Yeti

Meat Field Care

Bambistew

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One topic I rarely see is meat care in the field. The occasional topic usually includes going from point A (kill site) to point B (truck/home/butcher) ASAP. Put it in a cooler with ice, get it skinned, etc. That’s pretty easy stuff. What if point B is camp, for another week? I’m curious how you guys take care of meat in the field for extended periods of time. I’ve attempted to detail my method and reasoning’s below. By no means is this gospel, but it has worked for me with many, many animals. I’ve yet to have meat spoil even in temps approaching 80 deg in the day. I hope this helps newer guys who don’t have experience with meat care in the field and maybe even helps the guys who do. I think many of us deal with this issue so often we sometimes forget how much actually goes into meat care.

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I know there are a lot of guys on here that have tons of experience with meat care, but there are also a lot of newer hunters, and guys that haven't really had to deal a big dead animal 5 miles from the truck... or farther for extended periods. I think the vast majority of hunters shoot an animal and have it hanging within 24hrs or less. I worked as a butcher for a while and got to see a pile of wasted meat. Some hunters couldn’t even make it from point A to point B without losing meat… in November. The usual loss was an elk (neck and shoulders), and the reason was not skinning the neck, or removing the windpipe. On a bull the hide is really thick on the neck, and traps heat, more so than the mane hair. Snow is also another spoiler… snow insulates and also traps heat. Get that animal in a position where the wind/air can circulate around it and it will cool out much better than in a snow bank.

A few things that I always have with me while in the field for game care, be it a day trip or a 10 day trip:
Game bags
Rope
Citric acid
Boning knife
Saw
Tarp.

Game bags - enough for animal, plus 1-2+ extra. This usually correlates to how many backpack trips it takes to get an animal from point A-B, or more simply one bag per trip. For instance a deer/sheep is usually 2, one for meat one for cape, an elk 3-4, and a moose is 6-7. I bring a couple extra so I can swap out meat into clean bags while I wash others;

Small diameter rope, at least 50', 100’ is better, this is for hanging bags, and tarp;

Citric acid powder (can be found in the bulk food section in most grocery stores). Mix 1oz per quart of water. This lowers the pH and reduces bacteria growth and repels insects. Spray (I bring a 6oz spray bottle at times) or sprinkle on liberally, re-apply every day or two. Apply liberally to areas where the muscle has been cut off the bone, i.e. around the ball joint on a hind quarter, or back straps.

Knife – I bring a commercial boning knife (Forchner 5"). I don’t have much use for a traditional hunting knife and haven’t packed one in years. Their shape and feel really don’t work that well for cutting up an animal. The way I look at it, if hunting knives were great for cutting meat, butchers would use them… Also with a small steal, I can sharpen the knife very easily and quickly, hunting knives are usually hard to sharpen in the field. The new Havalon style knives are pretty slick, but when I have a pile of meat to deal with I want a knife that I can make big fast cuts and while boning a critter, I apply a lot of pressure, twisting and turning. The Havalons don’t hold up too well that that style, but I can make due on smaller animals… still on the fence with them for anything outside of caping.

A game saw -This is of course personal preference, but I’ve been through a pile of saws from folding, to knap style, to Wyoming style. What I’ve found to be my favorite is a small 14” Stanley handsaw. It fits great in the pack right against my back, and works slick as hell for all sorts of tasks, such as cutting wood, or antler extraction. It weighs next to nothing and is the best I’ve found for my intended purpose. On extended hunts which include big animals I always take a saw. For a deer or sheep hunt I rarely take a one.

A small tarp – this is generally a 6x8 or 8x10 in size, made of the typical blue poly, a silnylon or a piece of visquene plastic. I prefer the blue tarp or silnylon as they usually have tie downs built in. They can be used to lay meat on during butchering (I usually use extra game bags for this) but its main purpose is to protect the meat from sun and rain once its bagged and waiting at Point B to go to Point C.

The four main reasons meat will spoil: heat, moisture, dirt and flies.

Bacterial grows in warm environments (heat), usually anything above 40 degrees, but the real caution number is 50. If you can keep meat around 40 degrees or less you can keep it for weeks. Moisture promotes the growth and spreads bacteria. Moisture can be found in the form blood, rain, or submerging in water, etc. Bacteria are everywhere, but higher concentrations are found in dirt, so keep the meat as clean as possible. Sticks, leaves, and plant matter is pretty much inert, and not something I worry about if it gets on the meat. Lastly, flies... flies and maggots thrive in warm, high bacterial environments and also spread bacteria from point to point.

