Leaving Game Lay Overnight: The Truths


The elk herd moved late that September evening. They were headed for an alfalfa field that is located a mile away from their midday hangout.

Cows, calves and several bulls stormed the 4 strand barbed wire fence, the only thing that separated them from the lush green field. Mews, chirps and bugles all rang out in the poetic confusion of a fence crossing.

On the other side of the fence hid a guide and his hunter in three foot tall sage brush. Hearts pounding as adrenaline pulsated through their bodies, knowing that opportunity was about to knock.

The herd numbered near 50. The wire “twanged” as the first couple made it across.

The hunters were so close they could hear the heavy breathing animals run by. With daylight fading, a six point bull offered the shot they’d been waiting on.

The arrow found the bull. Where exactly? This was unknown. The darkness and total mayhem of the last 90 seconds had kept that part a secret. Supper was calling and a logical decision needed to be made on when to “follow up” on this bull.

Wait a couple hours or give it till morning?

When in doubt back out, maybe

Just about every tv show you watch or magazine article you read preaches “when in doubt back out”, regarding wounded animals.

I have been on that bandwagon too. And still am to some extent. But there are times, especially during the early season, where it doesn’t work if you are expecting to pack your freezer full of meat.

Most early season hunts deal with extremely warm weather. Even in central Montana, daytime highs will reach the mid 90’s with night time lows bottoming out at the 60 degree mark during the first couple weeks of September. This is not the time to let an animal you plan on eating lay overnight. It will be spoiled unless it lived through the night, dying an hour or two before dawn.

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When, how and why?

When do you wait?

I have my own thoughts on this from a hunter’s perspective and from a guides perspective. If I’m the one hunting it’s a pretty simple deal. If I shoot a cow or a doe, late in the evening, I’m looking that night. Depending on where the arrow or bullet hit, determines how long I wait. For a hit that appears to be one lung or liver, I’ll wait two hours. If the animal is gut shot, I’ll wait four hours. Any other shot location depends on what kind of blood I’m seeing. Using this method is not foolproof. There will be times you jump a dying animal and have it run off, never to be seen again. There will also be times when you find her lying dead within a couple hundred yards of where you shot her. The latter is why I look that night instead of waiting till morning. By morning, I can all but guarantee you that the meat would have been spoiled.

Bucks and bulls I look at a little differently. If I shoot a buck or bull and the shot is questionable, I’ll wait till morning. No, they don’t take longer to die when hit poorly than a doe or cow elk does. My purpose for shooting a racked animal is because of the bone on his head. Does this mean I’m not going to eat the meat? Absolutely not. It does mean that I’m limiting my loss to find circumstances. If it is a buck or bull that I’ve been hunting for some time, I’m not gonna take the chance of bumping him and losing the “horns.” I will wait till morning and take my chances with the meat. Right or wrong, that’s my take on it. And a good majority of the people who tell you on tv to let them lay overnight, even when it’s too warm to do so, are doing it for the same reasons.

Sorry for being truthful about it. The reason I make a point about it is because too many people fully expect the meat to still be good in the morning.

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When I have a client that faces the same situation, I recommend we do the same thing as I mentioned above. But, it is their choice and decision because it is their hunt. I always put emphasis on the meat most likely being spoiled if we wait till morning.

Why meat spoils even though it’s “cold enough”

Letting them lay overnight is more than just an early season problem. I’ve seen animals left lay overnight spoil in zero degree weather.


The same insulated hairs that protect an animal’s outside from allowing cold to enter into their bodies, also prevents heat from escaping from the inside. This trapped heat will start to “cook” the animal from the inside out.

No, the animal is not really cooking but the warm body temperature of the animal is allowing microorganisms to grow, such as bacteria, yeast and fungi. These Microorganisms thrive in temperatures that range from 70-120 degrees and start growing right after death. A calm deer’s body temperature is 101 degrees fahrenheit. If that animal is gut shot and the toxins of the stomach start to spread through the animal’s body, a fever of 105 degrees or more will certainly be present.

How fast the animal’s body temperature drops solely depends on the environment in which it lays. Did it die where the last rays of sun were shining? How cool is the air temperature? Ground temperature? All this plays a huge part in how fast your animal will spoil. That’s why it’s so hard to give an accurate timetable for spoilage. The quicker you can get the guts out and the hide off, the better.

Bacteria grows rapidly above 70 degrees; however, it still thrives in a 50 degree environment. Think about that. The night time lows are in the 40’s and a deer’s body temp is 100 degrees while the ground temp is 53 degrees

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What are the odds of that deer cooling down internally to less than 50 degrees under theses conditions? Not happening. Remember, it’s the temperature of the meat that matters, not the air around it.

Also, the larger the animal, the longer it will take to cool down. Elk, moose and bison will spoil quicker than a deer.

Gut shot

Gut shot animals have more than just temperature spoilage to be concerned about. Stomach matter contains bacteria for breaking down the foods animals eat. Once the stomach is penetrated, that bacteria has a chance to attack other parts of the animal. The toxicity of these chemicals is often what kills the animal. It will also sour the meat. It may not be soured to the point of being unsafe to eat but the meat will surely be tainted. The longer a gut shot animal lays, the more likely it is to sour and spoil. They don’t have to be dead for this to occur.

In my opinion, even cold weather will not salvage the meat of a gut shot critter. If it lives for more than four hours, the majority of the meat will be too raunchy to eat.


My opinions are just that. But, the facts are also there about how long it takes for an animal to cool down.

I wanted to write this article so other hunters understand the possibilities of what can go wrong when waiting to pursue an animal that has been wounded. Too many hunters wait till morning to track a fatally hit animal, only to be disappointed when they get less than half their meat back from the butcher because a percentage of it was spoiled. They never tell you that on tv. By bringing this to light, I hope to ease bad feelings that may occur when such a situation arises.

Good hunting and best of luck this fall.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>