Best Dressed

hunting, field dressing, Bozeman

Best Dressed

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Nick Bennett

If you’re a big-game hunter, you’ve probably been mulling over your opening-day hunt for the past few weeks, hoping that your preparation time will pay off quickly once the season starts. But as a former wild-game processor, I find that many hunters prepare their entire hunts to the “T” without thinking about what happens after the kill. What’s worse, the same mistakes and misunderstandings seem to plague most hunters when caring for their game—and that leads to less meat and lower-quality meat. So here’s what you need to know to get the most out of your hunt this year.

Clean your game entirely, directly after the kill. Make sure you remove all organs, including windpipes and rectums. Windpipes can cause the neck to spoil in only a couple of hours, especially in elk.

Proper cooling is essential. Always allow a three- to seven-hour cooling time for all game animals. Make sure that both the neck and pelvis are open to allow direct cooling.

Immediately after gutting, wash out the body cavity with water or snow to remove blood and dirt. Do this before the blood dries and glazes over.

Do not skin the animal until directly before butchering. Early skinning only cools the exterior of the animal. Skinning does more harm than good, as it allows the meat to dry out and become contaminated with insects, bacteria, and dirt.

Allow air movement around the entire animal if you’re going to leave it for long periods of time. You can do this by simply hanging the animal or getting its back over a log.

Do not fill the cavity of your animal with snow or submerge it in water. Both water and snow act as an insulator and only cool the meat they are in contact with. This traps heat in the larger muscles and causes spoilage.

When loading animals into your vehicle, make sure to prop both chest and belly cavity open for air circulation. It is best to allow the animal to cool before loading, as the animal will not cool properly if it’s lying directly on its back.

Remove the inside tenderloins soon after gutting. They’ll dry out and much of their mass will be wasted if you leave them in.

Leave your animal in the largest pieces possible. This dramatically helps keep the meat clean and improves the quality of your finished product.

Do not cut the tendon (hock) on the back legs. Remove the leg, if necessary, well below the joint. This tendon serves a vital role in hanging the animal for cooling and butchering.

Nick Bennett, formerly of Montana Mobile Meats, has been butchering wild game for 18 years.

Gutless Field-Dressing

Gutless field-dressing is a simple and easy way to field dress a big-game animal without wrestling with gut piles or getting covered in blood. Two hunters with knives can have an elk quartered, packed, and ready to go in just 30 minutes. You can do this by skinning before you start, or leaving the hide attached. I prefer leaving the hide on as it keeps the meat clean and keeps the outer layer from drying out. If you prefer to remove the hide, I would recommend skinning one side, removing the meat, then continuing with the other side.

Here are the steps I use without removing the hide:

  • Remove front shoulder, including the meat that lies against the brisket.
  • Remove hindquarter by cutting around the inside of the flank area, peeling the meat away from the pelvis and popping the ball joint.
  • Split hide from the top of front shoulder to the base of the skull. This allows you to take out the back strap and neck meat as one piece.
  • Roll animal over and repeat step 1 through 3.
  • Finally, carefully cut along spine from pelvis up to the last rib. This separates the spine from the gut cavity and exposes the tenderloin. Cut the tenderloin on each end and it should pop right out. Repeat on the other side and you are ready to pack. —Bill Wood

Southwest Montana native Bill wood spent six years on the U.S. National Shooting Team and guided big-game hunts for the better part of a decade. He is the owner of RW Outdoors in Sheridan.

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