Bacteria is your number one concern with meat care, if you can reduce the factors which promote growth you will increase your odds of keeping your meat longer. To do this you need to cool the meat, keep it clean, keep it dry and keep the bugs off it. Simple right?

Game bags are probably one of the most important pieces of game care and your first line of defense from bugs, and dirt. I prefer Tag Bags (or any synthetic) over cotton. These serve multiple purposes. First, they keep the meat clean and free of dirt/dust (obviously). The cheap cheese cloth bags are basically useless IMO. Dust/dirt can penetrate, flies can blow their eggs right through the mesh, or lay eggs on the mesh and the maggots burrow in.

Synthetic bags do not promote the growth of bacteria as readily as cotton because they don't retain moisture. Cotton will begin to grow mildew in about 24hrs if the temperature and humidity is high and the bags are damp, this in-turn promotes bacterial growth. Cotton absorbs moisture easily and is difficult to dry, be it water, or blood. If your meat is dripping blood, the cotton will absorb it, and will take forever to dry. I often wash game bags while in the field to rinse off blood and dirt. Cotton will not dry in lower temperatures, and takes forever even in warm temps. Synthetic bags will dry in about half an hour usually. Synthetic bags are generally stronger, lighter and less bulk than cotton as well. Lastly, synthetic bags will breathe better than cotton, mostly because the woven pores do not plug as easily due to the arrangement of the fibers in the fabric.

A bag that breathes is a big deal. A bloody bag will not breathe; they must be swapped out and/or rinsed/dried as needed to keep the blood from soaking the bags. You want your meat to be dry to the touch and form a crust which is another barrier to bacteria. A crust will form on the meat inside the bag if it’s in a well-ventilated area, or hung in such a way that air can readily circulate around it. The best way to crust the meat is to hang it directly in the wind without the bag (watch for bugs). If no bugs are present while I’m butchering, I will set the meat out on game bags, or rocks and let it cool and crust before bagging.

I try to keep meat in as big of chunks as possible, and make as few of cuts as I can. That means, that each quarter remains in one piece, with or without the bones. Take your time and be as clean and careful as possible to preserve meat in large chunks. I usually end up with about 12 pieces of meat, and no little scraps… quarters (4), loins/t-loins (4), rib/flank meat (2), and neck (1-2) pieces. The less surface area you have the less chance of bacterial contamination. Having the meat in big chunks makes applying citric acid much easier as well. I will liberally apply citric acid as the meat comes off the bone and is ready for the bag.

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Ok, so we have all the meat off the animal, bagged and ready for stashing/cooling. I look for a tree that offers some shelter from the sun/rain and tie the bags up near the kill site and start packing one bag at a time back to camp. Once I get back to camp, I find a spot with good air flow (avoid depression/draw and thick brush/trees). I’ll tie up a meat pole and hang the bags, or tie to a tree with good branches that provide cover from the rain. With a meat pole I rope up a tarp to keep the bags dry and shaded. I will check the meat periodically, rotate the meat around in the bags to keep it from sticking and swap out bloody bags for fresh ones as needed. I will also re-apply citric acid daily. I’ve kept meat as long as 7 days in the field in temps between 35-60 deg, no problem… then took another 3-4 days to cut it up at home.
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I hope this helps, and I’d love to hear other tips or tricks some of you may have.
 

DRAFTSTUD

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Bravo Bambi! That was a great explanation of how to take care of an animal from field to plate. Thanks, I will take some of these ideas and use them. John
 

Summitthunting

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A few years ago I took Bambistew's advise on the boning knife and bought a 6" Dexter-Russel. It's practically the only knife I use now. Flat out works better than any hunting knife!
 

Kaitum

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New Mexico
Good info, thanks for sharing!

I follow a similar process while in remote AK. I like TAG Bags and use them exclusively these days. When they get bloody you can wash them and they dry quickly in the wind. On my trips the last five years I'm usually looking at 5-7 days between harvest and getting home to the freezer. Air taxis often compliment the condition of the game meat when we load the plane. I assume that means they see their share of poorly handled meat as well.

I'm often camping on a gravel bar or lakeshore. So one of my first tasks upon getting the meat back to camp is to build a rack with driftwood and rocks. I'll set the quarters in the bags on this rack which keeps the meat off the ground, allowing for air circulation and promoting cooling. I locate the rack next to the water where air temps will be coolest. The other task is to spray the meat with citric acid. I do this upon getting the meat to camp and then again every two days till the meat is home. The meat rack is then covered with some brush and a tarp. The brush keeps the tarp elevated off the meat allowing air flow over top, keep open ends of tarp pointed into prevailing wind direction. Last step is to put an electric fence around the meat cache. It helps me sleep better and discourages furry critters.

