Learn to Harvest

Alberta is a big province with a lot of opportunity for both new and seasoned hunters. It can seem intimidating at first, but most new hunters already possess many of the skills and tools they'll need. In other words: it's not a cakewalk, but we know with some patience, you'll be out there in no time.

We've provided you with step-by-step information on how to harvest your own protein from your decision to get started to having that food on your table. All that is required may seem daunting, but the end result is most certainly worth it: a single moose could supply you with up to 300 pounds of low fat, low cholesterol protein that has come from an ethically raised and harvested source.


Step One: Safety and proficiency

Alberta Hunter Education Course
The Alberta Hunter Education course is a fun way to learn about hunter safety, wildlife, wilderness survival, weapons, animal identification and other important information.

The course is run by the Alberta Hunter Education Instructors Association (AHEIA) and is offered in a classroom setting or online. The cost is just $70 and is a mandatory requirement to hunt in Alberta. The course ensures all new hunters have the basic requirements to hunt in a safe and proficient manner. Visit www.aheia.com to learn more.

Extra training is provided by both AHEIA and Alberta Fish & Game Association (AFGA). We recommend you take advantage of the courses they offer to help you feel more confident from the start of the process until the wild meat is in your freezer. For example, AHEIA offers a first-time hunter program where a mentor accompanies you on your first trip. 

Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL)
This is a federal requirement to ensure all gun owners are knowledgeable in the safe use, transportation and storage of firearms. This requirement is met by taking the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. Usually held over two days or evenings, the course includes a hands-on component to become familiar with different firearms. Once you successfully pass the course, you can apply for the PAL. The application is submitted to the RCMP and background checks are performed. An application form for your PAL is available online, and is usually provided to you at the end of the Canadian Firearms Safety Course.

More details can be found at www.aheia.com or by calling the Alberta Hunter Education Instructors Association (AHEIA)'s office.  

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Step Two: Paperwork

WIN card
A wildlife identification number (WIN) is a system used in Alberta to identify all hunters and anglers. It allows anglers and hunters to easily purchase licences online, and for fish and wildlife officers to verify licences easily.

You may already have a WIN card if you are an angler. The cost of the card is $8, and it only has to be renewed every five years. Visit www.albertarelm.com to purchase your WIN card.

Licence
Once you've completed all the training, your next step is purchasing a licence for the game species you are interested in harvesting. Hunting licences are sold through www.albertarelm.com where you will already have an account from purchasing your WIN card. The first time you buy a licence, you will need to provide your Hunter Education Course number.

Tags and draws
Every June, draws are held for wildlife that require special licences. You can apply for a special licence through www.albertarelm.com.

Special licences are required to maintain animal populations and provide great hunting experiences. When you win a draw, you can hunt a specific animal in a specific area during a specific season.

Once you have been successfully drawn, you can buy your specialized licence and pick up your tags. For many species, such as whitetailed deer, geese, ducks, grouse and pheasants, no draw is required. You can simply purchase a license directly from www.albertarelm.com.

For waterfowl (ducks and geese), you will also need a Federal Migratory Gamebird Hunting permit

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Step Three: Archery or firearm

Archery is the quickest route to hunting. Since bows are not considered a firearm, any adult can legally purchase bows and arrows and use them for hunting without any extra certifications or courses beyond the Alberta Hunter Education Course, WIN card, and of course the proper hunting licences.

If you choose this path, it is highly recommended that you take steps to learn archery before going hunting. There are many formal archery ranges in all localities that can help you become a proficient archer. AHEIA also offers an Archery Essentials course online.

After getting your Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL), you can legally purchase a non-restricted firearm (rifle or shotgun) to hunt with, meaning you can now hunt with a rifle or shotgun.

Some people prefer hunting with firearms because of the increased range it allows, and because target shooting can be an enjoyable hobby. There are many different types of rifles and shotguns that come in a variety of sizes, calibers and gauges. If you have the opportunity, go out with other gun owners and shoot many different types of firearms before you purchase your own.

Regardless of the weapon you choose: bow, crossbow, rifle, shotgun, or muzzleloader, make sure you are proficient with it. Go to an approved range and practice. Ensuring a humane and ethical harvest should be your primary goal, and that starts with your ability to make an accurate shot.

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Step Four: Deciding what to harvest

What do you like to eat? Pheasants and goose can be prepared similar to chicken and turkey while big game can easily replace beef dishes (though cooking times will be very different as wild game is much leaner).

Upland game birds and waterfowl are entry level hunting pursuits and both types of quarry are readily available. Many new hunters choose these species for their first wild protein harvest.

For big game, a general licence covers white-tailed deer in many parts of the province. The meat is lean and healthy, and can be made into the same cuts and grinds you would expect from beef.

Please be sure to check Alberta Hunting Regulations and make sure you are familiar with all the laws before beginning your hunt.

