Field Care of Alaska Big-Game Meat
The proper field care of meat harvested on an Alaska big-game hunt is of primary importance to many hunters. In fact, the Alaska Hunting Regulations contain specific instructions on meat care, and a unit-by-unit list of the legal requirements. It’s not a difficult process, but there are some important points to consider.
The Three Rules of Meat Care
Meat goes bad in one of two ways; from the outside-in, or from the inside-out. In the former case, we’re talking about dirt, hair, urine or other contaminants, or the accumulation of surface bacteria. In the latter case, we’re talking about the fluids around the bones going rancid, a condition known as bone sour. In either case, the best remedy is prevention, best expressed in what have become known as "The Three Rules of Meat Care", as follows:
RULE ONE: Keep it Clean
Make your skinning cuts from the flesh-side of the hide to avoid cutting hair, and remove any hair you see on the skinned carcass. After you remove the first front and hindquarters, roll the carcass over on a clean tarp to keep the rib meat clean. Place quarters in game bags immediately to keep flies and debris off of them. Tie the tops of your game bags securely so flies cannot get in. This is particularly important with game bags that have a draw cord at the top; these cords often force the material to gather in a way that leaves a perfectly fly-sized hole at the top. Wrap parachute cord around the bag below this hole, to close it off securely. After skinning one side of the animal, remove the front and rear quarters and the backstrap, then roll the entire animal over onto a clean tarp. This keeps the ribs clean and free of sticks, leaves, dirt and other debris. All of these precautions go a long way to keeping surface contaminants off the meat, but they do nothing about contamination from surface bacteria.
Bacteria need a warm, moist, acid-neutral environment in order to thrive. By controlling any of these three factors, the development of meat-spoiling bacteria is severely inhibited. If you control all three factors, bacterial contamination is nearly impossible. One way to keep bacteria under control is to create an acidic environment on the surface, using citric acid powder. But don't overdo it; applying multiple doses of citric acid only creates extra work and the benefit of repeat applications is insignificant, unless the first application is washed off by rainfall or splashes from the river (which can happen on float hunts). Here's how to do it:
Application of Citric Acid Solution
A few years ago, Doug Drum, owner of Indian Valley Meats in Indian, Alaska, pioneered a new way of keeping meat from spoiling from surface bacterial contamination. He taught hunters to use citric acid powder to create an acidic environment on the surface of the meat in order to stall the development of surface bacteria. That product, known as "Alaska Game Saver" has been used by hunters for many years since. It's easy to use; simply mix a small quantity of powder with clean water in a pump spray bottle, and spray it directly on the meat.
Knowing when to apply citric acid solution is nearly as important as knowing how to do it. In most cases, citric acid does not need to be applied at all; it is only when conditions are warm (above 55º Farenheit) and humid to the point that the surface of the meat cannot dry, that citric acid should be considered. It is not necessary to do it at the kill site either; you have enough work to do there already. Instead, focus on keeping the meat clean as you work your animal, then determine whether citric acid is necessary once you have it hanging in camp. Monitor your meat every day it is hanging, and if you notice that the surface is not drying, and it feels slick to the touch, you are developing a bacteria issue. That's when you want to spray the meat.
Mix up a couple of ounces of citric acid powder with two quarts of clean water. Pour this water into a small pump spray bottle, and you're ready to go. If flies are an issue, pull the game bags off as you work on each piece. Flies don't like the acid, so it's unlikely they will land on the meat while you are spraying it. But if you take all the bags off before you start spraying, flies are going to land and lay eggs on untreated meat while your attention is elsewhere. So it's best to do one bag at a time. Completely spray the surface of the meat and let it dry as much as possible before re-bagging it. The dry surface will go a long way toward inhibiting the spread of bacteria. If possible, build a smoky fire at one end of the meat cache , so the smoke drifts over the meat (don't use spruce; it leaves a resin on the meat). Flies can't stand the smoke and will leave your unbagged meat alone. This gives it a chance to dry without the bags. Once you are finished, put the bags back on the meat and leave it alone. In most cases you will not have to spray it again for the rest of the hunt, however you should still monitor it every day. If you discover a slick surface on the meat, you are feeling the waste products of billions of bacteria multiplying on the meat, and an additional application of citric acid spray is warranted.
Some hunters treat their game bags with citric acid solution before the hunt in an attempt to keep flies from landing on the bags. To a large extent this is unneccessary, as the bags themselves keep flies from getting to the meat. Who cares if flies lay eggs on the bags, as long as the eggs cannot get to the meat? On the other hand, some meat processors will not let meat through the door if fly eggs are on the outside of the bags. The bottom line? If you're processing it yourself don't worry about it. If you're sending it to a processor, either remove the eggs, spray the bags ahead of time, or use smoke to keep flies off the bags in the field.
