Tag Archives: Chilcotin hunting

How to field dress a moose

Warning: Graphic photo documentary of the moose butchering process

One of my great life-skills mentors, Clarence, and me with my downed moose.

The moose is the largest extant species in the deer family. On average, an adult moose stands 1.8–2.1 m (6–7 ft) high at the shoulder. Males weigh 380–720 kg (850–1580 pounds) and females weigh 270–360 kg (600–800  pounds). Typically,  the antlers of a mature specimen are between 1.2 m (3.9 ft) and 1.5 m (4.9 ft). Behind only the  bison, the Moose is the second largest land animal in both North America and Europe (Wikipedia).

In light of the above statistics, it is not surprising that it is once the hunter’s moose is ‘on the ground’ that the real work begins! Processing 1000 pounds of animal (give or take a couple hundred pounds!) is not for the faint-hearted.

When my brother heard I was going moose hunting, he was quick to advise me that the guys he works with, who also hunt, said I should buy a ‘Dewalt Cordless Sawsall’ in order to make the butchering process easier. However, I knew that Clarence and David would view such a tool as an unnecessary frivolity, and that they would likely teach me how to do this with minimal equipment! As my friend who knows these men well confirmed, “You couldn’t find better teachers, because they will not only teach you amazing bush skills but they’ll also teach you to be tough.” Part of the requisite ‘being tough’ is doing without a lot of luxuries.

Besides Dave’s favourite ‘never-leave-home-without-one (or two)’ Gerber Exchange-a-blade saw, nothing more than a pocket knife and 13 pillow cases are required to fully dress out and process a moose in the field.

Step one: Remove the hide from the moose.

 

Start just above the tail, making sure to cut through the skin but not into the layer of sub-cutaneous fat.

Start skinning just above the tail of the moose and all the way up the back to the head between the ears. Once you have the skin off the exposed side of the animal, it is time to pull it over on to the other side. Repeat the process of skinning on the other side until you have the whole ‘cape’ removed.

Step two: Secure the moose by tying it to something steady.

Roll the moose on to his back so his legs are in the air, and tie the two front legs off  with your parachute cord (see hunting lesson one: the possibles bag) to something solid. In our case, we had one leg tied off to the quad bike and another to a small, twiggy bush. Because this is a big maneuver, I was fully involved and could not take a photo!

Step three: Cut the trachea high in the throat.

 

Dave cutting through the throat meat to remove the trachea. Note the parachute cord tied to front legs in background.

Cut through the throat muscle to get to the trachea and esophagus. Cut through both tubes to free them from the moose. They will be pulled out, along with the other gut contents, through the belly at a later stage in the process.

Step four: Retain proof of the sex.

Proof of sex: exposed penis hanging down with each testicle laying on belly.

Be careful not to lose the penis or testicles until you get the moose home, because ‘proof of sex’ is required by law if you are checked by the Conservation Officer. Cut the hair from the sex glands and expose them, laying one testicle to each hind quarter.

Step five: Open the belly.

Clarence demonstrating how to cut through the moose's belly.

Carefully cut through the belly skin, being sure not to cut any of the gut contents. Begin at the pelvis and work your way up to the rib cage. It is particularly important not to cut through the intestines. Note the tiny pocket knife in Clarence’s hand; it is the only knife I’ve ever seen him use. This is what he butchers all his chickens and turkeys with as well!

84 year old Clarence still going hard and working his way up the belly cut.

Step six: Cut through the breast bone to open up the chest cavity.

Dave hand sawing his way through the breast plate of my moose.

This is the first moment you need to get out your Gerber Exchange-a-blade-saw. Cut through the breast bone, being careful not to damage the guts inside the chest wall. Once the breast plate is completely opened, finish cutting through the belly, meeting the chest wall cut.

Step seven: Haul out the guts.

My right index finger is in the hole where my bullet when through the moose's lungs.

Taking a good grip on the trachea (I cut a small hole in the trachea just large enough to put my fingers in and get a better grip on it), begin to pull the guts out of the moose away from the chest towards the belly. You will have to cut through the diaphragm in order to get the lungs and heart through into the belly cavity. Note the blood on the side of my cheek. Put there by Dave to indicate the first part of my initiation into ‘the wolf pack’; the rest of the initiation required me to eat the some of the heart and liver!

 

Hauling out the guts is a team effort!