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Step Five: Where to go

Alberta Conservation Association (ACA), along with Ducks Unlimited Canada and Alberta Fish & Game Association, has over 650 conservation sites across the province for Alberta hunters to enjoy. ACA works with partners and landowners to secure, conserve and improve habitat for wildlife and for recreational use. To find a site near you, visit albertadiscoverguide.com. You can also find a hard copy of Alberta Discover Guide anywhere you buy licences (or ACA can mail it directly to you) or download the Alberta Outdoor Adventure Guide app for iPhone and Android.

There is also a bounty of public (Crown) land available for Albertans to explore and to hunt on. To locate Crown land, visit the Alberta Environment and Parks website.

You may also hunt on privately owned land with the owner's permission. Watch for "Use Respect – Ask First" signs and follow instructions posted. Note that you may have to call early in the year to book your spot.

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Step Six: Basic tools you'll need in the field

To harvest an animal, you really don't need much to get started. There are plenty of ways to get fancy later—and no limit to the number of accessories and tools out there for avid hunters.

For the novice, here is a list of basic tools to get the job done:

  • Licences and permits
  • Bow or firearm
  • Copy of Alberta Discover Guide
  • Copy of Alberta Hunting Regulations
  • Binoculars (never use a scope to look at something unless you plan to shoot it)
  • GPS (bring extra batteries)
  • Compass (for the day that the satellites fall out of the sky… or GPS stops working for a different reason)
  • Headlamp (hands-free flashlight)
  • Map (county maps with landowners' names are invaluable)
  • Knife
  • Sharpening stone
  • Lighter or matches (store in resealable plastic bag for waterproofing)
  • Cotton balls (they weigh very little and are great for starting fires. Store in resealable plastic bag)
  • Antibacterial hand wipes (for use after field dressing)
  • Resealable plastic bags (for birds and small game after field dressing)
  • Cheese cloth (for wrapping larger game after field dressing)
  • Game calls (depending on the game)
  • Water bottle (be sure to stay hydrated)
  • Extra pair of socks (in case your feet get wet)
  • Layers of clothing (wicking layer next to your skin, warm layer and then a layer of water and windproof on top)
  • Cell phone (you can get coverage just about anywhere)

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Step Seven: In the field

Once all the paperwork is done, you've got all your equipment ready, you've found where you're going to hunt and figured out what you're hunting for, the next step is to actually get out there. But, of course, it's not as easy as just walking into a forest and aiming at the first thing you see. How you conduct your hunt is important. You'll need to consider safety issues, the land you're on and hunting regulations.

Safety
The most important safety consideration is: you are carrying a weapon. Please be careful. It's important that you know exactly what you're shooting at, follow the rules you learned in the Alberta Hunter Education Course and the Canadian Firearms Safety Course, keep your finger off the trigger until it is time to shoot, and  know what is behind that target before you pull the trigger.

With all equipment, follow the instruction found in the owner's manual and be sure to check your equipment before each time you use it. Make sure it is clean and in good working order to give you the best chance of success.

Meet the landowners

If you decide to hunt on private land, as opposed to ACA conservation sites or Crown land, you will need to ask the landowner for permission. Often this needs to be done in advance. For some people this can be an intimidating process but it is something that gets easier with more practice. Keep in mind that this is private land you are asking to hunt on. Please be respectful regardless of what the response is.

If the landowner say yes, you are well on your way. Pay attention to any restriction the landowner may have, like no trucks in the field or no shooting near the cattle. Also pay attention to the hints as to where the game has been hanging out.

In some cases you may be denied access. Don't take it personally; there may be a hundred reasons why a landowner denies access. Thankfully, there are always other options so just move on to the next property you would like to hunt on and ask permission there.

Keep in mind that the landowner may be as intimidated as you are when you approach his front door. Only a single person should go to the door (instead of three or four big, potentially scary-looking guys). Ensure that everyone else is standing beside your vehicle so that the landowner can see who is asking permission. In some cases, the landowner may want to meet your entire group or potentially have you sign an access form. In other cases a simple handshake is all it takes.

In all cases, be sure to get the name of the person that you recieved permission from. If you are stopped in the field by a neighbour or another family member, you will be able to tell them who you talked with.

Hunting Regulations

Before you begin hunting, you need to read and understand the hunting regulations. Regulations can change from year to year so be sure to check the specific location and the species you will be hunting. Failure to follow the regulations can result in fines, hunting bans or jail time.

If you see someone that does not appear to be following the regulations, please call Report A Poacher at 1-800-642-3800. Poachers steal from all of us, so do your part: hunt legally and ethically and report those that do not.

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Step Eight: Field dressing

Everything you’ve done so far has led up to this point. You’re in the field with your firearm or bow raised and the game you’re about to harvest in your sight. You’ve gone through the checklist of everything you’ve learned and all the safety rules. The best advice we can offer is to try to relax. Take a deep breath, exhale and take the shot.

That leads us to field dressing the animal. If you have never butchered an animal before, this will likely be the hardest part of the hunting experience. Starting with removing the inner organs of the animal. We recommend downloading AHEIA’s smart phone app: Field Techniques. The app shows you how to field dress your harvest and may be helpful when out in the field.

It’s a good idea to watch videos on how to field dress your harvest before you go out. You will notice that the process is messy and bloody, particularly for big game but what the videos don’t capture is the smell. Be prepared as it can be unpleasant; try to avoid puncturing the stomach or intestines. 