RULE TWO: Keep it Dry
Wet or damp game meat is a prime candidate for bacterial spoilage, yet keeping the meat dry is a real challenge on some hunts. Heavy rain, loading meat in and out of rafts, and other environmental factors can harm your efforts. But it can be done, even in the most demanding conditions, with some advance preparation. Here are some tips.
- Tarp your meat cache. Most hunters know to put a tarp over the meat when it is raining or snowing, but even on a clear night dew or frost can settle on your game bags, soaking them by morning.
- Keep it off the floor of the boat. If you're float hunting, avoid the temptation to load meat directly on the floor of the raft. Meat that's in contact with the raft will develop condensation that soaks your game bags in minutes, not to mention moisture from splashes and spray from the river itself. Use a cargo platform to suspend your meat just off the floor and, if splashing is likely, consider placing a tarp between the mesh platform and the meat.
- Keep it off the ground. Meat left lying on the ground will certainly develop moisture at the point of contact with the soil. To keep it dry, you must get it off the ground. If you're hunting timbered country it's not a problem finding trees where the meat can be hung. But in many parts of Alaska, trees are nowhere to be found. In those situations, make a brush pile and lay the meat on top of that. In rare cases where there are no trees or brush, you will have to improvise. Hummocks, mounds of various sizes with grass growing atop them, may be your only option. Lay each bag on a hummock or, better yet, try to bridge quarters across two hummocks. You will have to turn the bags over periodically to prevent moisture buildup.
- Create airflow. Meat that is stacked atop other meat will develop condensation at the point of contact. Position each bag so it is not lying on another bag. On float hunts this can be impossible, and in such cases plan to stop and rotate the bags if necessary. This is especially true if you are floating for more than five or six hours in a day.
RULE THREE: Keep it Cool
Keeping game meat cool is an excellent way to prevent bacterial spoilage, and it is the only way to prevent bone sour. If you're able to hang your meat, hang it so the bags are not touching each other. This allows good air circulation, which also facilitates drying. Float hunters can hang meat near the river, where there is nearly always a breeze and the air temperature is a few degrees cooler. When you tarp your meat cache, use a tarp that's silver on one side. Position the tarp with the silver side facing up, to reflect heat. Darker tarps like the blue, green, or camouflage ones absorb heat and trap it under the tarp. Tie your tarp edges high enough to allow good airflow, but low enough to prevent rain from blowing up under them. On warm sunny days, consider lifting the shady side of your tarp to create better airflow while still shading the meat.
If you're float hunting, consider placing antlers or brush atop the meat before securing your tarp in the boat. Secure the tarp in a manner that allows air to flow from one end of the tarp to the other, unimpeded.
The Water Cool Method
In rare conditions it is not possible to get the meat cooled down to the optimal 55º F that you really need. In those cases, particularly when it climbs to much over 65º F, you could be in real trouble. Your best option is to get the meat out of the field and into a processor as soon as possible. If you're float hunting, that can be a real problem if your take-out is several days away. In those cases, cooling the meat in water is about the only trick left. Here's how to do it.
The decision to put your meat in the water needs to be made at the kill site. Has the weather been consistently over 65º F? Are the daytime temperatures likely to climb over 70º F? Do you have three or more days left before you can get the meat out of the field? In those cases, the meat should be submerged. Place the quarters in heavy-duty contractor trash bags that are at least 3 mils thick and four feet tall. These bags are strong enough to withstand the rough treatment they're going to get, are tall enough to accommodate the largest quarters, and they can be rinsed and re-used on other meat on the same hunt. When you put the meat in the bags, do not put a game bag on it! You'll only soak the game bag with fluids from the meat. Instead, hand-strip all the air between the bag and the meat, tie the top of the bag securely to keep water out, and then tie a line from the top of the shank bone to the raft frame or shorline brush before laying it in the pond or river. In cases where there is no raft, and no shoreline vegetation, the meat can be laid in the streambed and rocks placed atop it to keep it from moving. Through a process known as wicking, water absorbs body heat about 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. By immersing your meat in cold water for two or three hours, it is chilled all the way to the bone. This will not only severely inhibit the development of surface bacteria, it will almost always eliminate the opportunity for bone sour to develop. It is the only way to prevent bone sour in field conditions.
After the meat has been submerged two or three hours, pull it out of the plastic bags, hand-strip the moisture off of it, and let it hang without a game bag long enough for the surface to dry. If flies are a problem, you have no choice but to put the game bag on it immediately after stripping the moisture off of it. Your game bags will get wet, so you may have to change out for a dry set the next day, if they don't dry properly. Otherwise you run the risk of surface bacteria problems.
Avoid the temptation to use the river as a refrigerator. Meat left submerged for days will likely spoil from surface bacteria contamination.
