Rug therapy

A step-by-step primer on how to properly prepare your trophy black bear to make a prized bearskin rug

Bear expert Gord Nuttall shares 14 simple steps for field-skinning a big bruin

bGord Nuttall

So, you’ve successfully harvested a nice black bear. Congratulations! But now what? If you plan to keep a trophy rug along with the meat, the next steps you take are crucial. But don’t worry—if you’ve never skinned a black bear before, the process is much simpler than you might think.

Before you make the first cut, however, make sure you have the necessary tools on hand to get the job done properly. You’ll need a headlamp for any after-dark work, a sturdy hunting knife, a thin-bladed knife and, if possible, a cutting table. And because bear carcasses can be quite greasy and slippery, wear latex or surgical gloves to protect your hands and to help with cleaning up.

Keep in mind that black bears have thick fur but thin hides, so work slowly when skinning to avoid making unnecessary holes, which are costly and time-consuming to repair. You can do most of the work yourself in the field and leave the trickier skinning of the paws and head to your taxidermist. (Indeed, I suggest watching an expert do this first before attempting it yourself.) Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting the job done—and preserving the memory of your hunt.

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STEP #1

Manoeuvre the bear onto its back with its legs stretched outward from the trunk. To avoid a sore back from constantly bending over, it’s best to place the bear on a table for the skinning process.

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STEP #2

Standing behind the bear, use a sturdy hunting knife to pierce inside the anus and cut up the belly along the mid-line. Go past the front shoulders to the base of the throat, but be sure to stay well back of the head. This is the first of five initial cuts, made with the knife blade facing up, that are extremely important for keeping the resulting rug proportional and square.

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STEP #3

Grab a hind leg and pierce the skin at the back of the pad with your hunting knife.

4Gord NuttallSTEP #4

Cut toward the anus, following the line along the rear leg where the thicker outside fur meets the inside fur and the hair changes direction. Repeat steps 3 and 4 on the other hind leg.

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STEP #5

Secure a front shoulder and pierce the fur just behind the front pad with your hunting knife. Begin your cut at the corner of the pad that’s closest to the head. Cut down and along the leg in a straight line to the elbow. From there, cut right into the armpit, following the hairline where it changes thickness and direction. Finish by joining the cut to the initial cut down the middle of the trunk, then repeat the entire procedure on the other front shoulder. Your five initial cuts are now complete, and they should form a wide H-shape along the bear’s underside.

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STEP #6

On one side of the bear, skin and peel the fur from the belly with your hunting knife, working carefully to avoid puncturing the skin. Be particularly cautious around the belly, where the hide can be quite thin. Then switch to your thin-bladed knife and skin both the front and rear legs until the ankles are exposed.

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STEP #7

Switch back to your hunting knife and cut through the outer tendons on both sides of the rear ankle joint. Sheath the knife, then use both hands to twist the rear foot to break the joint. It should break fairly easily. If it doesn’t, double-check that you cut the tendons in the correct spot.

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STEP #8

On the same side of the bear, likewise cut the tendons on the front paw and twist it off. If you’re having trouble, you can saw through the bone, but that requires more effort and it’s slower.

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STEP #9

Now that both legs are free of fur on one side of the bear, skin the trunk to past the backbone. It helps to have someone roll the bear so you can skin well past the backbone.

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STEP #10

To skin around the tail, split the fur along the underside of the bear, as with the initial cut from anus to throat. Once split, simply skin and peel away the fur from the stubby tail.

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STEP #11

Repeat steps 6 to 9 to skin the front and back legs on the other side of the bear, then remove the remaining skin from the trunk.

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STEP #12

It’s important to skin the neck in a tube shape to avoid additional sewing by the taxidermist—and a pricier bill for you. Pull the fur over the head so it’s essentially inside out, and use the thin-bladed knife to peel and skin the fur all the way around the neck until you get to the final neck joint.

13Gord NuttallSTEP #13

The process for removing the head is similar to the way the paws were separated from the carcass. Use the hunting knife to cut the meat and flesh around the top neck joint until it’s exposed, then twist the head off by breaking the joint.

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STEP #14

Remove any moisture from the fur, paws and head as quickly as possible once everything has been separated from the carcass. You have two choices to help preserve the pelt to prevent fur slippage and bacteria growth before getting it to the taxidermist—salt it or freeze it, but not both. Only salt the fur side of the cape, never the flesh side. And remember, once the hide has been salted, you can’t freeze it. If you elect to freeze the fur instead, start by folding the hide in half, skin to skin, and placing the paws together. Then fold it in half again so it lies flat in the freezer with the head on top. That way, the hide will thaw evenly and quickly once it’s removed from the freezer. Otherwise, it could take days to thaw and the hair may slip. Finally, always store the hide in a breathable bag, never plastic.

Now the only thing you have to do is decide where to display your prized rug once it comes home from the taxidermist.

      
Beaumont, Alberta’s Gord Nuttall displays his bearskin rug in his living room.