If you have an opportunity to hunt with a mentor, that person will really come in handy to walk you through the field dressing process. As with any other skill, your ability to field dress your harvest in a quick and effective manner will improve with practice.

The specifics of how to field dress your harvest will vary depending upon the species you have harvested, the weather conditions and your personal preferences.

In all cases, cooling your harvest is an important step to ensure the meat stays as fresh as possible and does not spoil.

Birds

Sometimes, if the air temperature is cool enough, smaller game such as ducks, geese, grouse or pheasants can be taken home without doing any field dressing. If you are concerned that the meat will not cool in the field, you can remove the skin and feathers from the breast area of the bird.

  • For geese and ducks, make a small slit in the skin in the middle of the breast and then use your fingers to pull the skin away from the breast meat. Once you have done this make sure you keep the exposed meat clean. This video shows you how to properly field dress a duck. 
  • For upland birds like grouse and pheasants, you can “breast” the birds by using the “step-on-the-wings-and-pull-the-legs” method. This video shows you how to easily do this.

IMPORTANT: you must keep at least one wing attached while transporting all game birds (including ducks and geese). The wing allows for the identification of species and sex.

Big Game

  • Field dress as soon as possible. Big game animals have a lot of internal heat and if an animal is left too long without field dressing the meat will spoil. There are a number of techniques for field dressing big game animals.
  • If you are planning to harvest a large animal such as an elk or moose, you will likely “quarter” the animal. This means removing the front shoulders, and the hind hips. This technique allows you to turn something very large into pieces that you may be able to carry.
  • There are an unlimited number of videos on YouTube that will show you different techniques for dealing with your big game animal.

Keep in mind that in all cases, no matter how you field dress your big game animal, you will have to ensure that evidence of sex and species must remain attached to at least some portion of the meat you are transporting out of the field.

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Step Nine: Transportation

Before you hit the road, there are a few things to keep in mind. The type of game you harvest will determine how you will want to transport it.

For smaller game like ducks, geese or grouse, you may want place your harvest in a cooler with some ice. If temperatures are cold enough, placing your game in just a plastic bag will keep your vehicle clean and ensure the game stays cool.

For larger game such as deer, elk or moose, you don’t necessarily need a large pick-up truck in order to bring home your harvest. A large trunk or the back of a minivan can work as long as you plan in advance and ensure you have the proper tools.

Once a deer has been field dressed it can easily be placed in the trunk of a car or a hatchback. Keep in mind that just like a fresh steak on your counter, a field dressed animal will continue to bleed for many hours, so don’t place the animal directly into your vehicle without a tarp underneath or you will be cleaning a mess.

For the largest of our game animals such as elk and moose, you will likely have to “quarter” the animal, unless you have a pickup and a couple people around to help load it. Quartering an animal is simply the process of removing the front shoulders and the rear hips from the ribcage and backbone. This will change your massive harvest into five (or six if you split the rib cage) manageable pieces. If you remove the skin, placing the pieces into game bags (large cheese-cloth bags) will keep the meat clean and allow it to continue to cool. You will still want the tarp if you are going to place the pieces in your vehicle.

Keeping the meat cool is an important part of transport. If you are transporting the animal in your hatchback or in the bed of a truck on a hot day, consider using ice or ice packs to cool the meat. Now that you have done all the work to harvest this incredible animal and get it into your vehicle, the last thing you want is get it home and find out it has spoiled.

Before you transport your animal, ensure it is still correctly tagged. Until the carcass is delivered to the usual residence of the person who harvested it, or until delivery to a licenced meat processor, evidence of species and sex must remain with the animal and it must remain tagged. Please refer to the current Alberta Hunting Regulations for instructions. The guide can be found online at www.albertaregulations.ca, and is also available at most places where hunting licences are sold.

If transporting an animal for someone else, ensure you have filled out a bill of lading, available in the Alberta Hunting Regulations guide.

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Step Ten: Processing

Once you’ve harvested your protein, turning it into neatly packaged meat can seem a little overwhelming. There are two options: you can bring your game to a licenced provincial abattoir, or you can bring the game home and do it yourself.

At an abattoir, you will be asked what kind of cuts of meat you want from your harvest. You will be asked if you want more steaks or more roasts, and more stew meat or more ground meat. You may also be asked if you want to have sausage or jerky prepared from your meat.

Generally, a base fee per pound will be charged for cutting and wrapping, and extra costs apply for jerky, sausage and other specialty products.

Alternatively, you can bring your meat home and do your own cutting and wrapping for a relatively low cost. There are books available to help guide you on how to make the popular cuts from the major muscle groups, and there are plenty of free resources online as well.

You will likely want a variety of cuts including steaks, roasts, stewing meat and ground meat. Many people purchase an inexpensive meat grinder, and others simply make more stewing meat. Some people get together with family and friends after harvests and create a work party that functions like an assembly line, and everyone shares in the bounty.

However you choose to process your protein, you can rest assured you know it was wild, healthy and harvested humanely.

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