Clarence is cutting through the diaphragm so I can get the lungs, heart and trachea through into the belly cavity. Once complete, we then haul out all the contents from the body onto the snow.

Step eight: Cut through the pelvis and anus.

 

Dave beginning the pelvis cut for me.

Be careful not to cut through any intestine when you cut through the pelvis bone and around the anus.

 

Gutted moose held open for quick cooling.

Because it was nearing dark at this stage, we took the heart, liver and tenderloins back to camp, and I had the first taste of my moose that very night!

 

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Filed under Animal issues, Butchering, Educational, Gathering from the wild, How to..., Hunting, Moose, Wild game

Hunting season is over

The cabin at Louie Creek on a sunny day.

The cabin at Louie Creek on a sunny day (note the fresh moose skull hanging on the cabin pole).

Hunting season for deer and moose finally ended for us  on November 30th, and I came home without my buck. Neither Clarence nor I even fired our rifles. In fact, in the whole trip (for me this meant 7 days and Clarence was gone for 14) we didn’t even see a legal deer or moose. Nevertheless, what the trip lacked in face to face game-hunting, it well made up for in excitement and educational opportunities. I learned how to identify the tracks of all sorts of animals, and spent some time tracking moose that managed to stay just out of our sights before crossing a boundary and leaving our legal hunting area–how often they did this made me wonder if the Department of Conservation supplied the moose with free hunting synopses.

The first day out, we spent hours traveling the roads (de-activated logging routes, actually) by vehicle, looking for some fresh tracks. We covered mile after mile on the road west of our cabin, road and then the east road, but found not a single fresh moose track. Others in the family took off on foot, snowshoe or ATV. At 83, Clarence the patriarch had a pace which suited me just fine on my first time hunting. We did see fresh wolf tracks, and many other tracks such as foxes and martins. While I was excited to even see the old moose tracks and wondered why we were not striking off on their trail, Clarence patiently explained that a moose that made a track as old as the one we were looking at could by now be 50 miles or more away. Ah ha. The next few days were spent similarly. We got up in the mornings and headed out on the hunt for fresh moose tracks, returning at a civilized hour for lunch or dinner, while the other members of the family disappeared for 6-9 hours at a time, often into the early gathering dusk. Finally, we did come across some fresh tracks. “Oh, my aching back, look at those here, my dear,” Clarence said, head hanging out the window while gently bringing the truck to a stop. “Here we go,” he whispered, and then reverted to sign language.

On the trail of fresh moose tracks.

On the trail of fresh moose tracks.

On the trail of fresh moose tracks, heading north.

Spot the two hunters in this photo!

We got out, hung our rifles over our shoulders, I took note of the compass direction, and he signaled that I was to lead the way. The moose was heading almost due north. I struck out in front of Clarence and followed the fresh moose tracks. As you can see from the above photos, we are walking through an old clear-cut. The moose like the openness of the clear-cuts, primarily because their favourite food colonizes those clear-cuts quickly. Tracking is pretty easy in this kind of snow: the snow is not so deep that the walking is difficult, it’s fresh enough not to make a noise as you walk, and it shows up the tracks well. The moose had woven its way through the young re-growth, looking for delicacies among the evergreen saplings. “Red Willow,” Clarence whispered and pointed to the chewed tips of the brush, “it’s a moose’s favourite browse.”

Red Willow with tips browsed by moose.

Red Willow with tips browsed by moose.

About four hundred yards across the clear-cut, I came across two more sets of moose tracks coming from the east.  They seemed to meet up here and then travel on together, all heading north. This put a spring in Clarence’s step: now we were on the trail of three adult moose. Another few minutes into the tracking and a fourth set of tracks showed up, also coming from the east, “Awe, it’s a baby moose,” whispered Clarence, “It must be traveling with its mama.” Although we now knew that at least two of the moose we were tracking were definitely not legal to hunt, there was a surprising tenderness rather than disappointment in his voice. We carried on, though, because the first two sets of tracks were definitely adult tracks.

