How To Get Your Game Out of The Woods

Western Sportsman account manager Chris Holmes with a massive elk.

Once the animal is downed, the real work begins — here is how to get your game animal out of the woods.

I was sure that I was going to expire somewhere along the trail while trying to get the first couple of moose I shot out of the bush. The second will particularly live on emblazoned in my mind as something never to be repeated. Deep within the recesses of Alberta’s eastern slopes and in excess of 30 km from camp, I took it upon myself to shoot a bull. Then in my youthful naivety, being unaware of how to properly bone out or break down a moose for packing, I cut it into four large butcher’s quarters. Next in this evolving saga, I attempted to tie these quarters, one at a time, onto my Honda 90 trail bike and somehow transport each piece back to camp. If I can recall correctly, I traversed about every obstacle one could envision, not to mention the 170 ankle-to-knee-deep stream crossings I made. By the time this moose finally hit the bottom of my freezer, I had made a number of key decisions that changed the way I hunted from that day foreword. The concept of “shoot first and ask questions later” needed to be replaced with some serious forethought and organized planning.

Planning For Success

The pursuit and harvest of a big game animal is a challenging and rewarding experience. The combination of all the elements that go into this adventure is why most of us hunt. But closely tied to this experience is the responsibility of getting your game out of the woods and eventually into your freezer in a condition that will make it fine table fare for your whole family. And this takes planning. This planning is not a singular process either, as one has to consider a whole array of factors. These include the species hunted, where you are hunting, the time of the year, mode of transport, weather and your ability to care for and transport or pack any game taken to your nearest point of egress. And then organize your equipment to handle whatever combination of situations you might encounter. Let’s look at a number of these factors.

Species Hunted

If you are hunting antelope and you can drive up to a downed buck, getting it out is relatively easy. However, if you shoot a bull elk over that far ridge, you are facing an entirely different situation. In other words, organize your planning around the size of the animal hunted. An antelope may just be a matter of field dressing the buck and loading it into the back of your truck, to be hung and skinned back at camp or at home if you live nearby. An elk presents a number of immediate and different questions. Can I get a mode of transport anywhere near the downed animal and, if not, how do I get it to a pick up point? After a few hard lessons I made it a rule never, and I mean never, to shoot a large animal such as a moose or elk any further than a half-mile from any potential pick up spot. With caribou and large mule deer I upped that to a couple of kilometres and for sheep I have packed the boned out meat, head and cape as much as 10 km. This is where one has to determine one’s own physical capability and then stick to your predetermined limits. I have passed up Boone and Crocket bulls, as they were just too remote to even begin to consider packing them out. Not easy to do, and despite having lifelong memories of these bulls, it was the right decision.

Where You Hunt

The terrain you are planning to hunt can play an important role in organizing your planning. It will determine what kind of transport you can use and just how far you can pack or move your downed quarry. In moose country that essentially consists of rivers, lakes, and swamps. I have used either a boat/canoe to access moose country or a combination of flying into a remote lake and then using an inflatable boat for transport in the area. For mountain-loving elk more often than not I made this a hunt involving horses for a number or reasons. First, they got me back into remote and often little hunted country but they also allowed me, once there, to take a bull and not worry about how I was going to pack it out. For mountain caribou, goat and sheep it was often a combination of flying into a remote lake and then hunting on foot with the eventuality of backpacking my animal back to the drop off lake. For deer and antelope it all depended on the terrain. Whitetail and antelope are generally fairly accessible to a vehicle, whereas high country mule deer, once again, involved either horses, a good 4×4 or an ATV. It’s just a matter of matching your transport to the terrain and animal hunted.

