Dressing in the Field
and at the Camp by
You’ve gotten your deer, now its time to turn this large package into a
edible and storable package that will temp the taste buds. Critical to
the quality of any venison is the way it is handled both in the field
and in the camp. Prompt and proper field dressing is required to insure
a fine tasting roast or tender ,tasty bacon wrapped loin. As soon as
possible your freshly harvested deer needs to be gutted and cleaned to
cool down the meat, whether your in the cool backwoods of the NY
Adirondacks or sunny Texas, time is of the essence. I will go through
two procedures both in the field and from a meat pole in camp of how I
take care of the quality of my venison.
The tools required :
First and foremost a good sharp knife is an absolute must. Hacking
away with a dull knife is a sure way to contaminate meat with hair. I
like a good drop point knife with a short 3-4 inch blade. I used a fixed
handled knife as it has no crevices and cracks to hide
hair/blood/contaminants. Before I even begin to touch my deer I will run
a stone across the blade to knock off any oxidization and freshen the
edge. While there are a number of qualified skinning/gutting knives and
styles out there to skin and gut your deer , I definitely find for me
that bigger is not better and I avoid large classic style hunting
One out of the ordinary skinning/gutting tool that deserves mention is
the Wyoming knife. With a short over all length and aggressive gut hook
it is a top notch tool for the job in competent hands.
String or Twine
In the early stages of the gutting process you will need to secure the
anal tract and urethra to avoid spilling of urine and fecal matter. Thin
rope that will take and hold a good knot works best and 20-30 " will do
Unfortunately, these days the hunter has to deal with the possible
threat of CWD and other possible health risks associated with deer and
disease. While I personally don’t wear gloves here in SC it may be well
advised in other states where CWD is present to protect yourself with
Clean towel/ Paper towels
While not an absolute having something handy to clean up yourself and
the cavity will only improve your venison and make the cleaning neater.
Ziploc bags ( 3)
These will be used to store the liver/heart and tarsal glands. Each part
should be individually packed in the bags. Please read handling
instructions for the tarsal gland utmost care is needed to avoid
contamination of your meat when handling this strong gland.
1) position the deer on its back with the head uphill if possible.
Gravity is a useful tool in field dressing.
2) Your first cut needs to be to circle the anus freeing the anal tract
not only from the hide but the membranes that hold it in place to the
pelvic bone. This is where a small 3-4 inch blade shows its usefulness.
3) once the anal tract is free you can pull it out of the deer and tie
it closed to insure the fecal matter will not spill out and contaminate
4) in the case of a doe the urethra can be circled along with the anus
at this same time and tied.
1) In the case of a buck the genitals need to be dealt with. Lay the
knife horizontally to the belly and work the knife under the genitalia
from front to back. Be careful not to rupture the urethra ( small tube
2) once free to the back of the pelvis this should also be tied tightly
to prevent urine spillage.
3) cut the genitalia off above the knot.
4) In the case of a doe split your cut around the milk sacks and rejoin
behind them. Leave the sack in place until you remove the gut contents,
with slight trimming it will come out with the entrails.
1) Feeling for the sternum ( breastbone) find the point at which the
sternum ends and the gut cavity begins. This is the only cut your going
to make with the knife edge facing the deer until we have opened the
cavity. Cutting on the sternum open the hide 2-4 inches front to back
being careful not to cut into the area behind the sternum.
2)place your index finger and middle finger in the cut and separate the
hide from the carcass to allow enough room for you to insert both
fingers and the knife edge up facing the hindquarters of the deer.
3)using your fingers to protect the contents of the gut cavity from
knife puncture ( one finger on either side of the upward pointing blade)
, slide the knife through the hide only down the middle of the stomach
to the pelvis area. This cut should reveal a greenish gray colored sack
( gut sack) do not puncture this sack!
4) continue the cut across the pelvic bone to the anus cut being careful
not to cut into the inner thighs of the deer. These are prime hams and
its worth the time to take extra care not to slice into them.
5)At this point by shifting the deer horizontally to the hill (cut side
facing downhill) the stomach bag will come out of the cavity along with
the intestines. You should be able to trim the intestines membranes out
and remove the anal tract and urethra all at once. Some membrane cutting
is going to be needed here to free the urethra. Splitting the pelvis
front to back with a small hatchet or bone saw will aid immensely.
However, with care you can trim it out without splitting the pelvis. In
cases where the deer will be dragged a long ways and possibly
contaminated with dirt and debris, I prefer not to split the pelvis.
6) As the stomach bag and intestines are removed the bladder will be
revealed just inside the pelvis along the backbone. Carefully slice away
any membrane that may be holding it in place and remove it without
puncturing. I carry extra empty film cans to collect the urine from the
bladder. This should only be done after your done with the rest of the
cleaning and your hands will not be on the meat again.
7) Using your knife trim out any excess fat and membrane in the gut and
1) turning your self around to face the deer’s head will show the next
step. At this juncture a decision is needed . If you intend on caping
this deer for taxidermy purposes skip this step you will not want to
split the hide ahead of the rear edges of the shoulders..
2)with the blade facing upwards slide your knife to one side or the
other of the sternum splitting the hide. You should now be able to
easily cut through the cartilage and split the rib cage open. A small
meat saw is very useful for this but not needed if your knife is sharp.