After about half a mile, we entered into the deeper forest on the other side of the clear-cut. The tracking is not as easy at that point; the trees drop snow and cover the tracks, the sunlight doesn’t penetrate the forest easily and the tracks become obscure, and the density makes the walking much more difficult. We continued tracking the moose until Clarence finally said it was time to turn back. Why? I asked, “Because we are almost back to the highway. Those moose will have crossed it by now.” In other words, they’d made it to safety and out of the legal area for which Clarence had a hunting tag. It amazed me that Clarence seemed to know exactly where we were on and around these Little Rainbow Mountains, no matter if we were in the truck, on the trail or deep into the bush. He kept saying, “Now we’re going north… now we’re heading south south-east… now we’re going north west,” and so on. Each time he spoke, I looked at my compass: he was always dead on.

The next few days were spent very similarly. We’d head out each morning looking for fresh tracks. When we came across fresh ones we’d get out and track them for as long as it made sense: until they left the legal area, until it became too dark, and on one occasion until the weather abruptly turned sour, which happened so quickly I didn’t see it coming. One minute it was warm and sunny; next thing I knew, we were heading back across our tracks in a blizzard, donning more clothing and battening down the hatches of our ‘Elmer Fudd’-style hunting hats to keep warm.

Moose track in snow.

Moose track in snow.

Although we didn’t ever get close enough to see the moose actually making the tracks, we did reveal the story of how several of them spent their day. Clarence was always teaching me as we went: he had me do ‘dry runs’ where I’d pretend that a rock or tree up ahead was in fact a moose, load my rifle, take aim and pretend to fire, then unload and continue on the hunt. He also taught me and then quizzed me on every set of tracks we came across. On one occasion, while we were tracking a moose, the tracks merged with another baby moose. Despite the fact that the moose was obviously a mama and therefore not legal, we kept on hoping to catch a glimpse of them. Clarence was happy to let me lead and teach me as we went: looking at the browse they were eating, where they had bedded down for a rest, and showing me the droppings of the baby. “Oh look, it’s a baby bull,” he said, lifting a morsel between his fingers and holding it up for me to look at. “How can you tell?” I asked, trying not to show too much alarm over the fact that he had moose feces in his hands. “One end is flat,” he said and gently placed it back on the snow. “Don’t worry, I won’t hand you a cookie with that hand, OK?”

Baby bull moose poop; note it is blunt on one end.

Baby bull moose poop; note it is blunt on one end.

In the end, he did eat a cookie with that hand. He also ate  his favorite snack, Cheetoes, and happily licked his fingers with each bite then turned to me and laughed. “Well, the First Nations peoples used moose droppings to thicken their stews,” I said, “So I guess it can’t be that bad for you!” I’ve noticed Clarence’s lack of concern with ‘personal food hygiene’ on numerous occasions; for example, he is happy to pick an apple off the ground in my yard, take out his pocket knife and without washing either the knife (which has a species butchering resume the likes of which some zoos never achieve) or the apple (nestled on my grass where my chickens free range), cut into it and start eating. While I’m shocked each time he does it, I’m also slightly suspicious that less worry about sterile conditions of food, coupled with a regular bag of Cheetoes, might just be the answer to his longevity!

While I didn’t get my buck, it didn’t mean the hunting party came back empty handed. One of the team got a moose, and I got the opportunity to taste some of it! However, I didn’t share the family’s enthusiasm for the liver (an issue from my childhood!). I also got a quick lesson in how to skin a moose, and an overview of the merits of this particular moose with respect to its mounting appeal. One of Clarence’s sons is not only an avid hunter but also a professional taxidermist. He kindly offered me the hind end of the moose for tanning, but kept the cape because this moose was particularly beautiful, in his professional opinion, and he told me why: the light color was appealing, the markings on either side of the face were symmetrical (which hardly ever happens), and the dimensions of the skull and overall shape of the head were extremely esthetically pleasing.

Although my freezer is still game-less, I learned much: how to identify the tracks of anything which walks through a British Columbia forest, how to identify moose and deer habitat and their feed (or ‘browse’), how to handle and fire my gun, and how to orient myself around the Little Rainbow Mountains. I feel a lot more confident about next Fall’s hunting season.

David explains why this moose will make a beautful mount.

Gesturing to the skinned skull, David explains why this moose will make a beautiful mount.

Nice add for Cabelas hunting gear!

Nice add for Cabelas hunting gear!

David explaining to me how to keep the moose hide and pack it for shipping to a tanner.

David explains to me how to keep a moose hide fresh, and pack it for shipping to a tanner.

Listening intently to David as he explains the principles of taxidermy.

Listening intently to David as he explains the principles of taxidermy.

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Filed under Animal issues, Hunting