Once on a caribou float I had to submerge the meat in a cold river for a few hours as temps heated up. I had several contractor sized plastic bags for just such an occasion.

Here is a picture of my meat cache a couple years ago. One bull moose worth of meat under the tarp.

 
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MT_elk

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Great info! Bambistew, what is your choice of brand on game bags?
 

cowboy

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Bambi - nicely done. I particularly agree with your game bag description. We have used the TAG bags for years.

I do not disagree with any item/method that you portrayed knives included.

I hunted for many years north of Yellowstone Park in what we referred to locally as the early season. It always opened on Sept. 15th and there were many times that daytime temps got into the 70's, we'd have meat down with 5-6 days to go. Put on top of that a 10 hour horse pack trip just to get to your rig.

In these warm/hot instances what worked best for us was to find a narrow creek, preferable fast moving water, cut lodge poles that layed across the creek about 6" above the running water. Laid the game bags with meat on these poles. You can even cross lash thiese poles for more strength/stability. If you can find a well shaded area - all the better, cover meat with cut off pine boughs to deter the insects or a tarp to keep off rain/snow. That fast running water just 6" below the meat will cool things down quickly and keep it cool.

There was many a time that we would be packed up and head out just at dark because of the temp and we never lost a pound of meat to spoilage.

Overall - you just gotta do whatever it takes in the conditions you are in.

Again - nicely done.
 
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cowboy

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Great info! Bambistew, what is your choice of brand on game bags?

If it's the ones we use I believe they are called TAGS - stands for something like "technically advanced game system". A little pricey compared to the cheese cloth or cotton but worth every penny - plus they are tougher than hell and will last a long long time. They are about 1/4 the weight of a cotton bag.

The only problem I've had with them is I have a tendency to carry an extra one or two, lay a quarter on it to bone it out and have put a few slices in my game bag cutting board more than once. I blame that on the fact that they just don't make head lamps like they use to..

I just patch them with an iron on type of patch so after many years my bags look like a spotted leopard.
 

Flatrock

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Good article.

One question for you. Does your citric acid concoction leave any flavors on the meat? Or does the majority of it get cut off when you cut off the dried up, outer layer?
 

MT_elk

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Question on boning knives. In addition to the dexter-Russell and forchner, I am looking at the victory oz, clauss titanium. Anyone have any experience with these?
 

Kaitum

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Good article.

One question for you. Does your citric acid concoction leave any flavors on the meat? Or does the majority of it get cut off when you cut off the dried up, outer layer?

I've never detected any taste of the citric acid but as you mention much of the outer surface is trimmed during processing. I think the mixing ratio I use is 1/2 tbsp per 1 quart water.
 

Don K

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Excellent post and advice.


I am trying to vision your meat pieces. I do the gutless method and when I work on the ribs and meat I have a bag for the scraps. How do you get your rib and neck meat into 3 to 4 pieces?

Thanks for the information
 

Bambistew

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Good stuff Kaitum and Cowboy.

You nailed it perfectly, and I didn't mention how to to keep meat in areas where you don't have trees. Like you, I either pile up clean wood (remember no dirt) or cut fresh bows/limbs and stack meat on it. The key, like you, said is to make sure air circulates around the meat. I then fashion a shelter of some sort to keep the meat shaded and dry. I've used green pine bows over a stick in lieu of a tarp. Make sure the tarp doesn't trap heat and is well ventilated. This is important when the meat is still fresh/warm or the sun is out. Usually not an issue in Alaska.

Draping meat across a platform over a creek is an excellent way to cool meat. The water is a heat sink and will pull heat out of the meat, same with big boulders.

I grew up in southwest MT. Both grampas guided some, and were rabid elk hunters, as was my dad and uncle. We put some meat on the ground every year, at times it was more work than fun...The worst was shooting 7 elk opening morning. We packed elk for a week it seemed. Haha.