3) make the cut all the way through the last rib to the base of the
4) a note on this step. This is the best way to allow for maximum
cooling of your deer carcass. While not absolutely needed , I personally
recommend splitting the entire ribcage.
1) Your remaining cuts will all be inside of the cavity. Take
caution here as broken rib fragments, broadheads ,new and old may be
present. One of the worst cuts I’ve ever seen a man get was on a
partially healed over broadhead hidden in a chest cavity.
2)laying your knife against the inside of the ribcage circle the inside
cutting the diaphragm ( thin membrane that separates the gut and chest
3) Reaching inside and towards the neck feel for the windpipe and cut it
as far forward as possible.
4) take hold of the loose end of the windpipe and carefully slide your
knife under it against the backbone. By pulling and cutting membrane as
you go you will free the remaining contents.
5 )If you wish to save the heart and liver now is the time to do it
before it spills out onto the forest floor. Pat clean with your towel
and place in separate ziplock bags taking care not to contaminate them
any more than absolutely needed.
6) Remove the remaining lungs ect. From the cavity and tip the deer
downward to pour off any blood that has gathered in the cavity.
First thing I suggest you do is move your deer away from the gut pile to
location you don’t want to be stepping and working the body contents. At
this point try and drain as much of the remaining blood as you can from
the cavity again. After you’ve done this use the towel to pat and absorb
up as much fluid as you can. Old woods lore suggests propping the rib
cage open with a stick to promote cooling. While this certainly is a
good idea, for the sake of keeping the cavity free of debris I wouldn’t
suggest propping it open until you’ve gotten your deer out of the woods.
A few points of interest here, I haven’t mentioned the tarsal glands at
all at this point. These glands located at the joint inside the back of
each leg are super deer lures for the future. However your knife has no
business around them until you’ve finished with the deer and have it
somewhere you can wash the knife between future steps. They are
definitely worth harvesting later and should be stored in a ziplock bag
and frozen until you want to use them. They are the best deer scent I’ve
ever used, forget what you buy at the store this is the real deal!
At this point your deer in most fall climates will be good to go for
several hours if not days by simply hanging and letting air circulate
around the carcass. If you wish to prop open the chest cavity now is the
time to do it.. Temps below 50 degrees are a must for hanging and aging
meat safely. Hide on or hide off hanging , it’s your choice both methods
are acceptable by hunters and butchers. I personally skin my deer as our
hot southern climate will keep a hide on carcass to warm for proper
cooling, and our deer are hung in indoor coolers where insects cannot
invade the carcass.
In real terms temps over 70 degrees give you about an hour window to
recover and gut your deer before spoiling will begin. Time is critical ,
get that heat out of that deer ASAP! If your a southern hunter or
seasonal temps are warm in your area , be prepared, time is of the
essence for good meat quality.
You’re done get to dragging!
While the deer’s anatomy is the same the methods somewhat vary when
gutting a deer in a hanging position. This is our preferred method of
gutting in my area of the south, as rare is the hunt where we cant
transport the entire carcass to a skinning pole within 20 minutes .In
this case we bring the deer out whole and do the entire chore at the
pole. Again temps and spoilage factors dictate which method you use, if
you cant make it on time field dress the deer on the spot.
1) remove the tarsal glands and store in a ziplock. Clean knife
thoroughly before continuing.
2) cut the skin between the tendon and the leg bone above the first
joint in the leg.
3) using a leg spreader ( gambrel) hoist deer so its head is clear of
the ground. In the case of large deer it may be needed to make the anal
cut and genitalia cuts prior to hoisting.
4) cut the skin from sternum to the anal cut as in the field dressing
method. By placing a large bucket or drum under the deer you can begin
to drop the guts right into the bucket with little mess.
5)follow bladder and intestine removal as in the field dressing
6) cut diaphragm membrane
7) split the ribcage allowing the vitals to spill into the bucket. You
will have to work your knife blade along the back bone to free membranes
holding the vitals in the cavity.
9) Rinse with clean water
10) pat cavity dry with towel.
In this method gravity plays a major hand in helping the job go on.
Splitting the pelvis is not needed at all in this case and can be
While it isn’t usually recommended to rinse a carcass , as water builds
a bacteria friendly environment, in controlled situations where towels
and coolers are present the water can and will assist in cooling and
cleaning the cavity of any accidental contamination’s. In the South this
is the preferred method used by hunters and butchers.
All in all this is not a complicated procedure and a man unknowing with
a sharp knife can get the job done. Taking time to minimize and
eliminate possible contamination’s ( urine fecal matter, bile, blood,
tarsal glands, dirt, leaves, hair) will make for better table fare every
time. While the job seems complicated it is not and in truth I had a
hard time actually narrowing down the steps I go through to clean a
deer. I clean 50 to 70 deer a year and its become a task like tying my
shoes, its done now without much thought .
My advice to the first timer is get in there ,clean your deer best you
can, and enjoy the fruits of the hunter prey relationship. This cleaning
process is a major part of the bond a hunter has with his game and
shouldn’t be shunned or pawned off on the hunting buddies. I gain great
satisfaction from taking my game from the hoof , out of the field , to
the cooler, and eventually to my families plate. Its my hope this will
help you do the same!
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