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How to care for and transport wild game meat and trophies

by Rich LaRocco, Hunts.Net

 Meat care

As soon as you kill a game animal, you must take proper steps to ensure that the meat does not spoil. If you do so, you can have many tasty meals.

The four keys to preserving venison


2) Keep it clean,

3) Cool it further, and

4) Keep it cool.

By cool, I don't mean just barely above freezing. That's seldom possible on many hunts. What I mean is to cool the meat from almost 100 degrees down to 70 or 80 degrees as quickly as possible, in the first hour for sure, and then to continue to cool the meat as much as possible. That first hour is critical because if you don't get rid of the heat, bacteria multiply like mad in 90 to 100 degree temperatures. Even if you're hunting where the temperature is 90 degrees, you can cool meat quickly. Here's what I do.

First, recover the animal as quickly as possible. Take your photographs, not spending too much time, and then get to work.

Quickly skin and debone the animal.

Deboning might not be legal

In some states regulations may not permit deboning a game carcass. If quartering is allowed, skin and quarter the animal, store each quarter in a muslin or closely woven cloth bag, and hang in the shade.

Cut down the backline from the base of the skull down to the tail. Now make a second cut perpendicular to the first one about halfwayback on the body from belly to the center of the back. Cut around the knees. Slice up the back of each front leg until you get to the arm pit. Now cut straight back to the second cut you made. Now slice up the back of each hind leg, cutting to the base of the tail.

Fold back the skin, being careful to get no meat or hair on the meat, and skin the animal. If you want to save the cape and skin, be careful to remove just the skin and not a layer of flesh and fat, too. As you expose the hind quarter, remove the large muscles, cutting down to the bone. A flexible-blade fillet knife is ideal for this job. Place the meat in muslin game bags or pillow cases. I usually just buy old used pillow cases at a thrift store. The meat can then breathe, which promotes cooling, and it's protected
from dirt and leaves and hair and the like.

After you're done with the hind quarters, fillet the outer part of the front quarter. Put the meat in the pillow cases. (Don't put too much meat in each bag.) Now cut the front leg, including shoulder blade, off the body, turn it over and fillet the back side of the front shoulder.

Now fillet the loins and neck. Then cut the meat off the ribs. Finally, slice all the meat between the ribs. Be careful not to puncture the intestines.

I'm now halfway done. Notice that I have not even gutted the animal. Flip the animal and debone the other side.

Now gut the animal, remove the heart and liver (they're both edible) as well as the so-called tenderloins on each side of the spine at the top of the ribs.

Remove the cape and hide and store them in bags, too.

What to do with bags of meat

Hang the meat bags in shade. A good place is the north side of a spruce or other conifer, close to the trunk. If possible, hang the meat on a north or northeast-facing slope.

During the night, take the meat out and spread it out to cool.

In the morning, put the meat back in the meat sack and place it on a sleeping pad and then cover it with a sleeping bag. During the day, keep the meat inside a backpack tent or someplace else where you won't have flies.

To keep the meat cool and to prevent dessication in arid areas, you can use a spray bottle to spray a mist of water on the meat bags occasionally.

If you follow these rules, you can keep meat a week very easily. When you get home, you'll have clean meat ready to cut into smaller pieces, such as steaks and roasts.

Where allowed and when I have time, I make the final step of cutting and wrapping the meat myself at camp or at a butcher facility that will allow me to do my own cutting and wrapping. I trust myself to do clean work more than I trust a butcher with whom I have no experience, and I can save money this way to spend toward my next out-of-state hunt.

How to field dress game, by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Dan Walker's Field Dressing Big Game instructional video

Your outfitter or guide might do a great job in field dressing your game and might even be prepared to care for the meat down to the cutting and wrapping. Don't plan on it, however.

You also might be able to have a local butcher care for your meat. Butchers can be undependable and slow, however. I usually prefer to do the work myself unless I absolutely don't have the time and place. Butchers typically charge by the pound, usually 50 cents to a $1 a pound. Some charge extra for skinning an animal or storing the meat. Consider donating some of your meat to a needy family, organization, your outfitter, guide or another hunter. Don't forget about legal requirements for donation certificates.

 Meat transportation

Consider minimizing the meat you take home by taking only the best cuts and donating the remainder to needy families near your hunting area. Shipping charges could exceed the value of the meat. Remember, state or provincial law could require you to fill out a donation tag or document, sometimes on a required form supplied by the government. The person to whom you donate meat also may be subject to special regulations. Some outfitters are not well-versed in the laws governing donations, so take it upon yourself to become familiar with local laws before your trip. Click here for details on various state and provincial regulations regarding game meat care and transportation.

Another strategy to minimize costs is to have some of your meat made into jerky, sausage or salami. Ten pounds of game meat yields about three pounds of jerky. In some places you can trade in your meat for an equivalent amount of already prepared jerky or salami, which was made from some other hunter's animal. Ask your outfitter or rancher about butchers that offer this service.

AIR TRAVEL: You can transport game meat with you on an airline as baggage or as excess baggage. Or you can ship it to an airport near your home by air freight.

