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By carefully placing your shot, you'll be saving time, work and preserving the choice cuts of the kill. Aside from keeping harvested meat clean from start to finish, it's also important to make sure the carcass stays cool. Quickly and thoroughly field dressing your game ensures a rapid loss of body heat — a crucial step in preserving meat quality. Be careful to always keep knife stroking moving away from your body. If done promptly, the care that's taken during the field-dressing process will ensure the product arriving on your family's table is both healthy and flavorful.
Check with your taxidermist before going into the field for instructions on the best way to cape your trophy. If you don't plan to mount your kill, see our field-dressing 101 section below.
Check with your taxidermist before going into the field for instruction on the best way to cape your trophy.
Slip on a pair of gloves, place the animal on its back, pinch up on the hide near the base of the breastbone and carefully make a cut to start your incision. If you're using a gut hook, insert the hook beneath the hide and pull down the midline of the animal toward the genitals. If you choose to use a blade without a gut hook, position yourself straddling the carcass facing the rear and cut along the midline toward the rectum, penetrating the hide and underlying membrane only. For this method, it's helpful if two fingers are inserted into the cavity with the knife blade held (edge up) between them.
Tip: The advantage to making your first incision near the breastbone, rather than the genital area, is a lessened chance of puncturing the stomach, intestines or bladder, all of which cause a horrible stench and significant damage to edible tissues. With deer, this method is most efficient because the knife is moving with the natural front-to-back growth of the animal's hair, thus preventing the meat from becoming covered with hair as you work.
Use your fingers and knife handle to crowd the entrails away from your incision to ensure the paunch isn't punctured. Remember, always keep the knife moving away from — never toward — your body. Once you've reached the crotch, use the pelvic bones as a guide to cut a wide, clean circle around the bung so it will pull free with the entrails. It's recommended that you pinch the bung in order to clean out whatever waste you're able as it will contaminate and dehydrate the meat if left sitting in the body cavity. Reproductive organs and udders present on femails may also be removed at this time.
Tip: When separating innards from the membranes that secure them to the spine, take care not to saw, stab or slice in hurried motions as this might result in damage to the tenderloins — tender, cylindrical pieces of meat that rest just above the hip bones on either side of the spine beneath the short ribs (within the rib cage).
Roll the carcass on to its side and empty the body cavity. Next, cut through the diaphragm and loosen the heart, lungs and gullet. Reach your hand into the cavity above the diaphragm, feel for a flexible hose (this is the gullet) and carefully grab it as close to the neck as possible. Pull down on this hose and cut it off at the top of the lungs. By removing a large portion of the gullet you've ensured the carcass will drain more effectively. Additional cuts to membranes or connective tissues may need to be made in order to completely free the insides from the cavity. Don't get discouraged, this takes time.
Tip: A good way to be sure the cavity is emptied of any remaining viscera, blood, fluid, grass or dirt is by gently blotting the inside with a soft cloth or paper towel. Removing the scent glands from inside the hind legs of a male deer is not necessary, so leave them. Despite what you might have been told, they do not have an effect on the taste or edibility of the meat.
Because kills are often made in remote, hard-to-access locations, the process of transporting the animal from the field to your home is often the most daunting of the day. After field dressing and thoroughly cleaning the empty cavity, choose the hauling method that's most convenient for your situation.
Dragging — This good old-fashioned method can be done several ways. If you're on your own in the field, grab the antlers or legs with your hands or wrap a rope around the base of the antlers, neck or legs and heave-ho. If you're lucky enough to be hunting with a partner, each person may grab a leg, antler or use a rope to do the same and pull with all you've got.
Game Cart — These heavy-duty units are built to withstand hundreds of pounds and are often equipped with punctureproof, go-anywhere tires that can take on the most extreme terrain. Quarry can be placed inside a game bag or loosely wrapped in a tarp for added protection from dirt and moisture.
Vehicles — Today, many hunters prefer to keep vehicles close by in order to minimize the distance they must travel dragging the animal themselves. Many UTVs are also equipped with racks suited for loading and transporting. If transporting via truck bed, make sure the areas is free of dirt and debris to ensure the carcass doesn't become contaminated during the trip.
The number-one cause of meat spoilage is an animal's own body heat. When any quarry is killed, the internal body temperature rises as muscles continue to generate heat after death and the body's cooling mechanism, the circulatory system, has been shut down. Under the worst conditions (the environment is warm and wet), remove the hide quickly and hang the body in a cooler, woodshed or barn. Pack the empty cavity with water-filled, frozen milk jugs or bags of ice and wrap it loosely in a tarp until you're able to fully process the meat. Remember, life starts at 40°. The cooler and dryer you're able to keep the hanging or storing environment, the more discouraged bacteria growth will become and the more satisfied you'll be with the outcome of the processed product.
