By Mike Stroff
After a great hunt, the work begins when your buck hits the ground. Proper handling of your deer can go a long way towards ensuring the best venison possible.
The most important step in this process is having the right tools in hand to get the job done. A sharp knife and proper sharpening tools make all the difference in how smooth your field dressing experience goes.
Knife size is going to be based on personal preference. I prefer a 3- to 4-inch blade on my working/skinning knife and a good gut hook blade to start the process. A small bone saw is also a great tool to have. Long rubber gloves are a good idea – they should go to your elbows so when you are gutting the animal you are covered all the way.
When approaching your deer after your shot, ensure the animal is dead. Enter from an angle that allows for another shot, should one be required. At the final approach, it’s a good idea to walk up behind the deer and touch its eye with your gun barrel, an arrow or a stick to make sure it doesn’t blink. This will be your final sign that the animal has expired. If you’re hunting with a rifle, unload and lay your gun on the ground out of the way. Make sure the rifle is completely clear and leave your action open. If you’re bowhunting, be sure to have your arrows in your quiver so everything is put away and safe.
If tagging is required in your state, follow appropriate regulations to ensure the deer is legal. Depending on the lay of the land, drag your deer to a piece of ground with a slight incline if possible. Place the head on the high side and the tail downhill. Gravity can be a big help! Set a piece of blaze orange up in a tree, especially if you are on public ground. This will catch the eye of fellow hunters – and you may even get some help dragging the deer out if it’s your lucky day!
Once the deer is in position, I like to put the deer on its back and stand between its hind legs. When doing this, I use my legs to spread the deer’s hind legs, giving me access to the groin area. I make my first cut just below its anus and run the cut between its legs. Once I have a straight cut, I use my gut hook to cut from the groin to the rib cage. You want to make sure to keep this cut straight. It’s very important that you are cutting the hide and meat through the abdominal wall with the entrails being clearly visible without going too deep and cutting any of the entrails in this process. Using a gut hook blade instead of a regular straight edge blade for this cut helps to ensure you don’t cut the entrails causing any contamination in the body cavity.
Lay the deer on its side and now make a complete circular cut around the anus. You can pull it forward and tie it off to prevent any spillage in the chest cavity. This will allow you to be able to pull it out toward the inside of the cavity with the other entrails.
Roll the deer back to the same position you had it in when you made your first cut with the legs separated and the bottom of the deer facing straight up, and you can begin removing entrails starting with bladder and anus. Pinch it off and cut just above that pinch to remove without spillage. This should all come out together.
Next, start to work on the main entrails. This will remove the deer’s stomach, colon and intestines. Pull all of this matter off to the side of the animal. The remaining entrails will be in the chest cavity. If you have a larger blade or small saw, you can cut into the sternum and ribs to help in removing the heart, lungs and esophagus. (If you are mounting your deer, cut these organs out without cutting into the chest cavity and ribs.) If you are able to make this cut, you will be able to open the chest cavity up, making it easier to get the heart, lungs and esophagus out.
The diaphragm is the thin skin layer that separates the chest cavity from the intestines. Be extremely careful when working your blade inside the diaphragm and chest cavity, as you will have limited visibility. To open up the diaphragm in order to see into the chest cavity, cut it away from the rib cage all the way around. Next, reach into the chest cavity to cut all the organs loose. When you have all organs loose, the lungs and heart will come out together. This is easier to do if you’ve split the sternum but if mounting the animal, you should reach up into the cavity to remove the heart and lungs.
Once the organs are out, your final step is to remove the windpipe and the esophagus. Make your cut up high in the neck and move slowly and deliberately to make sure you do not cut yourself. Removing this is critical, especially if you are hanging your deer to age the meat.
Once this is done, prop the body cavity open with a cut stick, lift the deer by the head and drain the remaining blood. Check the cavity for any remaining entrails. Let the deer drip clean and dry out.
How you move and transport the deer after this can make a difference on how dirty the meat gets. Sleds are excellent, and dragging the deer can get the job done. A simple piece of canvas tied to the deer can make a great slide for the trip to the truck. A two-man carry with a pole will always leave your deer in great shape, and the meat will remain clean. You might even be able to drive an ATV or truck to the deer and load it. The goal here is keeping the meat as clean as possible.
Once you get the deer back to your skinning pole or wherever you intend to butcher it, skin or peel the hide off the carcass. When possible, I like to hang my deer and start by making a cut around both hind legs then a straight cut to the cut you have already made when gutting the deer. From there, it’s simple – you just skin the hide off, working around the hams and back legs. If the deer is still warm at this point, you can peel the hide down to the front shoulders. Then continue to skin the hide down to the base of the head. If you cut the head off at this point, you should have a clean carcass hanging and ready to be quartered or butchered.
If you have to both skin and quarter in the field, make a cut from the tail bone to the back of the head, running a straight line down the spine (basically, splitting the animal in half). Be careful to only cut through the hide and avoid cutting into the meat. Next, lay the deer on one side and skin all the hide off the side facing up toward you. Then cut the two quarters off hole, cut your back strap on that side out hole, your inner tender loin out hole and use a saw to cut that side of the ribs off. The last piece of meat to take off will be your neck roast on this side of the deer. Put all of this meat in high-quality game bags. Once one side is completely done, pull the skinned-off half of the hide flat on the ground and roll the deer onto this part of the hide, facing the non-skinned side of the animal up. Repeat the whole process on the second side, and you will have your deer all cut up and ready to transport.
Once you’ve cleaned a couple of deer, you’ll have this process perfected. Now, it is all fun and great eating!