To Field Dress or Quarter Your Elk? by Bob Robb

On an on-your-own elk hunt, you have to handle the butchering and packing chores yourself.
Here’s how to go about it….

After Your Elk is Down

calling in this bull and shooting with a bow was fun.

Man that was fun, calling this bull in and shooting him with a bow! But now … party’s over! Time to get to work butchering him before the meat spoils.

I’ll never forget the day I shot my first bull elk.

Just out of college, my old roommate and I traveled 21 miles on horseback into the rugged Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area of Idaho on a semi-guided elk hunt. The crusty old cowboy who took us in would have rather been drinking than hunting, but we didn’t care. We had shot a lot of mule deer already in our young lives, and even though we’d never hunted elk, how tough could it be?

Back in those days you could hunt during the rut with rifles, and on day two of our September adventure that old cowboy whistled in a big 6×6 bull that I killed with one shot from a 7mm Rem. Mag. at about 100 yards, inside some dark timber on a steep mountainside. As luck would have it, a 2 1/2-year old satellite 5×5 bull also came in, and my buddy killed him. Just like that, our elk tags were filled! We thought we were pretty hot stuff, too.

That is, until we walked over to those two bulls. Holy buckets, they were as big as horses! The thought of field dressing those two bulls on that 60-degree slope suddenly became overwhelming. This was not going to be like taking care of even the biggest-bodied deer we’d ever seen. I thought my bull weighed at least a ton! Looking back, after 35 years of elk hunting and nearly three dozen bulls killed, he probably weighed 750 lbs. Still, that’s a lot of bull — and we had two of them to butcher, then backpack three miles to a horse trail where cowboy could come get the meat.

That took us all of two days of back-breaking work. It was also the beginning of my love affair with elk hunting, one of North America’s most difficult, yet rewarding, big game hunting adventures.

Elk Hunting is Hard Work!

We’ve all heard the saying, “The fun’s over when you pull the trigger!” It is never truer than with elk hunting.

Basically, elk hunting is hard work. But if you think it’s been tough covering mile after mile of rugged mountain terrain for days on end trying to find an elk to shoot, just wait until you shoot an elk in rough country miles from the nearest road. Throw in some nasty weather, like a snow storm, or thunder and a little lightning. Stir in a pinch of thick brush and a steep mountain between you and civilization, and for good measure, add a dash of slippery-as-snot trail — if there’s any trail at all — and you begin to get the picture.

Getting your elk off the mountain to the butcher shop in prime condition is no easy task. Every year hunters lose tons of meat to spoilage or the butcher’s trim knife because they were not prepared to handle the task. Don’t let this happen to you.

The Right Skinning and Butchering Tools

Havalon Piranta ZMeat care begins with the right tools. For elk hunting, you’re going to need at least one, and preferably two, hunting knives with strong blades so sharp they scare you. I really have come to like the Havalon Piranta-Z Black Pro Skinning Knife and Piranta Tracer-22 Skinning and Caping Knife for this type of job. With the weigh-nothing extra blades, no sharpening steel or stone is needed, a big plus! The only other tool you’ll need, a lightweight saw or hatchet for splitting the brisket, slicing through rib bones to reach the tenderloins, and cutting off the antlers, 50 feet of nylon parachute cord or thin-diameter rope, and four or five elk-sized cotton meat sacks. Don’t get the el cheapo cheesecloth bags, but buy the ones that are heavy enough to be washed and re-used. They’re the only ones strong enough for this job. Be sure to have at least one roll of fluorescent flagging and/or your GPS, so you can mark the spot when you have to come back for subsequent trips. A headlamp is cheap, even at twice the price, when you have to butcher and/or pack elk meat after dark.

Your goal is to prevent meat spoilage. You do that by cooling the meat, remembering that on big-bodied animals like elk, meat can spoil both from the inside and outside. You also must strive to keep the meat as clean as possible, free from dirt and its inherent bacteria.

Secure the Elk

be prepared to work hard when hunting on public land.

If you elk hunt on public land, you must be prepared to work hard, cover lots of country, and then if Lady Luck smiles on you, be able to take care of all that meat yourself in the field.

Before any cutting begins, you have to secure the elk, which often has expired on a steep sidehill. That’s where the cord or rope comes in, used to tie antlers or legs to a tree or bush to hold the animal in place as you work. Point the butt downhill if you can. It should be said that butchering an elk is much easier with two people, so if you can get some help, you’re advised to do so.

Field Dress or Quarter Your Elk?

There are two ways to clean any big game animal, including elk. You can do the basic field-dressing routine, which means first gutting the animal. Or you can take the quarters, backstrap, and neck off without gutting. I do both, depending on circumstances.

