Blog by Marcus Weiner
Photos by Brian Woobank
Butchering big game is a skill earned from experience and can be daunting to the new hunter. But it doesn’t need to be. Ungulates are constructed the same way, so learning how to break down a deer will give you the introductory skills needed to tackle larger animals like caribou, elk and moose. Here are some field butchering tips and tactics.
There are two school of thought on butchering big game in the field – the gutless method or the gutting method. I prefer the gutless method of field butchering big game. Since most of the animals I take in Alaska require them to be packed out, then breaking them down into four quarters; two backstraps; two tenderloins; two sets of ribs, briskets, flank and skirt steaks; and neck meat are the usually butchering method. With that fact in mind, the only reason to gut the animal is if you don’t have the ability to break it down immediately. My goal with every animal is to remove every last scrap of edible meat.
Having three guys on your moose-butchering team greatly aids in field butchering.
Assuming you can begin butchering immediately after taking an animal, then let’s use a moose as an example. Lay the moose on its side, and make a long incision (careful to slide your knife under the hide but not puncture the muscle) from the base of the head to the tail. Other hunters prefer to lay the animal on its back, make an initial cut from the genitals to the base of the neck (assuming you aren’t keeping the cape for mounting), and then peel the hide back on both sides. I prefer to start with the animal laying on one side when butchering big game.
Cut through the hide, but stay above the muscle when making the initial cut from the skull to the tail.
Begin by skinning the moose and peel back the hide from the spine towards to legs to expose the entire side of the animal. This process is a lot easier with three people as one can pull down on the hide while the other two cut. Take your time and be sure to avoid puncturing the gut cavity as you skin. Next, remove the front quarter. Running your knife along the edge of the scapula, it’s a simple process to cut connective tissue and muscle to remove this quarter. I like to pry up on the leg to expose the connection points and then cut around the scapula. Note that there are no bones that connect the front quarter to the rest of the skeleton.
Next, move to the rear quarter and cut around the pelvic bone, then trace the knife around the perimeter, separating muscle and eventually exposing the hip socket. With a little practice, it’s easy to pop the hip socket apart and remove the quarter. It really helps to have a team of at least three when butchering a moose so that one guy can lift on the hind quarter while one or two guys separate it from the pelvis and hip socket. Some blood is to be expected when you remove the hind quarter as you sever the femoral artery. When butchering big game, it’s smart to get the rear quarters off the animal quickly as they require the most time to cool down.
Cut around the pelvis and expose the hip socket to remove the rear quarter.
Next step is to remove the backstrap. This long chunk of meat sits adjacent to the spine and the top of the ribs. Trace your knife along both those surfaces to remove the backstrap. Note that it runs from the neck to the pelvis. Essentially you make a long, L-shaped cut to remove the backstrap. The next step is to remove the flank and skirt steaks, which are thin cuts of tough meat that cover the gut cavity and ribs. Systematically remove fat, silver skin and connective tissue from around the rib cage and you will expose these cuts.
Next step in the butchering big game process is to remove the ribs. Saw the connection between the spine and top of the ribs, or use the tip of your knife to separate each rib from the spine. The bottom connection of the ribs to the sternum can be separated with a knife. Some hunters prefer to leave the ribs in and remove the rib meat, but I find it easier to do when I remove the rib cage.
The team removed the ribs in the field, then deboned them at base camp.
Next is to move on to the tenderloin, which is located under the spine, from the last rib projecting towards the hips. It can be separated from the spine mostly by hand and will require just a little bit of cutting to extricate. After removing the tenderloin, proceed to removing the brisket, which is located on the chest towards the front of the ribcage. The final section to remove on the first side of the moose is the neck meat. Fillet this meat off the bone like you were filleting a salmon.
Flip the moose over and do the same to the other side. If you intend to do a shoulder mount or a European mount, then it makes sense to remove the head and cape before flipping the moose and it will make the process of flipping the animal easier.
Moose quarters are much easier to remove when you have three guys: one to lift and two to cut.
Place all meat in clean game bags, and hang. I usually put the quarters into a bag each, put everything designated to grinding into one bag, and put all the backstraps and tenderloins into one bag. Keep it out of the rain and let air circulate. If temps rise, maintain a vigilant eye on the meat and cut out anything that doesn’t pass the sniff test. If temps get below freezing, consider adding heat under the meat to bring the meat temperature up. Shooting for 40- to 45 ℉ is a good target in the field, so bring a meat thermometer with you on your hunt so that you keep your game in the right temperature zone.
A good hanging rack is critical for meat care. We placed a tarp over the top to keep the meat dry, but still allowed for air circulation.
Gear to consider:
Sharp knives and sharpener – Animal hides are tough and will dull blades, as does cutting connective tissue. For optimal performance and safety, keep knives sharp. Knife choice is a personal preference, but a general use drop point hunting knife with about a 4-inch blade will do the trick when butchering big game. We prefer knives by Spyderco and sharpeners from Work Sharp. Some people prefer a blade with a gutting hook, and that can work well for skinning the animal.
Game bags – Quality game bags are critical to keeping your meat protected from dirt, hair, pests and the elements. Good ones are reusable. We like the ones from Alaska Game Bags, T.A.G Bags, and Caribou Game Bags.
Sawzall or handsaw – Critters like moose have big bones and having a battery-powered Sawzall will help you quickly remove ribs, lower legs, the head and to remove the skull plate and antlers. These butchering big games tasks are a lot more labor intensive with a handsaw. If bringing a Sawzall on the hunt is not possible, then pick your best bone cutting saw and bring it along.
This tool is worth its weight when processing a moose.
Head net – Biting insects seem to materialize out of nowhere when an animal is down. If there’s a good breeze or its raining, then the bugs might be kept at bay, but if not, then expect some white socks and no-seeums to come to the party. It’s hard to keep them off you when you are hunched over on the ground in the middle of butchering big game, so a head net is necessary.
The headnet makes it possible for Kirk Studebaker to remove this backstrap without being chewed on by biting insects.
Suitable pack – A quality pack meant for hauling meat is critical on remote big game hunts. I like the pack systems where gear bags can be added or removed to the pack frame to fit the scenario. Check out options from Stone Glacier.
Paracord – When hanging game meat, paracord rated for the load required is a wise item to add to your hunting pack. I use the Two Half Hitches knot to attach the paracord to the game bag and to attach the paracord to the meat rack.
Meat thermometer – Meat care in the field revolves around keeping game dry, free of hair and dirt, protected from insects, and in the right temperature zone. Too warm, say 55℉ and climbing, and meat starts to spoil and rot. Too cold, say below 30℉ and meat begins to freeze, causing cold shortening and tough meat. Having several meat thermometers allows you to monitor the temperature of your meat.
Big game butchering is a labor-intensive process, but results in high-quality protein that you will appreciate every time you eat it. If visions of jerky, chili, tacos, hamburgers, breakfast sausage, roasts, stew and steak fill your mind, then learning the process of butchering big game properly will increase the quality of the meat you cook and further reinforce why so many of us hunt. Hopefully these tips on field butchering big game are helpful to you on future hunts.
Marcus Weiner is Co-Founder and Publisher of Hunt Alaska magazine. He is an avid big game hunter and looks for different ways to prepare the meat he brings home to his wife and sons.