As luggage: On most airlines traveling in the U.S. and Canada you're allowed to take two pieces of luggage, plus carry-on luggage, which must fit underneath the seat in front of yours. I typically take two extra-large heavy-duty Cordura nylon duffels with me on hunting trips. I also carry a gun case that is large enough to hold my gun or guns as well as my binoculars, knives and spotting scope. Upon returning home with game meat, I wear several layers of clothing and carry onto the airplane a large daypack or the bag off my backback frame. I carry as much as I can on the plane so that I have room in my duffels for meat. The meat is very cool and has been triple wrapped in plastic. Each piece is inside a heavy-duty Ziploc bag, quart to half gallon size, then several pieces are wrapped tightly inside a heavy-duty trash bag, and three or four of those packed bags are then wrapped tightly inside a heavy-duty garbage bag. I don't freeze the meat first because then it has sharp corners that will cut through plastic wrapping and cause leakage of blood and juices. Instead, I cool the meat to just above freezing temperature. The bags of meat are wrapped inside my sleeping bag (I take two sleeping bags on cold-weather trips) or clothing for insulation, and then the insulated meat is then packed inside my duffels. Each duffel can weigh 70 pounds. I weigh them before I check in at the airline. If necessary, I'll transport my gun case as overweight baggage, but usually you can avoid paying overweight on the gun case if you act as though you expect the airline to transport it at no extra charge. Keep in mind that you must tag the major portion of meat in most states and provinces. In some areas you must tag both the meat and the trophy with separate tags. Read the hunting regulations thoroughly for requirements on meat care and transportation.

 Excess baggage can be extremely expensive. Consider whether the cost is worthwhile to you before you commit to having your game meat transported home. Excess baggage fees typically range from 75 cents to $1.20 per pound and are sometimes more. However, if you're traveling home on two or three different airlines, your costs could mount quickly.

Unaccompanied baggage: Sometimes you can save money by having your baggage transported as unaccompanied baggage, which does not ensure that it will be on the same flight as you. Obviously, transporting meat this way would not be feasible unless the airline could guarantee delivery at a time or place that would be convenient and workable for you.

Air freight: If you live near an airport, you might be able to have your meat shipped home to you before or after your return. Sometimes a butcher will agree to ship it to you, or maybe your outfitter will agree to do it. Most will not, and those whom you can trust to follow up with this job might not be as dependable as you like. Also, the freight could be delayed, or the meat might not be packed as required, resulting in meat spoilage or leakage. However, air freight fees are usually less expensive than excess baggage charges.

Parcel services: UPS, Federal Express or the U.S. Postal Service sometimes can be used to ship meat, but it's usually not feasible to ship fresh meat this way due to the high cost of overnight delivery. I have had meat made into jerky, salami and sausage and then shipped by UPS. It's usually cheaper to buy jerky at home, however.

CAR TRAVEL: When traveling by car, you can transport properly cooled meat inside muslin game bags (or old pillow cases), which are stored inside coolers. If you're far away from home then it would be best to rent a Jeep from a car rental like those heavy duty Jeeps hunters can rent out in car rental ireland. Don't include dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) unless the meat already has been cut and wrapped. CAUTION: As it sublimates, dry ice turns into a gas that is toxic to humans. Do not keep dry ice inside a closed vehicle, a camper or a trailer or bed-topper that is to be used by people.

You can transport meat thousands of miles by car or truck if you're properly prepared. I have had clients drive $2,500 with huge coolers strapped onto truck racks or even freezers mounted in truck beds or on utility trailers. A large group of hunters can save money by traveling this way. However, you can't compare the price of gas with the price of an airline ticket without consider the other costs of traveling. Traveling 4,000 to 5,000 miles round trip on the highway will reduce the value of your vehicle and will cause it and its tires and bearings to wear out sooner. Also, you might need to stay in motels several times on a crosscountry trip, and you'll need to spend more money on meals on a longer trip. And don't forget to calculate for yourself the value of your time and of your lost vacation time and work income.

Costs of shipping trophies from Alaska:

I talked with Alpha Fur Dressers in Anchorage. Call for updated information and prices at 907-868-3227. Here's what he told me:

Either you or your outfitter must get your trophies to us. To ship to us from Kotzebue would probably avg. $125 for a caribou and moose rack and cape. Go the air cargo office in Kotzebue and ship it to us as soon as you get off your hunt.  You can ship capes frozen or completely dried out. The salted and dried capes are cheaper to send.

For caribou plan on $75 or more for fleshing, $75 or more for tanning, $100 or more for boxing and shipping to the Lower 48. That would be for a small rack split in half. A big rack might cost $250 to $300 for shipping, plus the crate will cost $125 to $175.

For bear the tanning is $35 per foot plus the work on skulls is $175 for a brown bear and $150 for a black bear.

