Idaho’s big game early season hunts have started and hunters are already heading to the woods to take advantage of what looks to be a great season. While these early hunts have some advantages, hunting during warm weather requires extra preparation and special care to prevent spoiling of game meat.
Besides packing your gear, you should always have a plan before you leave home for handling the meat should the hunt be successful. Knowing how to quickly get the animal out of the woods and where to take the meat are questions every early season hunter should ask themselves.
“With daytime temperatures reaching the 80-90’s, you don’t have time to look for friends to help or call around to multiple cold storage facilities,” says David Silcock, Idaho Fish and Game Regional Conservation Officer based in Salmon. “Always know in advance who can help and where you can take the meat to cool and store it.”
HEAT IS THE ENEMY
Heat is one of the biggest evils early season hunters face, and what to do with the meat after an animal is down. To prevent game meat from spoiling, hunters need to be prepared and act quickly to speed cooling.
“The key to preserving meat in warm weather is to begin the cooling process as quickly as possible and keep it cool,” says Silcock. “Once the animal is tagged, it should be immediately dressed, skinned, reduced to quarters in most cases, and quickly transported to cold storage.”
During the early season, nighttime temperatures commonly dip in the 40’s and 50’s. If packing out your game during the day is not possible, while not ideal, these temperatures are adequate to cool down a carcass. However, the first night is critical and what a hunter does with the carcass will make the difference between saving the meat or causing it to spoil.
Getting the hide off quickly is imperative, as it acts as an insulator and will trap heat. Trapped body heat provides an ideal environment for bacteria to flourish. A big game animal’s body temperature raises to over 100 at the time of death. Under normal conditions, carcass temperature will decrease two degrees an hour from the larger muscle masses in the rump, neck and shoulders. Twelve hours later, the larger muscles may still be 76 degrees or more.
Breaking the animal down into pieces will also help cool the meat. But keep in mind that the ground acts as a great insulator. Hanging the pieces, or at least elevating them off the ground, will allow air to circulate around them, cooling the meat more rapidly.
“The smaller the piece of meat, the faster it cools,” says Silcock. “If you plan to leave the meat on the bone for ease of packing, cut slits into the meat to expose the bone and allow deeper cooling.”
The leg bone in the hind quarter holds a lot of heat, and the large mass of meat that surrounds the bone becomes an insulator for the heat. "Spoiling usually starts around the leg bone in the hind quarter, especially on an elk,” he noted.
FLIES AND DIRT
Other factors to consider are insects and keeping your meat clean, which again, can be addressed long before you leave home. Some hunters use black pepper or other fly deterrents to coat the meat as a way of keeping flying insects off. This helps somewhat as a short-term solution, but should not be the only option you use.
Quality game bags that fit around the quarters or carcass will act as a barrier to flies, dirt and pine needles if tightly cinched. Breathable, mid-weight cotton, canvas, or synthetic bags are recommended, and if cared for, will last several years. Some early season hunters pack a lightweight tarp or cotton sheet to keep ground debris off the meat when skinning or cutting up the carcass in the field. Others who remove the meat from the bone, leave large ice chests at their vehicle for transport home.
“A deer or an elk quarter lying in the back of a truck in direct sunlight, even for just a couple hours, can start to spoil,” Silcock said. “Extra coolers filled with ice will keep your meat cool and clean.”
REMEMBER THE LAWS
Idaho hunters have an ethical and legal obligation to remove and properly care for the edible meat of big game animals they harvest, except black bears, mountain lions and gray wolves. This includes the meat of the front quarters as far down as the knee, hindquarters as far down as the hock, and meat along the backbone which is the loin and tenderloin. It does not include meat of the head, internal organs, neck meat, or meat covering the ribs or bones after close trimming.
However, if you’re going to put in all the time and effort to put meat in the freezer, why not take as much meat as possible? After all, taking home quality meat is one of the main reasons people hunt. Removing the neck meat and meat covering the ribs can be done in minutes, plus it makes for excellent hamburger, stew meat or sausage.
When cutting up a carcass in the field, hunters need to remember to preserve evidence of sex and species. Idaho tags are sometimes specific to sex and species, such as a bull or cow elk, even mule deer or white-tailed deer. Hunters must keep evidence of sex or species attached to the animal while transporting so that wildlife officials can accurately identify the animals in the hunter’s possession.
“No skinning job will be perfect, but it is critical that hunters retain evidence of sex on the carcass,” says Silcock. “A quick review and following what’s listed on page 100 of the Big Game rules book will help hunters stay on the right side of the law.”
For deer, elk and pronghorn, if the head or antlers are removed, evidence in the form of testicles, penis, scrotum, udder or vulva must remain naturally attached to the carcass or portion of edible meat if boned until it reaches the final place of storage, or a commercial meat processing facility. The antlers must also accompany the carcass while in transit.
In hunts restricted to mule deer only or white-tailed deer only, hunters who remove the head must leave the fully haired tail naturally attached to the whole or quartered carcass, or a portion of edible meat if boned, until it reaches the final place of storage or a commercial meat processing facility. addition, in spike elk and two-point deer hunts, the antlers removed from the head must be unaltered and left naturally attached to each other, and must accompany the carcass or parts if boned or quartered.
Hunters who observe any illegal activity or violation of the fish and hunting rules are encouraged to contact their nearest Fish and Game representative or call the Citizens Against Poaching Hotline at 1-800-632-5999.
Lastly, with wildfires a serious concern this time of year, hunters should be extra cautious and conscientious about their motorized vehicles and having campfires. For the most up-to-date fire information including fire restrictions and area closures on public lands, hunters are encouraged to contact the Idaho Department of Lands, BLM, or the US Forest Service office in the area they plan to hunt. Fish and Game provides a clearinghouse of fire information including area closures, maps, and more on its fire page.
For beginning hunters, here's information on how to field dress and quarter a big game animal in the field: