HOW TO EAT AN ELK
By Joe Arterburn, featuring tips from Remi Warren
All the planning and preparation for your elk hunt came together. The practice with your rifle, bow, or muzzleloader paid off. You’re walking up to the animal laying on its side and you’re still feeling the effects of adrenaline, the excitement pumping through your veins. You marvel at the beauty of the hide, the stretch of the antlers arching toward the sky, the majestic size of the animal laying there, and the enormity of the feeling of pride and accomplishment.
It’s time for photographs, though you know you’ll never forget this moment.
And it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to eat this elk.
Remi Warren (remiwarren.com), whose job description includes host of Solo Hunters TV, field editor for Western Hunter Magazine, hunting guide, and YETI (yeti.com) brand ambassador, has packed out—and eaten—a lot of elk, and he can detail the process from start to finish.
Warren has lost count of the number of elk he’s packed out for himself and his Montana OutWest Outfitter (montanaoutwest.com) clients. “Maybe a couple hundred elk,” he said.
He characterized the difference between elk and deer in terms hunters will quickly understand. “The difference between elk and deer is basically their size and how far away they are from the road,” he said. “Between guiding and hunting elk myself, I’d say 90 percent of elk are multiple miles from the road, so it provides a unique challenge since you have hundreds of pounds of meat you have to carry multiple miles, a lot of it in rough terrain.”
“So,” he said, “it’s a bit different than just gutting it like a deer and dragging it to the truck.” He said out of the 200 or so elk he’s packed out, only four were taken out whole. “So it just doesn’t happen that often, at least not with the type of elk hunting we do.”
Step 1 in How to Eat an Elk is skinning, quartering, and field processing to get it ready to pack out. Warren mostly uses what he calls the “gutless method” which does not requiring removing the entrails. Rather, the entrails are left intact as you remove all the meat.
Warren starts by skinning the hide. The first cut of the hide runs up the back leg to the base of the tail, then along the spine up to the neck. (If you plan to mount the elk and want to preserve the cape, don’t cut all the way to the neck. Instead, do a horizontal cut behind the sternum, all the way down and around, once you roll the animal over; then cut up the front leg on the inside, going about mid-body—not into the armpit—then draw that cut all the way back to your around-the-body cut. Best advice: Check with a taxidermist or do home study.)
Peel the hide away to expose the backstraps and hind and front quarters, all of which you remove. And don’t forget the tenderloins, the delicious strips of meat along the spine on the inside of the body cavity. “You don’t have to gut the elk to get the tenderloins,” he said. Start your cut at the last rib and cut the flank toward the hip. This will allow you to reach in without getting into the entrails, such as the stomach and intestines. Carefully reach in with your knife and cut out the portion that goes up into the rib section, then follow it down the bone to just underneath the hip; then use your fingers to get underneath and pull it out.
Once finished with one side, roll the elk over and repeat the process.
As you remove the meat, you should have a plan to cool it as quickly as possible. Hanging it from a tree so air can circulate around it is the preferred method. Game bags provide protection from dirt or other contaminants and make it easy to hang. You can hang quarters directly by finding a tree with low branches you can break off, creating a hanging point which you can insert between the tendon and leg bone just above the lowest leg joint.
“The key is to get the meat off the ground,” Warren said. “So a quarter comes off and it goes in a tree.” If there aren’t trees for hanging the meat, you can improvise. He said he sometimes sets logs parallel to each other, creating a raised surface on which he can lay the quarters. “Anything to get it off the ground because the meat retains heat really well so we want to get the hide off and then get it off the ground to get air circulating around it,” he said.
“I’ve never had an elk spoil,” he said, “and I’ve taken out a lot of elk. Every time I do pretty much the same thing, take the hide off and hang the meat. You definitely want to use game bags even though a lot of times it’s not hot. Game bags keep dirt off and we use them to hang the meat and keep the air circulating around it.”
To remove quarters, Warren starts with the legs in resting position, then he starts cutting from the back, following the hip bone and staying as close to the body as possible. Once he has all the top cuts made, he pushes the leg up and cuts on the bottom side, rotating the leg clockwise so it will lay back on the carcass so when he cuts it free it doesn’t fall into the dirt. “That’s how I handle quarters if I’m by myself,” he said. “I maneuver it and twist it at the same time so it will lay back on itself.”
When removing the front quarters, Warren usually takes a lot of neck and rib meat still attached to the quarter so when it comes to packing it more evenly matches the heavier back quarters.
In any case, you are also going to bone out the meat between ribs and remove as much neck meat as possible.
An elk back quarter weighs about 70 pounds on average, Warren said, and an average elk will produce around 230 pounds of meat, maybe 250. Warren, whose active lifestyle keeps him in good shape, can carry an elk out in two trips. You can do the math on how much is in each load. If he has a hunting partner to help, they can usually take the whole thing out with one trip apiece. “It depends on how much you want to carry,” he said.
Usually, by the time you’re done field processing the elk, the meat hanging in trees has cooled sufficiently to pack. Warren places the meat, even if it’s in game bags, in heavy-duty, contractor-grade garbage bags to keep his pack from getting bloody.
