By Mike Everett EBS Contributor
In Montana, the difference between a great hunting season and a mediocre one usually depends on whether you’re lucky enough to slap a tag on an elk – king of the Treasure State.
If you do harvest an elk, you’ll also understand it’s no easy task. Even if you shoot one close to a road – which rarely happens – you’ll soon realize that field dressing a large animal can be real work. I won’t be covering the “guttless” method – where you don’t actually gut the elk, instead you skin it and cut out the meat – because I prefer to take the trim meat. These are the smaller cuts I like to grind up into burger or sausage.
Begin by making a shallow incision between the animal’s hindquarters, at the base of its stomach. Cut through the layer of skin and slide your knife up to the base of the brisket at the bottom of the rib cage. Always leave evidence of sex naturally attached in accordance with state law – do this by cutting around the testicles or mammary glands and leave them on the hide.
After the first incision, cut the muscle layer the same way as the first cut, but take care to not puncture the intestines because it could ruin the meat.
At this point, move the intestines out of the way and cut through the diaphragm. Reach into the elk’s chest cavity, cut the windpipe above the lungs, and remove the organs – the heart and liver can be set aside for consumption. Be careful not to cut the urine bladder; I pinch it off and cut it out before anything spills. To remove the intestines from the anal cavity, cut around the anus and pull it out.
Once you remove the organs it’s time to start quartering. Start by skinning the elk in halves – skin up the back of the elk, from tail to the base of the head. Then skin out the hindquarter, chest and front shoulder to the neck so the entire half of the elk is exposed. Remove the lower parts of the quarter from the ankles down and then remove the quarters from the carcass. Always place the quarters in game bags since keeping the meat clean is essential to having a high-quality end product.
Now remove the backstraps. Run your knife vertically along the spine from the base of the elk’s hips to the top of its shoulders. Then make a horizontal cut from the top of the ribs to the base of the spine in the same fashion. You can separate the membrane using your finger in both cuts to get started. Remove the trim meat in between the ribs and on top of the ribs, also known as flank steak – it makes great sausage.
Now remove the neck meat by cutting and removing it from along the spine. Lastly cut out the tenderloins, which are located inside the cavity just in front of the hips. I do this at the end because it’s easy to get to them with all of the trim meat and quarters removed. Flip the carcass over and repeat on the other side.
From here you begin butchering, and it’s worth keeping it simple. Neck, trim meat and front shoulders become burger and sausage. Tenderloins and backstraps are steaks. The hindquarters get separated into three categories: cuts with no gristle membrane get steaked; cuts with one membrane become roasts; and cuts with multiple membranes become stews.
After all the work is done you’ll realize why there is no “easy elk.” But cut those tenderloins into steaks, fry them in bacon grease, and you won’t have a single regret.
Mike Everett is a water resource specialist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation based in Lewistown, Mont., and has been hunting elk in Montana for 16 years.