How to Field Dress & Butcher a Deer

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One of the most important skills a deer hunter must learn is how to field dress a deer once he has taken it. Field dressing must be done immediately to keep the meat from spoiling. A second important skill is the ability to butcher your own deer rather than spending a large sum of money to have a meat processor do it for you. Both skills can be mastered with some practice.

Things You'll Need

  • Hunting knife with 4-to-6-inch blade
  • Game saw
  • Rope
  • Mesh game bag
  • Butcher knife
  • Butcher paper
  • Freezer tape

Field Dressing

  • As soon as you reach the dead deer, turn it over on its back, all four legs in the air. Spread the back legs and start a cut just below the tail. Stick just the knife tip under the hide; do not plunge the knife in. You want to slit only the hide, not the intestines. With the knife blade up and cutting toward the deer's head, slit the hide all the way to the deer's rib cage. You will see a thin membrane over the intestines; gently slit this membrane to expose the intestines.

  • Roll the deer over on its side. Reach your hand in and roll the intestines out onto the ground. The bladder will be exposed as you do this. Be sure that it does not break as the urine will taint the meat. Let the bladder roll out with the ball of intestines. The stomach or paunch will still be attached up inside the chest cavity. Be careful not to puncture it. A thin membrane called the diaphragm creates a barrier between the vital organs and the intestines. Reach your knife up into the cavity and cut the diaphragm loose all the way around. With your free hand, grasp the food canal leading to the stomach. Reach as far forward as you can with the knife and cut the food canal off. Go to the rear and cut the colon loose at the pelvis. The remainder of the colon can't be removed until the pelvic area is cut open. The stomach and intestines will now be free and can be pushed away from your work site.

  • Roll the deer on its back again. Reach up into the chest cavity and pull out the heart, liver and lungs. Discard these unless you want to save the heart and liver. In you do, set them off to the side.

  • Looking down in the intestine-free cavity. You will see the pelvic arch of the pelvic bone below the tail joining the two back legs together. Using the game saw, cut straight down and completely through the arch. This will spread out the back legs, exposing,the colon. Reach down between them and take hold of the remaining colon and any feces it contains. Pull it up, cut it off at the anus, and discard.

  • Roll the deer unto its stomach with its back up and legs spread in all four directions. This will allow the remaining blood to run out. Your deer is now ready to transport home. Leave the entrails as they lay as this creates a feast for the birds and other animals. They will have it cleaned up in short order.

  • Once home, hang the deer in a sheltered place such as a garage or shed. To hang the deer by its rear legs, cut a slit through the hide between the large tendon and the leg bone of each rear leg. Run a piece of rope through one of the cuts, lift the deer, head down, and tie the rope to a rafter. Spread the hind legs out and tie the opposite leg in the same way.

  • Using the game saw, cut all the way down the rib cage where the ribs come together at the lower chest. Cut down into the throat and remove the windpipe. Force a piece of wood or lumber between the split ribs to fully open the cavity. Allow the deer to hang for 24 hours in this manner to cool it. Even if the weather is warm, the deer will cool safely as long as it is not exposed to direct heat or sunlight.

Butchering

  • After 24 hours, the carcass is cooled and can be easily skinned. With your hunting knife, make a cut through the hide and down the inside of each hind leg. Cut the hide completely around the hocks. Lift the hide and cut between it and the meat, freeing the hide as you go. Skin around each hind leg until you reach the back. Cut off the tail and pull the hide down the carcass like peeling off a sock. You will have to pull hard, but the hide will peel down. If it sticks in a spot, cut it loose as with the legs. Repeat the skinning around the front legs by again slitting the hide on the inside of the legs. Cut the front legs off at the knees and continue skinning and pulling the hide down to the head. Cut the head and hide off. Cover the carcass with a mesh deer bag and allow it to hang for another 48 hours to "season" and cool the meat.

  • You are now ready to butcher the deer. This quartering of the deer is best done with your hunting knife. Remove the mesh cover and start at the front legs. Lift the leg and cut it completely off the carcass by cutting through the tissue holding the shoulder blade to the carcass freeing the full shoulder. Repeat with the opposite shoulder.

  • On the back, cut two large strips of meat off along the spine. Cut down the side of vertebrae to the rib bones along the length of the spine. Cut along the rib bones to the vertebrae, freeing the strip of meat. Repeat on the other side of the vertebrae.

  • Untie one hind leg and cut off the lower leg at the hock joint. Cut the hind quarter free of the carcass by cutting around the muscle and through the hip socket, disconnecting the two parts and freeing the hind quarter. Repeat for the opposite hind quarter.

  • Bring the quarters to a table. Using the butcher's knife, cut the hind quarters into steaks starting at the top of the muscle. Continue cutting steaks until you reach the small end. Cut the two back strap strips into small round steaks. The front quarters can be cut into roasts. All remaining meat can be made into jerky or ground for hamburger or sausage. Wash the meat and wrap meal size portions in the butcher paper and seal with freezer tape. Put packages in the freezer.

Tips & Warnings

  • Keep your knife sharp. A sharp knife cuts quickly and cleanly. A dull knife will force you to push harder and can result in a bad cut.
  • Getting the deer on a slight hill with the head uphill will make field dressing easier because gravity will work for you.
  • Do not wash the deer or rinse it with water as this will lead to spoilage. The meat should be washed only prior to the final packaging.
  • When using any sharp tool, such as a knife or saw, always work with the blade pointed away from you. Cutting toward yourself can result in accidental injury.

References

  • Hunting North America's Big Game, Bob Hagel, 1986
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