For elk, when we have horses, we cut them in half and leave the hide as long as it wasn't above 60 or so, but would usually cool off to 30 at night +/-. Where we hunted in the mountains temps in the shade where a lot less than in the sun, similar to anywhere really. Later, when we come back to pack them out, we split the backbone with a hatchet, or ax, careful not to cut the hide, then toss them over the saddle and lash them down. Takes two tall guys, or a block and tackle and a smart horse. :D Even in warmer temps (mid early Oct, and a few in archery season) we had no issues... Pretty easy to keep them from spoiling if you open the neck up and skin the front shoulders a bit around the windpipe at the front of the chest. I don't think I've ever seen a hind quarter spoil, or ever heard of it but I'm sure it could happen if the animal was on its side. The hide on the inside of the leg is really thin, as well as the area around the pelvis is open to the air after you gut, or remove the leg. We Take each half and get it up off the ground some how.... Usually drape them over a an old stump, log or rocks, make sure they're on their back. Brush it up with green pine bows to keep the birds off, and it would be good for a few days (or longer) we'd get nervous if it wasn't cooling off at night and get them packed out ASAP. We never lost an elk, or any part of them by leaving the hide on, however we didn't hunt much in archery season. I would venture to guess the number be around 150 elk? No clue. All I know is during my youth, we'd pack 2-3 elk out a week. My dad did it the way his dad taught him, who was taught by his dad. The amount of elk taken out of the mountains by all those generations would be a scary number... I know the most packed in one year was 42.

A trick I learned a long time ago when gutting an animal by yourself, is to stretch his front legs up into and behind his mainbeams of his rack. The ankle joint will "hook" the rack and he'll stay in this position. Be careful if you do this and pay attention when you're moving him around, or you could end up with a surprise kick to the jewels or head...

Getting rib meat off in 1 or 2 pieces takes time, but is worth it. I do the gutless method as well, but on smaller animals I usually just take the 5 minutes to gut them and have a much easier time dealing with the carcass and getting at all the meat. I know a lot of states don't require rib meat or neck meat to be taken. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this meat, and I'm always baffled why the regs allow this in some places... yet they require you to eat the legs on a duck or grouse... Its not a lot of meat on a small animal, but its nothing but pure laziness or carelessness to not take it IMO. Nothing wrong with neck or rib meat ground into burger. The meat off a deer rib cage is about 4-5lbs. From a moose its about 20. The neck meat from a moose is about 60lbs, an elk about 15-20.

To get the rib meat off start at the front of the chest cavity, and just start pealing the meat and rolling it, cutting along the front and back edge of the ribs. and working around to the brisket. You'll be able to see into the chest cavity. You'll end up with a big thin slab of rib meat all connected. Where it gets tricky is near the last few ribs (below the diaphragm) if the stomach is still in the animal. The first 2/3 is pretty easy, because the lungs are deflated. This is why I like to gut them... Not only to get the rest of the rib meat, but also the flank meat. On a moose, that flank piece is about 4lbs, on an elk its about 2, and is some good eats (fajitas). Usually if you take the flank off and the guts are still in, they roll out of the way and fall out the hole when you flip it over. The other side is a breeze.

Another way to do it, is to fillet off the outer meat, and trim each individual meat section between the ribs. This results in a lot of little pieces... all of which have to be taken care of. Not a bad way to do it if you are going to process it soon.

The best way is to cut the ribs off with a saw, and roast them over a fire. :D

Hope that explains it? I really should take some pictures next time. I'm usually doing this by myself and rarely take pictures.

For knives... Dexter makes great knives, I have a couple for fishing. I've not heard of the others mentioned. I have a couple Ary boning knives, but usually only use them at home for cutting as the blades aren't quite as flexible as the Forchner. Speaking of which you want a flexible blade, don't get the stiff.

TAG bags are made by Pristine Ventures (Larry Bartlett, super cool dude and a master of field care) and can be found on his website or I believe Sportsman's Warehouse. I see them all over the place up here. I buy from Larry directly. He will also send you a free replacement if the bag fails for any reason. We had a brand new bag split on the seam this year. Sent him a note and a new one showed up a couple days later. They make various sizes. The "large" bags are huge and made for a moose quarter with bone in. The 22x36 I think they are, are prefect for pretty much everything sans a bone in moose quarter, even then it will fit but the leg bone will just be sticking out. Larry also came out with a BOMB (boned out meat bag) last year I think it was. I'll be getting a couple of these. They are perfect size for about 60lbs of meat, and don't have any extra slop. They're made for backpacking.

I tried Caribou bags this fall... worked just as designed, and I really wanted to like them. They were really easy to puncture when full if you're not careful.

Citric acid has no flavor. Its name is a bit misleading, its not lemon or orange juice or the like. :)
 
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