“You don’t want your pack blood-soaked,” he said. “Especially since in most of the places you’re elk hunting there’s grizzly bears and by the next day your pack reeks and you’re walking around with this horrible smell in bear country. It’s just not a good idea.”
There are other options than carrying the elk meat out in a backpack. Pack horses, for instance. A friend with horses is a friend indeed, but, Warren said, “most elk probably get packed out in a backpack.”
He has used game carts, where logging roads have allowed it. He cautioned that he has yet to find a game cart that can stand up to the abuse. “They seem to break super easy,” he said. “There are no elk-durable game carts.” And, he said, if you use a game cart, bring extra straps to keep the load in place.
Plastic sleds work well to drag out elk meat over snow, he said. Since elk seasons can go late into the year when snow is possible, it’s an idea to consider. He said he’s dragged out all the meat from an elk in one sled. He recommends drilling holes in the sled so you can attach extra straps to cinch down the load. “You don’t think about it until you’re going uphill and everything is falling out,” he said.
Another trick he’s used if there’s a lot of snow on the ground is to leave the hide on the back quarters when you remove them, running a rope through the tendon-lower leg gap and dragging them out on the hide. “I’ve packed out a whole elk myself by boning out half of it and then dragging two quarters behind like that,” he said.
If using a backpack, Warren recommends a good frame pack, either internal or external frame, not a floppy knapsack, which he said, “just don’t work with that kind of weight.”
Loading a pack depends on the type of pack. For external-frame packs, you want the weight fairly high so it pushes back and into your hip belt. “You want to carry the weight on your hips, on your hip belt,” he said. “The key is to have a pack that fits, that’s adjusted to your torso and then you want the weight to be up high, a little higher than center, because if the weight is low, it doesn’t carry as well on your hips.” Warren said he’ll adjust the height of the load by using his lighter gear as lower layers on which he packs the meat.
For an internal-frame pack, you want the weight closer to your body, more centered, he said. And whatever pack style, make sure the load is strapped down tight, and not flopping around. “You’ll burn a lot of energy and it just makes it hard to carry,” he said.
He also looks for a suitable stick to use as a hiking staff. “You use less muscle balancing when you’ve got a hiking stick,” he said. “When you have a heavy pack on, that hiking stick will help you burn out less. That extra stabilization helps.”
That’s learned from experience, he said. “When you pack out two elk and two deer a week, if not more, over an entire season, you figure out real quick what works and what doesn’t,” he said, laughing.
You can save carrying some weight by boning out the meat in the field, he said. Making the call usually depends on how far he has to pack it, he said, but most of the time he prefers to bring it out in quarters. “By the time you have it boned out, you’d already be packed and halfway back, so it just depends on the person,” he said. Plus, he said, leaving the quarters bone-in makes them easier to hang and handle.
Once back at camp or his interim destination, Warren takes the meat out of the plastic bags and hangs it again, but when it comes to long-term transportation home, he brings YETI coolers into play.
If he has a long drive, especially in warm temperatures, he’ll line the bottom of the cooler with block ice, lay the elk meat on top, then lay dry ice on top. That, he said, will keep it well refrigerated. He also likes YETI ICE packs, which are actually colder than ice, he said.
YETI ICE is known for its ice retention, which is important because Warren doesn’t want the block ice to melt. You don’t want water-logged meat, he said. That’s another reason to use YETI ICE, he said, is because it doesn’t melt into a pool of water.
If the meat does get wet during transport, nothing is really hurt, he said. He just hangs the meat again and lets it dry and develop its protective crust or rind. Just hanging it in a garage works well, he said, and if it’s warm he sets up a fan to circulate the air.
Warren said he usually allows the meat to hang and age for four or five days, which helps tenderize the meat.
Then it’s time to butcher.
Warren starts by breaking apart muscle groups. With the prized backstraps, he prefers to leave them in large roast portions, perhaps 10 inches long, which he cooks whole, then slices after cooking. He does the same with sirloins, leaving them in large pieces, cooking them whole and then slicing. “That’s just my personal preference,” he said.
He also likes bone-in cuts, another reason to leave bones in while packing out the meat. “I generally keep the shanks bone-in,” he said. He cuts through the meat, then grabs his reciprocating saw with a fine-tooth hacksaw-like blade (Outdoor Edge makes some terrific tools like this) to cut through the bone.
And burger, lots of burger. “Elk burger is incredible,” he said. “And you get a lot of burger with an elk. You’ll have a deer’s worth, a whole deer’s weight in burger off an elk.”
Rib meat usually goes into burger as does all the bits and pieces he trims as he butchers. “All the muscle groups are so big, you have a lot of trim, a lot of burger,” he said.
Warren also eats elk tongue, harvesting from his and his clients’ elk. “Elk tongue stew is really good,” he said.
Warren doesn’t like liver, but he does take the heart, and cooks it for supper in camp after a successful day’s hunt.
And that, in a nutshell, is how to eat an elk.