Great tasting meat has a lot to do with the shot you take, how you handle your animal and how quickly that animal gets field dressed and cooled. That being said, shooting your animal and tossing it in the back of the truck without gutting first, just so you can parade through the streets to show it off, is not highly advised. Internal organs hold a lot of heat and that heat is your nemesis. By gutting your animal as quickly as possible you allow it to start cooling which minimizes the growth and spread of bacteria and risk of spoilage.
Field dressing methods vary. Some hunters like to hang their animals and gut them while suspended. A large percentage like to field dress their game on the ground, in the field immediately after shooting, before taking it home or to the butcher. While gutting can be a messy process, I’m a stickler for cleanliness! So, get the rubber/latex gloves out of your pack and get your knife or knives ready. If you’re careful and methodical you can keep the mess to a minimum. There is no reason for you to be covered in blood, head to toe. I carry two knives in my pack, a sturdy fixed blade called the Cabela’s Alaskan Guide Series Skinner by Buck Knives and a handy guthook called the Cabela’s Alaskan Guide Series Alpha Fixed Knife. A lot of people really like the knives with disposable blades so they can discard the blades as needed to keep them razor sharp at a moment’s notice. While they are nice, they aren’t my favorite. I like the sturdy build of my knives and their ability to keep an incredibly sharp edge. I also don’t want to have to worry about dull discarded blades while in the field and finding a place to keep them until I can dispose of them properly.
The Process: Let’s unpack this mess!
- Bottoms Up: With your animal on its back or side, focus your attention on the business end. Throw the politically correct talk out the window! Talking about this particular body part is taboo, so let’s just address it now. Call it a “vent”, “anus” or just call it like you see it, a “butthole”. Whatever terminology you use, insert your knife and make a cut all the way around the “sphincter”. Caution: You don’t want to puncture anything here, feces can taint your meat, so work carefully. The goal is to cut all the way through the hide and skin and free the anus, which when done will basically be like coring an apple. This cut should be a couple of inches deep. Once you make a complete pass around the outside, go back in, a little deeper this time to sever any remaining membranes and the last bit of colon.
- Get into position: Place your deer on its back with the hind legs apart. If you have a hunting buddy, have them hold the legs apart for you, it will make the process much easier. It’s ideal if you can find a slight slope. This allows you to elevate the head and keep the rear of the body slightly downward which will ultimately aid gravity in helping you clear the cavity once it’s open.
- Starting Point: Between the hind legs grab the skin and make a shallow 1 to 2-inch cut. This cut should be above the buck’s testicles or if you are working on a doe, just below the milk sac. Be mindful of state regulations and whether or not proof of sex is required. On a buck, if proof of sex is not required to remain intact, you can remove the sex organs.
- Open it up: Using the hole you made initially as a starting point, use your knife or guthook and make a cut up toward the chest. This is where I really like a sharp guthook, it essentially unzips the skin from pelvis to rib cage in one quick movement and the design of the gut hook also makes it difficult to puncture the internals on the way by. This cut is only meant to go through the skin, no more. If you don’t have a guthook, use your fingers as a guide and place your pointer finger and middle finger inside the skin with your knife between the two and work your way forward. Keep that knife blade up and shallow. A deep incision will more than likely puncture the stomach or other vitals. You’ll know immediately if you hit the internals, the smell is hard to dismiss, and it won’t just be the deer with its stomach contents spilling, you’ll be seeing green as well!
- Upper chest cavity: With a successful cut all the way up the center of the belly, the lower body cavity is now exposed. You could reach in and start removing the diaphragm and chest cavity organs and complete the gutting process from here. If the deer you are working on is bound to be a wall hanger, then this is the course of action you need to take. The exterior cuts need to stop here so that your taxidermist has plenty of cape to work with. However, you have another option. If won’t be doing a traditional shoulder mount but rather are planning to do a European mount or if you just want the meat, you can move a little further forward. By opening up the chest cavity you’ll have more room to work and get visual confirmation of what you’re doing. Standing over the deer, so you are directly above its chest, you want to continue your cut this time through the rib cage and as far forward as the neck. Many people use bone saws to cut through the rib cage, but a rigid knife, like the skinner I use is more than capable of opening up the chest. Short, quick, shallow and firm sawing motions will have you through the rib cage in no time.
- Get it out: With both the lower and upper cavities exposed, it’s time to remove the diaphragm - this is essentially the firewall between the stomach and the chest. Working around the outside, cut the diaphragm away from the walls. With a firm grip, then grab the windpipe above the lungs and heart, pull it tight and cut it. Save the heart and liver, if prepared right, they are delicious! You’re almost done! The work you did at the business end to begin with is about to pay off now. With the anus free and the windpipe cut, the internals should all be ready to come out. Stand up to get some leverage and once more, grab that windpipe and begin pulling down and outward with a good amount of force. As you pull, all of the “guts” should come out, including the anus since you freed it in the first step and you’ll be left with the gut pile. In the event that you have some resistance, keep your knife handy and cut away any connective tissues that hold things up along the way.
- Clean up: Your animal is field dressed, now you can load it up and take it home or to your meat processor. You can also rinse the inside of the body cavity to flush out any dirt or debris that may have stuck to it in the field. From there, I like to hang my deer to age for usually no less than 7 days before I start butchering and processing.
Field dressing is one of those things that is all about personal preference. You need to find a method that works well for you and stick with it. There are many variations of this process, but the end goal is the same - the entrails are removed, your animal is cooling and you’re one step closer to putting that meat in the freezer.
Hugs, Handshakes and Gut Piles