Bears at the Kill Site
It's highly unlikely that a bear will approach your kill site while you are working on an animal, however the possibility does exist, and carries a higher probability of occurring in some areas. For example, in high bear density areas such as Kodiak Island, it is common for successful deer hunters to be approached by a bear if they dally around too long at a kill site. In those situations caution is your friend. Keep your rifle loaded and get the animal processed and off the mountain expeditiously. In most other situations, however, a more leisurely pace is fine.
With larger animals (such as moose), it's going to take seven or eight pack loads to get the meat and trophy moved to camp. Depending on the circumstances, it could take you a day or two to pack the meat in. This means that you will return to the kill site multiple times while you're packing. Before you leave the kill site for the first time, jam a long stick into the remains of the animal carcass and tie a piece of flagging tape to the top of it. Bears will usually relocate a carcass before feeding on it, and if they do, they'll knock the stick over, tipping you off to their presence. If it's practical to do so, cut a couple of shooting lanes through the brush. This allows you to see the kill site from a safe distance, and to let your scent blow downwind into the area if you are trying to get a bear to leave the area. Finally, take a few minutes to urinate on the trails leading to the kill site. The human scent may deter some bears from approaching while you are packing meat.
Some hunters figure that moving the meat to an interim cache between the kill site and camp will keep bears that are attracted to the kill from getting their meat. This reasoning is flawed. A bear is twice as likely to find the remains of the animal if they are in two locations instead of one. If a bear encounters the meat first and is inclined to eat it, he will.
A better reason for an interim meat cache is that it allows you to properly hang the meat, whereas that might not be possible near the kill site. As was previously discussed, hanging the meat as soon as possible facilitates cooling and drying. Tarp your meat cache just as you would if it was in camp.
Hunters sometimes ask about hanging meat high enough that bears cannot reach it. Truth is, it's very difficult to do that and almost always unneccessary.
Packing to Camp
Take some time to scout your route to camp before you put your pack on. Place flagging tape to mark the best route, then return to the kill site and begin packing. Many hunters prefer to carry the heaviest loads first, while they are still fresh and strong, saving the lighter loads for a time when fatigue is starting to set in. Either way, remember that the Alaska hunting regulations require that the trophy (hide and antlers or horns) come out with the last load of meat.
Take your flagging down on your last trip out.
Notes on Game Bags
Years ago, before the advent of modern game bags, hunters used black pepper to keep flies off of their game meat. Others used burlap bags to prevent flies from landing on the meat. But pepper makes a huge mess at the butcher shop and burlap puts hundreds of fibers on the meat and creates a cleanup problem. Thanks to modern game bags, both methods are now obsolete.
Primary Purpose and Characteristics of Game Bags
Choosing the proper game bag requires an understanding of the purpose of the bag, and the most desirable characteristics of a good bag. Here are some things to consider:
The primary purposes of a game bag are 1) to keep the meat clean and 2) to facilitate the drying process. To best accomplish this you need a game bag with a tight enough weave to prevent dirt and fly eggs from passing through the cloth to the meat. But if the weave is too tight, air cannot easily pass through the bag. This inhibits airflow and slows the drying process, which can contribute to bacterial contamination. To further facilitate airflow the bag must hang loosely around the meat. Clingy bags or bags that are too small create situations where the meat is likely to adhere to the bag. This can contribute to bacterial contamination. Additionally, the bag should be made of absorbent material, to expedite the drying process. Cotton bags are the best material for this, as cotton is highly absorbent. The bag should also be tough enough to withstand the stresses of multiple handling in and out of rafts, in and out of airplanes, and shipping on cargo aircraft enroute to a processor. Flimsy bags will tear during handling, but bags that are too heavy might inhibit airflow. Blow through the bag material to determine how breathable it is.
Here's a recap of what you need in a game bag:
- Absorbent material
- Rugged material
Cotton Game Bags
The most common game bag on the market is the cotton bag. But not all cotton bags are created equal. Stay away from cheesecloth-type bags that can allow fly eggs to pass through the material and land on the meat. Also these types of bags are clingy, sticking to the meat and inhibiting the drying process. You want a bag that hangs loosely around the meat; this facilitates airflow in order to dry the surface.
For much more details on game bags review our section on Meat Care Tools.
Caribou Gear Game Bags
Additional Resources on Meat Care
- Alaska Game Saver (citric acid powder)
- Field Care Handbook (book by Duncan Gilchrist)
- Field Care of Game Meat (ADF&G DVD)
- Float Hunting Alaska (Larry Bartlett DVD; contains good meat care information)
- Float Hunting Alaska's Wild Rivers (book by Michael Strahan; contains extensive meat care section)
- Project Bloodtrail (Larry Bartlett DVD)