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Sunday, November 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Packing out game meat — that’s what friends are for

Dragging a deer downhill on snow seems like it should be easy, but still requires a great deal of energy. (Brett French / Courtesy)
Dragging a deer downhill on snow seems like it should be easy, but still requires a great deal of energy. (Brett French / Courtesy)
By Brett French The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Have deer become heavier, or am I just getting weaker? That question was rhetorical. I don’t want you to tell me how weak I am.

The question arose after filling my A tag with a small four-point whitetail buck last year. I gutted it out with the idea of dragging it – mostly downhill – for about 2 miles.

My hunting partner was kind enough to take the first shift and slid the animal on the snow about a half mile. When it was my turn, I grunted, groaned and strained while managing to stagger about 10 yards. When did deer get so heavy? Possibly it was after I passed the age of 30 about 27 years ago.

Weighing in

A full-grown whitetail deer can weigh between 150 and 250 pounds. Remove its entrails and the deer’s weight drops by about 20 to 30 pounds. I’m guessing the dead weight on the buck I had shot was roughly 120 pounds, but that was about 100 pounds more than I was able to slide downhill.

My only other option was to carve the animal up into quarters, remove the backstraps and tenderloins, and saw off the antlers. Normally, hunters who are going to quarter an animal won’t bother with gutting it as well. That’s just more work. But apparently, I like more work.

Quartered

After carving the buck into manageable chunks and stuffing them into my day pack, my buddy helped me slide into the backpack’s shoulder harnesses. It didn’t feel nearly as heavy as dragging the deer’s dead weight … until my buddy let go of the pack. Then I realized I was in for a tough stagger downhill. Luckily, he also helped share the packing. It’s good to have friends.

Quartering drops an animal’s weight considerably. (Tom Kuglin at the Independent Record wrote a good story about how to quarter a deer, including detailed photos. You can find it online attached to this story.) The deer’s head alone may weigh about 8 pounds and the hide another 9. Leaving behind the rib cage, backbone and neck also had to cut the weight by a sizable amount. So why did the meat still feel so darn heavy?

Noodling around on the internet, it seems like the consensus is that hunters will put about one-third of the live weight of their deer in the freezer as boned-out, fat-free meat. So although I was probably carrying about 60 pounds, it felt more like 80. I blame the deer’s leg bones, which I left in rather than take the time to bone out in the field.

A couple of years ago, another hunting buddy and I packed out his elk. That time, I did bone out the hindquarters to save weight because elk leg bones are massive. Then the hunters who were helping us with horses complained that tying on hindquarters without the bone in them was difficult. The boneless meat flopped around too much.

Sled option

The day after I notched my buck tag last week, my nephew shot a buck closer to the truck. He doesn’t know how to quarter an animal, so he opted to drag it out on one of those large plastic sleds. The sled slides well when it is empty, really easy to pull. But drop a full buck into one and it’s still a strain to get uphill, and watch out going downhill. My nephew got clipped by the deer sled from behind and fell hard to his bum knee. Deer’s revenge, I guess.

So even a sled doesn’t make the job of hauling out meat that much easier, or necessarily safe.

That same day I filled my doe tag and didn’t hesitate to quarter it. The next day, we walked past the spot and my hunting partner looked at the dismantled carcass and wondered why it wasn’t gutted. That was just more work, I explained to him, and unnecessary. It was his first time hunting. He thought gutting was part of the process, no matter what.

Even though the doe was smaller and lighter, that full pack of deer meat was still a strain for my puny strength. About three-quarters of the way back to the truck I slipped on some ice, threw my rifle forward and tried to break my fall with my hands. Laying on the ground for a rest seemed like a good idea at the time, but daylight was fading and I worried if I rested I wouldn’t be able to get the backpack back up. Soldier on and get it over with as soon as possible seemed a better strategy. I had to get on all fours to struggle upright.

Other ideas

In the past, I’ve used a game cart and a wheelbarrow to haul out deer. I’ve heard tales of hunters taking days to pack out elk meat in several trips. That’s when it’s no fun to have no helpful friends. Hunters even joke about salt-and-pepper elk – the kind that die in such a hellishly steep hole that it would be easier just to eat the animal where it fell.

I’ve decided the easiest way to haul a deer is to get one near a road that you can drive on. That’s undoubtedly why road hunting is so popular with some folks. But where’s the fun in that? Hunting should be a challenge and difficult. Such trials and troubles make hunters appreciate that deer or elk steak so much more, and slipping and tumbling down a mountainside on a cold, snowy day is a great way to create some vivid memories and large bruises.

Besides, that’s what ibuprofen is for, to take away the pains of a difficult day of hunting, hiking or hard work. Needless to say, ibuprofen is my one of my closest friends.

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