Many years ago I happened to see the late Euell Gibbons on The Tonight Show. He remarked, “Modern man is estranged from nature.” While I don’t entirely agree, I understand his point. Our culture is becoming more urban. “Making meat”—and, by extension, “making skins”—is completely mysterious to many. Even the simple task of honing a knife-edge has become a lost art. Most of our grandfathers carried a razor-sharp pocketknife; today, the majority of us may as well be carrying a butter knife.
Whether you’re a novice looking for a place to start, or an advanced hunter looking to improve your harvest-care skills, following these instructions will produce the best results for both wall and table.
Let’s start with field dressing. Field dressing instructions abound, so I will cover what I believe are the critical areas.
One major mistake I’ve seen is not splitting the pelvic bone. Yes, the lower intestine and fecal material can be removed without opening the pelvic region. However, it is imperative that the major muscles (i.e. hams, shoulders) be allowed to rapidly cool. This can only be accomplished if the legs are able to splay open while transporting the animal. It is best if an animal not lie in a vehicle on its side with legs closed. Instead, the deer should lie on its back with legs open. This allows for better cooling and surface drying of fluids and deprives bacteria the two primary conditions they need to thrive: warmth and moisture.
Often a deer is brought to me to cape. Upon opening the legs to attach the skinning gambrel, my nose reminds me why the pelvic bone should be split and the legs kept open.
We live in a fastidious society, and are especially careful with food handling practices. But hosing (or washing) the inside of a deer really should be avoided. By definition a body cavity is just that—a cavity—space and air. So what is being washed? There are two very small muscles (commonly referred to as the “catfish”), but other than that there is nothing edible inside the cavity. If stomach or intestine material has accidently spilled into the cavity, simply take some damp rags and wipe it clean.
Introducing water into a warm carcass, especially with the skin still in place, will invite bacteria to throw a party. I would encourage anyone who doubts me to hang around my studio during deer season. You only need to bring one thing—your nose. A hosed-out deer will announce its presence from several feet away.
It has been argued that professional packing houses wash beef carcasses, so why should hunters not wash deer? I once visited such an establishment. First, immediately after being dispatched, the animal is hung on a rail. The body is immediately skinned, hosed off, and while still hanging from the rail, is promptly moved into cold storage. This process is simply not available to the average hunter.
All that is necessary is a split pelvic bone, legs open and allowing air circulation to dry out any remaining fluids.
The third aspect of good care is aging. I wholeheartedly support hanging a deer for at least a week, assuming the air temperature is reasonably cool. How cool depends on the average hourly temperature within a 24-hour period. For example, I have hung deer when the temperature during the afternoon reached 65 degrees. However, during the night, the temperature declined to the upper 30s. The previously mentioned 65 degrees occurred at 2:30 p.m. and lasted only an hour or so before declining. The internal temperature of the deer never rose above 40 degrees.
Aging should not be done until after the cape and head are removed for mounting.
For a modern shoulder mount it is important to stop the ventral incision no higher than the thoracic cavity (see Fig A). Most of the clients I talk to are concerned that this makes it difficult to remove the heart and lungs. However, the removal of the heart and lungs is completely unnecessary. The highest populations of bacteria and cause for spoilage lie below the diaphragm. It is only necessary to remove the stomach, intestines, etc. Later, after the animal is caped, the chest cavity may be opened and the heart, lungs and esophagus removed.
First, the trachea and esophagus need to be removed before hanging. This can only be done by first removing the skin (cape). Second, the aging process causes breakdown of the tissues, which tenderizes the meat. The unintended consequence could be the deterioration of the skin which would result in hair slippage. Take the deer to a taxidermist first. After caping, the carcass can be hung. I have used bags made out of old cotton bed sheets. The animal is completely enclosed in the bag during the aging process. This has helped considerably when the weather has turned warmer and a few insects temporarily appeared.
Clients often ask me whether it is OK to take their deer to a meat processor and have the caping done there. I strongly recommend that the deer be brought to the taxidermist first. I am sure that most processors do their best to cape a deer for mounting; however, their expertise is likely not taxidermy.
For those hunters who prefer to do it themselves or who are interested in further honing their skills, the basics of caping are quite simple—really!
People often believe that skinning the entire deer is the answer: “I brought you the whole skin, so I know there is enough to work with.” Nothing could be further from the truth and is the most common caping error that I encounter. If the skin is cut incorrectly, it doesn’t matter how much of it is there. Additionally, because we use the term “shoulder mount,” the assumption is that shoulder skin is the most important. In my 30 years of mounting deer, I have never been short-changed on shoulder skin—never. If the skin is cut short, it is invariably from the front of the deer, i.e. the legs, armpits and brisket. However, on a mounted deer, you’ll notice that the beginning of the legs is part of the mount. Logically, if part of the legs is needed, then any skin next to the legs is also needed (armpit and brisket). From a side view, it is obvious that more skin is needed from the front of the animal than from the back and shoulders. I cannot emphasize this enough.
Clients tell me they are afraid to cut too close to the skin for fear of cutting a hole. Actually, a small hole is preferable to excessive tissue. Holes can be sewn; a spoiled skin is gone forever.
When skinning toward the head, go as far as possible, leaving as little of the neck as can be managed. The skin will start getting tight as you approach the head, so you will probably have to leave a few inches of neck intact inside the skin.
I am often asked if the hunter should apply salt to the skin. Salt is a necessary part of the process; however, only a professional taxidermist should salt the skin. Salt is a desiccant and will immediately start drying and hardening any meat that is left on the skin. In a very short period of time, the scraps of meat will become “jerky” and, therefore, almost impossible to remove without cutting holes in the skin. So let the taxidermist do the work of cleaning and salting the skin.
It is always best to bring the head to the taxidermist while very fresh. However, if necessary, the head can be frozen for a period of time. Some delicate areas, such as the eyelids, tips of the ears, and nose pad, which can and will dry out from freezer burn. Therefore, it is best to keep the head frozen as short a time as possible—just a few weeks, at most.
A mounted deer will grace a hunter’s wall for a lifetime. Therefore, do not hesitate to drive some distance to seek out a high-quality taxidermist. In addition, be prepared to spend more for quality work. Over the years, I have remounted literally hundreds of deer. Yes, the client paid twice—the first time for an inferior mount and then a second time for a remount. Moreover, be prepared to wait. Most hunting seasons are concentrated during October and November. During that 60-day period a professional taxidermist will take in a year’s worth of work. Unfortunately there is no magic machine that mass produces the mounts. Each piece must be done one at a time by hand.
It doesn’t matter whether a deer is harvested strictly for table fare or for the added bonus of majestic antlers—it is a trophy either way. Developing the skills to properly take care of meat or skins will add greatly to your outdoor experience.
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