Weather

Hunting in the late fall or early winter really only presents a problem if snow depth becomes an issue, whereas for an early season hunt, one has to consider two of meat’s worst enemies; heat and flies. If you are hunting when either can be a factor, limit the distance to transport or camp even further or ensure that you have meat sacking to cover each and every piece as soon as it is hung. Once in camp, if a meat house is not available, hang your meat from a meat pole in a shady spot where a breeze can assist in placing a protective dry crust on the meat. If rain is in the offing, place a tarp over the meat is such a way that it will still allow for air circulation and leave it there until the rain passes. Check it often to ensure that no flies have penetrated the sacking. Meat sacking will additionally offer protection from dirt during transport to your home or to your processor of choice. If hunting during early weather, don’t leave home without an adequate supply.

Personal Capability

This not only applies to how to bone out or break down a carcass for packing or transport but also in your ability to strap a 150 pounds of moose meat onto a pack frame and then pack it a half mile to a pick up spot. In the first instance, if you aren’t familiar with boning or how to break a large animal down into manageable pieces, learn from someone who does. I was fortunate in that early on an old Yukon trapper showed me how to take a large bull moose apart with nothing more than a four-inch bladed knife. We would end up with nine manageable pieces instead of four huge quarters. Next, is one’s own assessment of your ability to pull, drag, pack or load any game you hunt. Let’s take as an example a simple scenario of one of my fly-in moose hunts. If I shot a moose within my restricted range of a half mile of a lake, I would then have to backpack all nine pieces, that at times weighed in excess of 100 pounds, to the water’s edge, load them into a boat, unload them at camp, hang them on a meat pole, take them down, and load each piece on a plane, then unload them at a dock, only to be loaded once again this time into the back of my truck to finally be taken home where there were hung in my garage until they were processed. If your ticker can’t handle this scenario, no moose is worth a heart attack or other serious physical injury, so you may want to limit your hunts to something less strenuous. Prior to every sheep hunt I would load up my back pack with as much as 40 pounds and walk miles just to shape up for the hunt. I once weighed my backpack, that was loaded with boned out meat after a walk out sheep hunt, and even surprised myself when the scale hit 128 pounds. Know your limits and don’t exceed them as no one wants to end up with a downed animal they can‘t get out of the woods or even worse, a hunter in a life-threatening situation. And always remember hauling an animal, even a deer out of the hills, can be very physically demanding so take frequent breaks and watch each step as one misplaced stride could lead to a fall or an incapacitating injury.

In summary, its all about prehunt planning and organization. One needs to ask prior to every hunt if I hunt this particular area and for this particular animal where is the closest pick up spot and can I get my harvested animal to that location and what gear do I need to get it there. Adopting and then consistently maintaining this approach will ensure that your next elk roast is as fine a table fare as can be found anywhere.

Essential Equipment

  • Bone saw
  • Knife/Gut Hook
  • Rope of various sizes and lengths (550 pound nylon braided cord)
  • Meat sacking: A minimum of nine sacks for a large animal, four to eight for caribou sized game and a minimum of two for smaller game.
  • Quality pack frame with a hip strap that will take that weight off the shoulders.
  • Tarps: I found lightweight nylon flies just great for back pack hunts, whereas poly tarps of various sizes worked well when space and weight were not a problem. They can be used as ground sheets on which to place your meat as it is removed from the animal and in the bottom of boats, aircraft and any other vehicle to keep your meat clean. They are additionally essential in keeping rain off your meat.
  • Deer Drag handle/rope: Drags such as Glenn’s Deer Handle and The Tennessee Deer Drag are inexpensive and very useful aids in dragging a buck out of the woods.
  • Butt Out Tool (A field dressing aid)
  • Game hoist
  • Headlamp
  • Sharp Axe
  • Lightweight rain suit; A simple method of keeping your clothes clean when carrying or packing large pieces of fresh meat. When you are done, a simple rinse in a nearby creek or lake and then hang it to dry and it is once again ready for use.
  • Cloth gloves:  They can provide protection from bone cuts when carrying large pieces of meat.
  • Plastic bags:  Offer a clean method for the short-term packing of boned out meat in a backpack.

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