The basic field dressing procedure is the same as it is with deer and other big game, so we won’t detail it here. You remove the innards, including the anus, taking care not to puncture the bladder or stomach and spilling their contents onto the meat. Suffice it to say, this is not a good idea. Make sure you remove the heart, lungs, and esophagus.

I field dress an elk when I am not going to be able to finish the job right away, as when I might have to leave the carcass to cool overnight before packing it out. When I do this I lay the animal on its back, then cut the front shoulders so they lay out away from the carcass, and cut the hams to the ball joint so they too, are opened up enough to cool down.

havalon knives do the job when butchering.

Only the very best knives, like the Havalon Piranta series,will do when butchering a big bull elk.

However, these days I prefer to simply quarter the animal without exposing his guts. It’s less messy and smelly, and you don’t lose any meat.

To do that, roll the elk on one side and use your knife to remove the hind quarter through the ball joint, and front shoulder by cutting behind the scapula, leaving the hide on until the quarter is either hung or ready for boning and insertion into the meat sacks. That helps keep dirt and crud off the meat itself. Next remove the backstrap, half the neck meat, and the meat off the outside of the rib cage or, if you like, use your saw to cut the ribs completely off. I rarely do this, though. You then roll the elk over and repeat. To get the tenderloins out — they’re located inside the carcass, on each side of the backbone — use the lightweight saw to cut through the tops of the rib cage and remove them this way. When ready for bagging, skin the quarters out. Voila! One butchered elk, without the big mess of field dressing it first.

I virtually always bone my elk meat out, for two reasons. One, it gets rid of excess weight that I don’t have to pack down the mountain. And two, removing the bone opens the meat up and facilitates cooling. Thick chunks of elk meat, like those found on the hams and neck, will spoil quickly near the bone unless they are cooled properly. Boning helps this process. Hunters with the luxury of pack horses often like to keep the bone in, as it can make loading quarters into pack boxes easier.

Some hunters like to take the liver, heart, and tongue, all of which make some fine eatin’. An elk liver is about the size of a football, the heart like an elongated softball, so you’ll have plenty of extra packing if you want them. I often do.

Dreams Do Come True …. But Don’t Count On it!

bull elk in field.Let me tell you about a fantasy that actually came true on the 21st bull elk I killed. After years of packing meat either on my back or atop pack horses, I was invited to hunt a private New Mexico ranch. The nice 6×6 I shot was a big-bodied critter, but it didn’t matter — the guide drove the truck right up to him, winched him into the bed — whole — and drove back to the barn, where the elk was hung, his innards removed, and the butcher took place indoors in a clean, sterile environment.

Now that’s heaven on earth! But don’t count on it. On an on-your-own elk hunt, you’re going to have to handle the butchering and packing chores yourself. And while it’s hard work, I look upon it as a labor of love. It means both that I’ve been successful, and that my family can look forward to a year’s worth of some of the most delicious and nutritious meat in all the world.

Was this useful?  Ever use a Havalon to field dress and skin an elk?
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16 Responses to To Field Dress or Quarter Your Elk? by Bob Robb

  1. DAVE LABERGE says:

    I just purchased 3 of your knifes at a gun show, you need to make a blade with a hook in it similar to a gut hook. They make a blade for a utility knife for roofing with a hook on it. I presently use one for big game moose, elk, deer, it also works exellent for fish. This blade option would make you knife the best.

  2. havalon says:

    Thanks for the comment Dave. That idea has been suggested before, and we’ve given it some thought, however, all of our Pro-Hunters have told us it’s not necessary, it just takes a little practice to use the knife and get the same results you would with a hook-blade. Check out this Havalon review

    Havalon Knives

  3. Marc says:

    I agree with Dave. I own both, the piranta and the baracuta. The baracuta stays with the fishing gear and the piranta goes everywhere with me. I purchased a razor knife from a local home improvement store just for the “gut hook” blade that could be attached. I do a lot of hog hunting here in Florida. We shoot multiple pigs in a single day and having a sharp gut hook blade makes the processing go a lot faster. I would love to see them available for the piranta.

  4. havalon says:

    Thanks for the comments Marc. We’ll have to take a closer look this possibility…but I can’t promise anything.

    Havalon Knives

  5. Doran Archuleta says:

    Never had a gut hook knife and never missed it. Why carry an extra knife with only one use. marketing ploy.

  6. Ryan Hawkins says:

    I agree with dave. I recently purchased the piranta for my elk hunt. It is the best knife I have ever used. I process my game without gutting it either but the gut hook does speed up the caping process. I use a gut hook to cut the cape from the base of the skull and down the back, and down the back of the legs through the arm pit. This makes a quick and straight cut. I think your knives are the best, but I think the a gut hook blade would make it even better.

  7. Jon Lewis says:

    I wonder if you could use your blunt tip blade with a something like a 45deg locking mechanism to serve as a gut hook?

