First off, I want to say that no method of field dressing an elk is wrong – it all just depends on your situation, how much meat you’re going to be able to take home and put to good use, how far you are from your vehicle, and anything else that you consider valid when you’re preparing to haul a huge elk out of the field. There are plenty of things you need to keep in mind such as the weather, how much meat (realistically) you’re going to use, etc that it’s tough to tell what to do. So, there are a few ways I’ll tell you about here, and you can decide for yourself.
Bone Out Field Dressing
This is a method of field dressing elk that I use when I’m in the field. Like it sounds in the title, you take most of the bones out and leave them in the field so you don’t have to deal with them when hauling them back to the truck. One of the benefits to this is that you dont have to take the weight of the bones with you back to the truck. I dont know about you, but I’ve never shot an elk anywhere near my truck or camp, so it was a long haul back with all the elk parts. These are big animals and they weigh a lot, so this usually isnt a bad method – saves a lot of time and energy. You’ll still be dead tired either way, but this could help.
The first thing you’ll want to know after you’re sure that your elk is down is what you are required to take from the animal. All states are different, for example when you’re elk hunting in wyoming, you need to take the backstraps and the inside tenderloins at the minimum. If you’re elk hunting in montana, the requirements may be different. Make sure you are aware of them before going afield.
The first step in field dressing an elk using the bone out method is to remove the guts. Stomach, intestines, bowels, heart, lungs etc all need to be removed. Once you’ve got all those out, you can start getting to the good stuff: the meat you’re taking home. Work from back to front, 1 side at a time. So cut your leg ligaments and separate the bone from the socket. Cut back the hide on the leg and cut into the meat, following along the muscle lines. It doesnt have to be perfect, but make sure to get as much as you can – what you dont take will be left for the wolves/coyotes and crows. Once you’ve cut the meat, you should be able to pop the leg out of the joint and remove it from the rest of the carcass. Once this is done, move onto the backstrap. For these, I typically start near the head and work my way to the tail, as the backstrap begins to thin out and expand a bit. For your first cut, you’re going to want to find the spine and cut as close as you can to the spine, with your knife pointing towards the bottom of the animal. Slowly cut this back until you reach the end of the spine where you removed the leg. Now, put your fingers in the area where you cut and find where it attaches to the animal. Cut along that line, making sure to stay as close to it as possible. You dont want to leave any backstrap on the carcass, as this is one of the best parts! Once you get to the area where you started, you should be able to remove your meat from the carcass and put it in your game bag.
Now, move on to the tenderloins if you havent taken those out already. Simply reach into the area where you removed the lungs, etc and head towards where you cut out the leg. you should be able to find one tenderloin back there, and make your incisions like you did with the backstrap to cut it out. Put this in your game bag as well. Once this is done, you’ll move on to the front leg on that side, which you can do exactly like the back legs. Once the leg is off, remove the meat from the bone and place that with the rest in your game bag. There’s not much meat on the lower front legs, so we dont want to pack the heavy bone out with them as well.
Once you’ve got the backstrap, front and back legs and the tenderloin, it’s time to roll the creature over and go after the other side!
Bone In Elk Quartering
This method is quite different from the one described above, but you can choose whatever one better fits your specific situation. The first thing that you’ll need to do after your elk is down to quarter it is remove the head. You can leave it at the site but some people take them to get them tested for CWD – your local university extension will be a place to start looking for a lab if you need one. Once you’ve got the head removed, you can remove the front shoulders. These are easy enough to remove as there is no joint connecting the front shoulders to the rest of the body. Lift up the front leg, and cut under the leg, staying near the rib cage until you get to the spine of your elk. After this, you’ll want to remove the backstraps and the inside tenderloins. You can find the backstraps near the spine, so cut as close as you possibly can to the spine from the neck to the rear of the animal. Once this cut is made, feel around with your fingers under the backstrap to see where to make your next cut to free the meat. Once the meat is free, place in a game bag or wherever you’re going to put it when you haul it out. For the inside tenderloins (which is usually the best meat on the elk), you can find those along the spine on the inside of the body cavity. Cut those out and put them with your backstraps.
You should have 1 side almost quartered at this point, and ready to tackle the largest portion of the animal: the back leg. Start from the point where the back loin ended and cut deeply into the meat, and cutting towards the tail. At the point where the hindquarters come together, cut toward the middle of the pelvic bone. Next roll the animal over to its back and cut straight between the quarters until you hit bone. Cut the meat away from the bone, following the pelvic bone while your friend pulls the leg out of the way. Keep cutting until you hit a ball joint – at this point you’ll see some tendons around the joint, which you’ll need to cut to free your leg. Continue cutting until you meet your first cut near the pelvis, and at this point your leg will be free!
Once you’ve got all that done, roll the animal over and do the other side. With this method, you’ll be packing out quite a lot of weight in bone, so keep that in mind if it is getting dark or you have to do it all yourself. Once you’ve got both sides done, the rib meat and neck meat will be easy to cut out. Put the neck meat and rib meat in a game bag, and head out. You’ll have to tie each quarter to your pack frame, and dont over load it or you’ll be sorry later.
It’s best to do 1 side at a time to make sure that your meat stays clean.