How to field dress big game
From forest to freezer, everything you need to know about prepping your trophy
When you bring down an animal, whether with rifle, bow, muzzleloader or shotgun, you’ve accomplished only the first objective of your hunt. And as important as that is, what you do next is arguably even more critical when it comes to the difference between great table fare and a freezer full of steaks and roasts nobody will eat. We’ve all heard people say they don’t like wild meat because it tastes gamey. I would suggest that in most cases poor meat handling led to the strong and unpalatable flavour.
While deer, moose, elk and other big game have their own distinctive flavours, it doesn’t have to be strong or disagreeable. Over the years I’ve taken only two animals—an antelope and a moose—that tasted decidedly unpleasant. Both were taken early in my days as a hunter, so I suspect my inexperience contributed to the poor taste more than anything else.
Hunters have a legal obligation to properly salvage the meat from animals they’ve killed, but I believe the moral obligation is even more important. We owe it to ourselves, the animal, the hunting community and the public, as the rightful owners of our wildlife, to treat the meat with the care and attention it’s due. Same goes for the head and rack if you’re planning on keeping a wall hanger. Here’s how.
Tools of the trade
As with any task, cleaning a big-game animal is most easily accomplished when you have the right tools. That means an appropriate knife, a small sharpening stone or steel, a short length of cord, a pair of disposable rubber gloves and a small plastic bag for the heart and liver. If hunting elk or moose, add a portable folding saw and some stout rope for tying the animal off while dressing it. If I’m expecting warm weather, I take along some cheesecloth game bags to protect the carcass—whole or quartered—from flies and debris. Even old pillowcases will work.
As for the knife, there’s no single best option, but my preference is a three- to four-inch blade with a drop point and a rubber handle. The drop point helps prevent nicking the stomach and intestines when making the initial cuts to expose the innards. Few odours are more unpleasant than unleashed bowel contents. Plus it’s messy and can contaminate the meat. I prefer knife handles made of rubber or other soft materials, as they offer a much surer grip and better control in cold or wet conditions.
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to appreciate disposable rubber gloves. For starters, they help keep my hands and the cuffs of my hunting clothes clean. Secondly, in an era of uncertainty when it comes to CWD and other diseases, I figure it never hurts to be a little more careful. While there’s no absolute evidence to suggest that deer or other wildlife can pass CWD or other diseases on to humans through contact, there’s no absolute evidence that they can’t. To be fair, if I ever truly believed I was putting my family or myself at risk, I wouldn’t be out hunting. So really, gloves are just extra insurance. And what the heck, they’re cheap.
How to prep a trophy
After ensuring your quarry is truly dead (and more than one hunter I know has had a “dead” deer get up and run away, never to be found again), the first step should always be to tag it properly. Forgetting to tag an animal is the quick route to an unwanted conversation with your local conservation officer; save both of you the trouble and tag your animal before you do anything else. Some hunters keep their tags in their knife sheaths so they’ll never forget to promptly take care of that task. After the tagging comes the obligatory photos; only then are you ready to dress your animal.
Before you put knife blade to hide, though, you have one more important decision to make: do you want your trophy shoulder mounted by a taxidermist? If the answer is yes, you’ll need to take a slightly different tack when field dressing. For expert advice, I went to champion taxidermist Brian Dobson.
I’ve known Dobson for about 15 years, back to the time when he was doing his taxidermy work in his basement; today, he’s an internationally acclaimed artisan. A past winner of the World Taxidermy Championships, Dobson was the first outside taxidermist in 40 years to be invited to work with the prestigious Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In short, you can take his advice to the bank.
When removing the cape, Dobson says to start by making a circular incision all the way around the animal behind the front legs. Next, make a circular incision horizontally around each front leg, about two-thirds of the way up between the knee and shoulder. From each leg cut, make another incision up the back of the leg and along the natural seam on the chest (on whitetails, for example, that’s where the brown and white hairs meet) to join up with the first cut around the body. With only minor assistance from your knife on the connective tissue, you should now be able to peel the cape all the way up to the base of the skull.
Some hunters cape an animal by running an incision up along the centre of the nape of the neck to the base of the antlers, but Dobson advises against it, saying it creates just one more unnecessary sewing job for your taxidermist. (And I have a shoulder mount at home that, over the years, has dried, splitting wide open the back incision; nothing can be done to fix it, short of remounting the antlers on a new cape.)
Whenever possible, Dobson suggests removing the entire head and antlers by cutting through the neck at the base of the skull, taking as little neck tissue as possible. He advises leaving the job of taking the hide off the skull to your taxidermist. Too often, he says, well-meaning but unskilled hunters make mistakes—some of which cannot be easily repaired—when working around the eyes, ears or lips. Leaving the hide on the head also helps the taxidermist select the right-sized form to mount the trophy on.
Also take care not to damage your trophy during the trip home. If you have to drag it out of the bush by quad or other means, Dobson says to make sure the animal’s shoulders stay up off the ground. Why? He showed me a mount he was working on in his shop—bald spots from being dragged were clearly apparent on what would otherwise have been a beautiful whitetail trophy. Bald spots can also be left behind if the cape freezes to the metal box of your pickup. To avoid this, Dobson says to always lay down a sheet of plastic first.
And once you’re back home, get your trophy to your taxidermist as soon as possible, as you run a real risk of freezer burn—particularly around the ears—if it’s not frozen properly. Freezer burn can irreparably damage the cape, causing big problems for your taxidermist. And certainly don’t leave the cape and skull in your garage or shed all winter. The freeze-thaw cycle during even a few warm days can degrade the eventual quality of your trophy.
Now for the really important part: the meat.