For moose plan on $150 for fleshing, $225 for tanning, $150 UPS or Fed Ex for shipping a small rack split in half, $250 to $300 for shipping by Yellow Freight a large unsplit moose rack. Plus the crating fee is $125 for a single unsplit moose rack, $150 for a crate for two unsplit moose racks and $175 for a crate for three unsplit moose racks. We don't have any hidden fees.

 Trophy care

Many outfitter advertise that trophy care is included in the price of their hunts. This usually means that the outfitter or his guide will remove the cape and horns or antlers and take it to a local taxidermist. Sometimes this is all you need.

However, if you shoot an animal a long ways from a taxidermist, much more must be done than simply removing the cape and cutting off the horns or antlers. The cape or pelt must be fleshed -- all scraps of meat and fat must be removed. This includes cartilage in the nose and ears and the moist flesh inside the lips. In the case of a bear, all the fat and flesh inside the paws must be removed.

Your hide or cape must be salted several times until all moisure is removed. This can take several days.

In some cases, the gelatinous material inside the horns must be removed.

Properly fleshing a trophy is a job for a taxidermist. If you cannot get the trophy to a taxidermist quickly, the trophy could be lost to spoilage within a matter of hours, depending on temperatures. Few guides or outfitters are qualified to do all the trophy preparation necessary to have a hide or cape ready for tanning.

In some cases, such as when you're hunting in Mexico, the cape or hide must be completly dry before it can be transported across the border. Therefore, learn how to prepare a trophy yourself and carry with you the necessary tools and materials, or arrange to have a qualified expert in camp or a nearby town to have the job completed.

Sometimes you can have the cape frozen and shipped to your taxidermist. Some taxidermists don't like this because the process of thawing the cape itself can lead to spoilage.

The best way to learn how to prepare your trophy for shipping to your taxidermist is to spend some time with your taxidermist and have him show you exactly what to do. Learn how to flesh the lips and the nose and how to turn the ears.

Videos, books and articles also can educate you about this process. There is not space on this page for a detailed description of how to do the job. There are many web sites that contain helpful information. You can find the by using a search engine such as google.com or altavista.com.

Velvet-covered antlers present a special challenge. Velvet is fragile, especially at certain times; yet few outfitters who offer hunts for animals in velvet offer adequate methods for preserving the velvet. It used to be that taxidermists used formaldehyde to preserve the velvet, simply injecting a formaline solution into the veins inside the velvet. However, formaldehyde is carcinogenic, so few taxidermists use this method anymore. Bird feet solution, which you can buy from a taxidermy supply house, has been used with mixed results. I've heard of people who did nothing more than soak the antlers in turpentine or even gasoline, but I would not recommend those methods.
Consult your taxidermist for his suggestions.

Not only is it important to prevent bacteria and insects from attacking the velvet, but it's also vital to protect the velvet from physical damage during transportation. Consult your taxidermist for advice.

Some trophies can take more abuse than others. A black bear pelt spoils quickly, while a mule deer hide might last several times longer in warm weather. However, do your best to skin and care for the trophy quickly. Some hides, such as Dall sheep, hold blood stains, so wash off blood immediately.

If your guide capes your animal, be sure he leaves plenty of hide. I usually cut the hide well behind the shoulder.

Do not allow anybody to cut the throat of an animal you intend to mount. I once ran an elk hunt on an Indian Reservation, and one of the Indian guides cut an elk's throat before the hunter realized what was happening.

Leave plenty of skull plate when you saw off antlers or horns.

Here are some web pages that you might find helpful:


Caping a deer

Caping video

Field dressing and trophy care video

Preparing your trophy

List of taxidermists sorted by state and country

  Trophy transportation

Most quality outfitters can arrange to have your trophy (hides, antlers, horns or skulls) shipped to you or your taxidermist. Don't use the taxidermist suggested by the outfitter unless you know he does good work and will do it on time. When traveling by air, you can sometimes transport your trophy inside your luggage or as baggage. However, some airlines, such as in Alaska, will no longer transport caribou or moose or elk antlers. Check with your airlines before you leave for your trip.

If allowed, you can ship antlers as baggage by taping a piece of hose over each point and by securely covering the skull cap with freezer paper or cardboard.

From some locations, such as Mexico or Africa, your trophy must be dipped to ensure that it is free of noxious insects. You need various permits and certificates in order to transport animal parts from certain locations. Some animals that are considered threatened require special permits for possession or transportation.

You cannot legally transport a mounted mountain lion or any part of a mountain lion through California. Similar regulations pertaining to specific animals could exist in other states.

Your choices for transporting trophy hides, capes, antlers and horns:

Driving them home or to your taxidermist.

Sending the raw or frozen cape and antlers as air freight to your home or to a taxidermist. This requires crating.

Transporting them inside your luggage or as baggage or as excess baggage.

Having the trophy mounted locally, then crated and shipped to you by ground or air freight.

Unless your animal is of record-book quality, consider splitting the skull (separating one antler from the other), which could allow you to ship them more easily and cheaply. For example, airlines and air taxi services in Quebec typically charge $200 or more to transport an unsplit caribou rack to Montreal, while a split rack is less than half that.