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Skinning and Cleaning a Deer

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

If you have the good fortune to take a deer this fall, you will experience one of the greatest thrills in hunting. You will earn yourself a cache of tasty, low fat, high-protein venison that will provide many delicious meals for you and your family. If your deer is a buck, you might also want to preserve the head for mounting.

After handshakes have been exchanged and the photographs have been taken, it's time to get down to the gritty business of skinning and cleaning your deer. This is the least glamorous part of the hunt, but doing it right will protect the integrity of your meat and help ensure the best possible flavor. It will also ensure that your taxidermist can provide the best possible mount.

Immediately after killing your deer, use your knife to cut the fleshy tissue between the elbow and tendon on one of the hind legs, then detach the transportation tag portion of your deer hunting permit and attach it to the leg. This will allow you to legally remove the deer from the field and transport it to the nearest check station. "Cleaning" refers to removing the internal organs from the deer's body cavity. You should do this immediately upon killing a deer. Venting the body cavity and removing the organs and blood allows the carcass to cool quickly. This slows the decomposition process, which begins the moment a deer's respiratory and circulatory functions cease. A deer's body is amazingly well insulated and can retain heat for a long time. The sooner you clean a deer, the better the meat will taste.

Removing the viscera significantly reduces the weight of the carcass, making it easier to drag, heft or carry.

Your first step in field dressing, if you've killed a buck, is to remove its genitals. Cut them free to where they emerge from the pelvis. Cut a circle around the anus and partly free both connecting tubes from the pelvis.

Next, insert your knife point under the hide only and make one long, single incision up the belly. If you're going to mount the head, stop this incision at the bottom of the rib cage to preserve a sufficient amount of the cape for mounting. If you don't plan to mount the head, continue the incision all the way to the hollow, fleshy junction of the neck and chest cavity.

Do not plunge the knife through the skin. Otherwise, you'll likely pierce the intestine and spill its contents into body cavity, which could contaminate the meat.

Instead, apply only enough pressure, with short, repetitive strokes, to crease the skin, fat and abdominal muscle tissue. As the tissue separates, use your fingers to enlarge the opening. This exposes most of the organs of the lower abdomen. Sever the diaphragm to complete the opening.

At this point, if I don't plan to mount the deer, I use a camp axe and a small sledge hammer, which I carry in a small backpack, to separate the rib cage and pelvis. Wedge the lower edge of the axe into the sternum, then pound the back of the hatchet with the sledge hammer. The force of the blows will drive the edge of the hatchet through the ribs easily. Pull the ribs apart to enlarge the opening in the chest cavity, but be careful not to cut yourself on the sharp rib edges. You now have easy access to the lungs and heart.

You can use the same axe edge and sledge to break open the pelvis bone. Be extremely careful not to pierce the intestine or bladder because the contents of either will taint the meat and make an unpleasant mess. Wedge the hatchet into the opening you've created and rock it and twist it from side to side to open the pelvis, making it easy to remove the lower intestine and bladder.

If you don't plan to have the deer mounted, you can make an incision in the neck, just behind the jawbone, and open the neck all the way down to the opening in the chest cavity. Then, sever the windpipe as close to the jawbone as possible.At this point, if you're interested, inspect the entry wound and the exit wound, if one exists. Follow the path of the projectile you used to down the deer and notice any tissue damage, especially to the lungs and heart. If you used a rifle or shotgun, try to find the bullet or slug if it remains in the body. This sort of post-mortem examination is helpful in evaluating your marksmanship and the performance of your projectile. Notice how the projectile mushroomed and whether it is still intact. If the projectile disintegrated or deformed significantly, you might consider using a different bullet for future hunts.

Lower your hands into the chest cavity and remove the heart and lungs. Draping them over the outside of the carcass will keep them out of the way and make it easier to work. Next, sever the connective tissues that hold the stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, bladder and other organs to the diaphragm, and then pull the entire mass of organs back toward the pelvic opening. Continue severing connective tissue and rolling back the viscera until you reach the pelvis. Carefully sever the tissue around the anus until it's free. Then, guide it through pelvic opening until the entire viscera is free of the carcass.

With these organs now out of the carcass, guide the lower intestine through the pelvic opening you created and carefully separate the anal opening and sphincter muscle from the carcass.

You should be able to pull the rest of the intestine from the body without spilling any of the contents. Many hunters squeeze the bladder empty and squeeze the contents from the last five or six inches from the rectum. If you do this, be careful not to let any of the bladder contents come into contact with the meat.

Step 1 - Insert your knife point under the hide only and make one long, straight incision up the belly. The natural tautness of the hide will cause the skin and hair to pull away, giving you unobstructed access to the abominal muscle tissues.

Step 2 - Using short, shallow, slicing strokes, open the body cavity by cutting the skin, fat and abdominal muscle tissue. As the tissue separates, use your fingers to enlarge the abdominal opening until you can fit your hands into the body cavity.

Step 3 - If you wish to have your deer head mounted, stop the incision at the bottom of the rib cage. Otherwise, continue the opening all the way to the fleshy, hollow junction of the neck and chest.

Step 4 - Using a small axe and sledgehammer, open the chest cavity by separating the rib cage. This will allow easier removal of the heart and lungs.

Step 5 - Severing the windpipe will make it easier to remove the stomach and lungs.

Step 6 - Carefully sever the connective tissue holding the interior organs to the diaphragm, and pull the entire mass of organs back toward the pelvic opening.

Step 7 - Using a small axe and sledgehammer, open the pelvis to ease removing the organs. Lay the bulk of the organs outside the carcass. Guide the lower intestine through the pelvic opening, the sever the anus and sphincter muscle from the carcass.

If you plan to eat the liver, heart or kidneys, separate them now and place them in separate, sealable plastic bags. You can ensure the best flavor by putting them in a cold ice chest.

Everybody has their own ideas of how to dispose of the viscera. I usually put it in a cardboard box and take it home to bury in the garden. Others bury it in the field, and some just leave it in the field for scavengers. Avoid disposing of viscera or hides where they'll be seen, or in places where others will likely encounter them because even hunters find such sights (and smells) repugnant.

Next, I take two bags of ice from an ice chest and lodge them inside the carcass. Then, I close the carcass around the ice by tying it with rope or twine. This cools the carcass swiftly.

If you're going to process your deer yourself, you'll want to give it a good rinsing. Start by hanging the deer from a tree by the neck. Use a garden hose to rinse out all remaining blood, bone splinters, dirt and any other impurities. A few minutes with a garden hose will leave a deer remarkably clean.

Use a hacksaw to sever the deer's legs at the knees. Then, use your knife to make incisions on the front side of each leg to the abdomen.

Peel the hide away from the legs and use your knife to begin separating the hide from the carcass. Once you get a good opening, use one hand to continue peeling away the hide while your other hand continues to slice through the connective tissue between the hide and the carcass. Once you've removed a sufficient portion of the hide, gravity will help with the rest.

Once you remove the hide, you're ready to process the meat. If you're going to preserve the hide or mount the head, a number of resources, such as your local taxidermist, can advise you how to obtain the best results.

Cleaning gloves

Because cleaning a deer requires contact with blood, bone, internal soft muscle tissue and possibly fecal material, many hunters use gloves for this chore. I use elbow-length gloves colored hunter orange for extra visibility. You can buy them from many major retailers, as well as from major hunting retail catalogs. They will also help protect your hands from the small nicks and cuts that often result from contact with knifes and sharp bone surfaces.

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