Hunting is one of those Montana eventualities. Every fall our friends and neighbors, coworkers and bartenders, return from the woods with tales of primal triumph. They speak of the hunt with the same reverence as an angler fresh from a battle of wits with some mighty riverbound leviathan. Even our politicians crow about their prowess —real or conceived—as rugged, rifle-wielding sportsmen. For some, the thrill lies in bagging a trophy buck or bull, but for most victory is measured in the bundles of meat destined for their freezers, winter stores culled from our communal backyard.
The thing is, as tempting as it becomes over time to pick up the mantle of our most distant ancestors, game animals don’t prepare themselves for the dinner table. Every steak, stew and bit of jerky is dependent on what you do the moment you pull the trigger. Experienced hunters all have their own step-by-step processes for rendering an elk or deer or antelope into a months-long bounty. Of course, with the likes of H&H Meats, Lolo Locker and Diamond Bar Meats around Missoula, there are plenty of opportunities to pay for professional wild game processing. But for those newcomers looking to get in on the butchering game themselves, the first tip veteran sportsmen would offer is: Don’t be intimidated.
“It’s not brain surgery to butcher your own stuff,” says Kit Fisher, president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers. “You can watch a YouTube video and figure it out, or there’s not a shortage of people in Missoula that do know how to do the butchering.”
In fact, tapping the hunters you know for their expertise can be an immense help in preparing mentally for the task. Whether it’s a close friend or an acquaintance from a hunter education course, don’t be afraid to ask others for help. This October, Fisher’s organization partnered with Missoula’s Burns St. Bistro and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to host a game butchering and cooking demonstration. Similar workshops sponsored by FWP and various nonprofits tend to pop up sporadically throughout western Montana in the fall. Assuming you missed the bus the year, the Indy spoke with Fisher and other hunters to collect some pointers, not only on how to prepare wild game, but what cuts make for particularly delectable meals.
First, and perhaps most important, says Helena’s Jim Rickman, is to cool off the meat as quickly as possible. That means getting the hide off the animal and, though other hunters prefer not to, getting the meat off the bone.
“We pretty much debone all of our animals in the field,” Rickman says. “We do that No. 1 because it cools the meat down and preserves the meat the best, and No. 2, it just makes packing animals out that much easier.”
There are, of course, a few arguments to be made for taking at least some bone with you. One of Rickman’s favorite ways to prepare elk is to cut the shank—bone-in—into four-inch sections and use it to make a classic ossobuco with a Montana twist. Rickman adds that this recipe is a great way to utilize one of the more underrated cuts of an elk. Others floated the idea of avoiding deboning so you can make bone broth later. Just depends on how much of a workout you’re willing to endure to broaden your pantry.
Once home, Casey Hack-athorn, a Missoula conservationist who already claimed an elk during this year’s archery season opener, highly recommends hanging your harvest in cool, outdoor air for several days. This has the twin benefits of keeping the meat cool (provided the nighttime temperature is close to freezing) and giving the muscles and tendons time to relax. Keeping the meat clean is also important, he says, so avoid getting any hair from the hide on the portions you plan to package and eat.
When the time comes to start actually butchering, it’s wise to have everything you’ll need ready in advance. The last thing you want to do, Fisher says, is have to run to the store for more supplies when you’ve got “meat up to your elbows.” That means sharp knives, a clean surface and whatever you plan to wrap your meat up in. Some hunters opt for vacuum-sealed plastic, but those we talked to prefer the traditional Saran wrap and butcher paper. Also, it’s wise to know what cuts you ultimately want before you start to speed up the process. Either way, it’s going to take you a while. Hackathorn estimates butchering an elk usually takes several days.
“I usually do it one quarter at a time, either in the evening or on a weekend when I’m watching football,” he says. “Put out a folding table, and I cut while my wife wraps.”
During the butchering process, Hackathorn likes to keep a few big chunks intact, particularly the backstrap, as it makes for great steaks. Missoula hunter Doug Hawes- Davis has an approach that calls for placing an entire elk shoulder in an outside deep-fryer. Fisher tends to make his cuts bigger too, and suggests reserving a good portion of hindquarter, like the sirloin, as a roast. “Usually, the bigger cut of meat you’re using, the more tender it will be and the slower you can cook it,” he says. Any sections of meat you don’t set aside for more specific purposes can be sliced small for stir fry or ground up and mixed with pork or beef fat to make burger or sausage.
“Wild game is outstanding for that,” Rickman says. “Antelope in particular for breakfast sausage, because of the natural sage-iness to it. Elk for classic summer sausage and brats, things of that sort.”
Obviously this meat isn’t just going to live in your freezer. When the time comes to prepare it, all the hunters interviewed cautioned not to go crazy on spices or marinades. Salt, pepper, maybe even some McCormick’s Montreal Steak Seasoning, as Hackathorn suggests. But the real trophy in big game hunting is the flavor.
“Usually,” Fisher says, “you want to taste what you’re eating.”