So you’ve landed an elk out in the backcountry: awesome! Now, of course, comes the nitty-gritty of carrying your prize out of the backcountry. You’ll have an hour or more of work ahead of you, and time’s of the essence: You want to cool the meat as quickly as possible to ward against spoilage. If you happen to be elk-hunting in grizzly country, furthermore, you want to minimize the amount of time you’re monkeying around with a carcass—and the amount of scent from it you’re unleashing. (Of course, if you are elk-hunting where grizzlies roam, you should be armed with bear spray, and it should definitely be easily accessible during the field-dressing process.)
Field-dressing an elk is similar to processing a deer, but—as you’d expect—the elk’s heftier size makes it more demanding to maneuver the carcass. It’s certainly easier to field-dress a wapiti with the help of a buddy or two.
Here we’ll cover the basics of conventional field-dressing, and then briefly describe an alternative to the process: the “gutless method,” which doesn’t remove the internal organs at all and thus isn’t, strictly speaking, field-dressing.
Tools for Field-dressing
Carry several cutting tools to make the job of field-dressing more efficient and sanitary. A high-quality hunting/skinning knife—or, ideally, a small one and a larger one—is obviously essential. (Tom Airhart recommends bringing a small knife exclusively to cut away the belly patch of a bull elk, which often comes urine-soaked, though if you’re going the gutless route you don’t need to worry about that step.) A hunting knife with a gut hook (such as this one or this one) is handy; standalone gut hooks are also sold. Bring a whetstone or other sharpener to keep a keen edge on your cutting blade.
A meat or bone saw makes the job of quartering and removing the head easier, though a hand axe can also be employed. Then you’ll want several heavy-duty game bags and 50 or more feet of cord for hanging meat as well as tying off the legs for field-dressing stability.
Many hunters field-dress game bare-handed, but to lessen the chance of contamination you might opt to use disposable gloves.
Field-dressing an Elk Using the Conventional Method
One approach is to initially position the elk with its head downhill so that you’re taking advantage of gravity pulling internal organs away from the pelvis. You’d then shift the carcass the opposite direction once you’ve opened it up. Other hunters position the elk’s head uphill and tail downhill to begin with to assist with blood/fluid drainage.
First cut around the anus and pull out the end of the anal cavity so you can tie it off with a string or rubber bands, thus reducing the likelihood of fecal contamination during field-dressing.
Tying the front legs of the elk splayed will make eviscerating the carcass easier. If you have a hunting partner along, have him or her hold the hind legs while you work; otherwise, you may want to tie them apart as well, or do your best stabilizing the carcass simply by straddling it.
If you’re field-dressing a bull, cut the genitals away; depending on the regulations in your state, you may need to keep the testicles (or at least one testicle) attached for proof of sex.
Make an incision just behind the breastbone. Brace the upward-facing blade with two fingers slipped under the skin and then run the knife down toward the pelvis. This slits open the abdomen without puncturing the entrails. The insides should be partly spilling out at this point; easing the elk partly to its side will help.
Depending on whether you’re saving the cape or not, you can either reach into the cavity to cut the diaphragm and free the entrails from the ribcage or cut open the breastbone to do so. Pull the (tied-off) rectum and large intestines from the pelvis into the cavity to take that part of the gut out. Reach headward into the cavity to cut the gullet. With some finessing, cutting and wedging by feel to separate the organs from the cavity walls, the whole mass of the insides should be removable. If you want you can extract the liver and the heart to be stored separately.
Once you’ve taken out the internal organs, you’re ready to skin, quarter, and haul out the meat.
An Alternative to Conventional Field-Dressing: The Gutless Method
Many hunters opt for the so-called “gutless method” as a less-complicated (though not necessarily speedier) alternative to conventional field-dressing. This can quickly cool the carcass and avoids tampering with the entrails entirely.
There are a few ways to go about the gutless method, but basically you’ll position the elk on its side, skin it (though some hunters don’t skin the legs), and cut out sections of meat—shoulders, neck, rib, backstraps, tenderloins, etc., keeping the strips as large as possible for easier handling. These are placed in game bags directly. The process is repeated for the other side of the elk. You can learn the specific steps of gutless field processing with this Field & Stream video and this primer from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
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