Walk-in Game and Meat Locker — Ensuring a kill stays as clean and cool as possibly is your number-one priority from the moment you pull the trigger. As a family of die-hard hunters, we understand how difficult it can be to find a cool, enclosed space to hang your big game so it has time to age prior to processing. Quickly chill or perfectly age both wild and domestic game meats in the convenience of your own backyard using the same method as professional butchers and processors. With a constant temperature of 35°F, an overhead rail system and sturdy game hooks, these walk-in coolers provide the ideal controlled environment for storing a wide variety of meats for any length of time — allowing you to get just the right amout of tenderness, flavor and yield to please both family and friends.
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The temperature and condition of your environment dictate whether or not you should skin the carcass after field dressing. If the animal was killed in temperatures cooler than 40°, leaving the hide on is fine. Plus, it serves as a sterile game bag to keep your meat clean during transport. Leaving the hide on the carcass also prevents overdrying, discoloration and dirtying of the meat. However, where temperatures meet or exceed 40°, removing the hide is necessary to continue the cooling process as well as maintaining the quality of the tissue.
Using a clean knife, cut the hide over the rear of each flank, down the back of the legs toward the rectum. Place one leg in the crook of your arm, breaking it and removing it just below the knee. Continue this process on the remaining three legs. Use your knife to make an opening between the hocks and tendons, being careful not to sever them as this is the opening that will be used for the insertion of your gambrel to hang your kill.
Open the skin around the anus and begin to loosen it along the midline of the carcass by pulling the hide taut while sliding your knife in smooth downward strokes. Once the hide has been loosened, use your knife as little as possible to ensure both the meat and hid remain intact and aren't run through or punctured in any way. Begin using your fist to free the hide from the haunches, loin, back and sides until you reach the neck. If some flesh or muscle pulls off along with the hide, carefully trim it off with your knife or push it back into the carcass.
Split the underside of the neck and remove the head at the atlas joint, separating it from the first vertabra of the neck and spinal column by working the tip of your knife into the joint and twisting until you're able to fully sever the connection.
Hanging the carcass is the best way to drain the animal of blood and also the most efficient way to skin the carcass following field dressing. Remember, if hung by the neck, any fluid that remains inside the body wil settle in the prime cuts and result in a 2-3% fluid loading in the hind (or ham). It's the area best for creating roasts. However, it's also the area that tends to spoil the fastest if not cared for properly. Blood sours very quickly. Any meat still containing or not throroughly drained of blood will absorb that rancidness and will have an unpleasant taste regardless of how it's prepared after processing. Therefore, harvested game should always be hung from the hind legs with the head pointed down to ensure the body is emptied of all fluids. WIthout a meat hammer or other artificial tenderizing agent, the only natural way to break down the developed muscle structure of wild game is to let the meat age at temperatures that encourage an enzymatic breakdown of muscle fibers and connective tissues into shorter fragments.
Meat can be aged by allowing the carcass to hang whole or by breaking it down into muscle groups. You should expect the total shrinkage of your kill to be between 2-8% during this process due to the dehydration of large amounts of blood from capillary vessels and water from within the muscle. Therefore, the larger piece of meat you use, the greater your yield will be. In warmer climates, the enzymes responsible for tenderizing meat work much faster than they do in cooler ones. If you decide to hang your kill for aging purposes, it's recommended you maintain a temperature below 40°F by hanging the carcass in a cool, enclosed building or keeping it on ice. Also, keep in mind that different game animals have varying suggested aging periods.
Tip: Use cool, clean water to rinse any remaining hair, dirt, blood or other materials from the skinned carcass. Your game should remain stored in refrigerated conditions (an environment that's below 40°F) until you're ready for it to be boned out and fully processed.
In recent years, concern over CWD in large game animals such as whitetail deer, elk, mule deer and moose has continued to grow. Caused by abnormal proteins found in the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils, pancreas and spleen, this disease causes small holes to form in the brains of sick animals. CWD symptoms include: weight loss, tremors, lack of coordination, excessive salivation, abnormal head posture, drooping ears, excessive thirst and urination. Thus far, there's no evidence of CWD being transmittable to humans in any way, nor have abnormal prions responsible for the disease ever been found in the edible muscle tissue of game animals or livestock. It's recommended, however, that hunters take additional precautions when field dressing and butchering game meats of any kind.
Hunters should remain vigilant and aware in the field in order to identify animals displaying CWD symptoms and immediately report any suspected cases to wildlife officials. Many states have rules and regulations regarding CWD and it's important for hunters to know the guidelines for any state in which they hunt, as well as any others they may pass through during an interstate hunting trip.
A current map of reported CWD cases can be found on the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance website.