  8. Interesting idea, Jon. Not sure if that’s been suggested before. I’ll be sure to send your suggestion on to the designers.

    Thank you!

  9. Dave Whitman says:

    I just harvested a cow elk and decided to quarter it rather than field dress and load the entire carcass. I got along fine quickly removing each front quarter by cutting behind the shoulder blade while pushing the leg up high. I run into a problem locating the joint to remove the hind quarters from the pelvic area. We finally got it done by splitting the pelvis first but it was not easy. Any suggestions?
    My previous experience field butchering had been packing out a moose in Alaska back in the 70’s. With the moose lying on its side we split the hide down the back and skinned it down to its hock and knee. Then we proceeded to remove all of the muscle tissue from that side of the carcass carefully keeping it clean and packing in clean cloth bags. When that side was done we rolled the carcass over and butchered the other side.
    When we were finished all that remained was the intact skeleton with all the innards still inside. The two of us made three trips off the mountain packing boned out meat before the bears found what was left.

  10. Hi, Dave:

    Congratulations on the elk – and the moose. If two guys can strip a moose and get all the meat packed out in only three trips, you guys did very well. You ought to audition for the next SuperMan movie! Your method is exactly what I’ve done on moose – just strip them without field dressing them (although I did mine before the Havalon knife was invented.)

    Regarding the elk, I have no experience with elk other than to say they’re smaller than a moose but a fair bit larger than a whitetail. I do whitetails just as you describe. The front quarters are easy to separate since there is no skeletal joint there. On the hind quarter, though, it’s a different story. The pelvic ball-and-socket joint is deeper – there is more muscle to go through and it may be harder to find than it is on a whitetail.

    My only suggestion is to go about it by cutting-lifting-cutting-lifting the hind quarter so you can see where it’s flexing as you cut deeper. Once you can see the ball-and-socket, it should be an easy thing to insert the knife and sever the ligament that holds them together. After that, everything is soft tissue.

    This is the heaviest work you’re asking your knife to do on the animal, whether it’s a deer, an elk, or a moose, and occasionally the 60XT Piranta blade will break because it’s so difficult to avoid twisting the knife as you look for the ball joint in tight quarters. So I recommend one of the new Pirantas with the 60A blade. The 60A blade is 20% thicker, so you can ask it to do a little more rugged work if you need to.

    Just don’t ask it to fight off a bear!

    Steve Sorensen
    Havalon Post Editor

  11. Rick Bendorf says:

    The only problem was with the holster. Because of the the extra room in holster, knife fell out will riding my ATV.

  12. Hi Rick,
    Hope you were able to recover your knife. If you keep some extra blades in the additional pocket of the holster, that should make it a snugger fit, and should keep your knife secure.


  13. Mike keating says:

    I have only been hunting a few years, the first animal I took was a cow elk, never having field dressed an animal before I found it to be quite the task as my two knives quickly lost their edge.
    My second animal was an Idaho bull moose, I used a havalon piranha knife for this task, although I managed to snap two bodes on the tough hide the ease of replacing blades made the task much easier than I could have hoped for.last week I took a Idaho mule deer , now that I know not to lever the knife but let the blade do the work, I dressed the buck out in no time at all with just one blade, great product almost feels like cheating.

  14. Hey Mike,

    Glad to hear your Havalon Piranta served you well in the field. Thanks for reaching out, and let us know if you have any questions or concerns about any one of our hunting or skinning knives. Good luck out there in your future hunts.


  15. Dan says:

    Well it’s pretty easy to quarter an elk hanging on a pole frame over acement slab. Look as as though it was taken out whole, which is unusual. Usually your fighting pine needle, dirt , snow etc when quartering an elk to put on pack frames. I’ve never attempted to use the ultra clean version you talk about, as it seems that getting the tenderloins out is a problem. You have explained how to do this but it sounds like it would be easy to rupture the gut sack and thereby loose or severly taint the best part of the elk. I have always gutted by the conventional method. A bone saw does come in handy but with a good knife- I’ve used several brands over the years, Lakota, Gerber, German made knives etc, Some have to be sharpened during the quatering and skinning, some not. I now use a Benchmade knife, -you can quarter without a saw. Just cut all the rib meat out and put it in a bag.

  16. Dan says:

    would love to have a gut blade similar to the one on the Swing Blade. Just used it yesterday to open up a deer & it’s amazing fast. best gut design out there & it doesn’t jam up with hair, but gives me an extra knife to carry. If you made one as a replacement blade for the Baracuta or Piranta, I could leave that at home & save a few ounces in my pack. After the initial cuts as Ryan Hawkins mentioned, the Baracuta sliced thru that deer in no time. You’ve made a saw accessory, I’d buy this one as well & so would a lot of other people. Just saying.

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