If you have large quantities of meat to be frozen, consider having a commercial company do the initial quick freeze and then store them in your freezer.

Capt. Clark

14th December Friday 1804


A fine morning. wind from the S. E. the murckerey Stood at '0' this morning I went with a party of men down the river 18 miles to hunt Buffalow, Saw two Bulls too pore to kill, the Cows and large gangues haveing left the River, we only killed two Deer & Camped all night with Some expectation of Seeing the Buffalow in the morning, a verry Cold night, Snowed.

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