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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.

How to Prep the Meat

There are two main rules for ensuring that the wild meat you put on the table is as safe and as palatable as it can be: keep it cool and keep it clean. Always. Adhere to those two rules and you’ll seldom go wrong. Ignore them, and you’re begging for poor table fare, or worse.

The faster you remove the internal organs the earlier the critical cooling process can begin, so field dress your animal as soon as practical. (With deer, some hunters also remove the scent glands on the lower rear legs, but I’ve never found it necessary.) Before beginning the dressing process, though, remember the importance of keeping dirt, leaves and other debris from entering the body cavity.

To start, roll the animal on its back, with its head and shoulders elevated somewhat above its hind end. Make an incision along the centreline of the belly from the breastbone to the base of the tail, working around the penis. Cut through the skin on the first pass, the muscle tissue on the second. Do these with your blade facing up, taking the time to stay clear of the rumen and intestines. If you’re having the head and antlers mounted, cape the animal first before extending this cut all the way up through the sternum to the base of the neck. On deer-sized game or smaller, you can cut through the sternum with a stout knife. For moose or elk, you may need a small bone saw.

Now cut around the anus, reaching as far into the animal as your knife will allow. I then use a short piece of twine to tie off the anus from the outside to help stop pellets from spilling into the body cavity. This is a fairly easy procedure on deer and smaller game; with moose and elk, some hunters choose to saw through the pelvis to allow better access. Just be careful not to puncture the bladder and spill urine into the body cavity when you work around the vent.

Next, cut the diaphragm away from the rib cage on all sides, staying as close to the ribs as possible. The diaphragm is the thin layer of muscle that separates the chest area from the abdomen. You’ll have to push the rumen out of the way to be able to cut through the diaphragm along the backbone. Then, reach forward into the chest cavity and cut through the windpipe and esophagus, making every effort to cut them as close to the base of the throat as possible.

You should now be able to extract all of the innards in one fell swoop. Start by grasping the windpipe and esophagus, pulling toward the rear of the animal, and placing everything that comes out alongside the carcass as you go. You may have to cut a little connective tissue along the spine as you do this, but you’ll find that’s relatively simple. If you’ve cut around the anus properly, it will be free and easily pulled up into the body cavity. For fans of liver or other organ meats, now is the time to cut them out.

With the viscera now removed, your next task is to use a dry cloth or paper towel to remove any foreign material or hair that may have collected in the cavity. When cleaning any big game animal use as little water as possible, because wet meat spoils more quickly. I’ve even heard stories of hunters hosing down their animals at the car wash. Don’t! Besides introducing unwanted moisture, this has the added effect of driving dirt and other particles permanently into the meat. Similarly, don’t use grass or snow to wipe the animal clean, as either may actually contaminate the carcass.

Improper temperature control is the worst enemy of meat quality. Hang your animal as soon as possible, as this allows it to cool the quickest and most evenly on all sides. The ideal temperature at which to hang meat is between 2°C and 5°C. If you can control the temperature where you hang the carcass, target that temperature range. Failing that, quickly get your game to a commercial cooler or to your butcher.

If hunting in warm temperatures, get your animal into a cooler as fast as possible. If you’re in a remote camp, of course, this isn’t always possible. In that case, hang and skin the animal, trimming away any bloodshot tissue that you can. (To skin or not to skin is an ongoing debate among hunters. My preference is to not skin an animal in the field unless I think it’s necessary as part of the cooling process. Otherwise, I like to leave the skin on for transport home as it helps keep the carcass clean.)

After you’ve skinned the carcass, scrape away the loose hair and other debris using your knife blade and a slightly damp cloth. Then wrap the carcass in game bags and hang it in the most shaded location you can find. I shot a September moose in a fly-in camp one year only to watch the temperature climb to more than 20°C the very next day. We had no choice but to wrap the meat in cheesecloth and dump it into the lake. That wouldn’t have been my first choice by any means, but it allowed us to save what ended up being some choice steaks.

For larger animals in particular, don’t be shy about using a clean stick to help prop open the chest cavity to speed up the cooling. I’ve even seen some hunters use bags of ice to accelerate the process.

How long to hang your animal is another constant source of debate. Aging allows natural enzymes to break down proteins in the carcass, naturally tenderizing the meat. You can hang big-game animals for three to 14 days, but only if you have absolute temperature control. Otherwise, you risk spoiling the meat, which can happen very quickly if temperatures are not controlled properly. A rule of thumb, in any case, is to not age any animal that was shot during warm weather and not cooled properly. Same goes if there’s extensive damage from gunshot wounds, or if the animal was significantly stressed prior to the kill. If you do choose to age your animal, do it with the hide on if possible; aging a skinned animal can contribute to significant meat loss through drying.

Whether you opt to age your game or not, the next step is to butcher it. Many hunters take it to their local butcher, but you may want to consider learning the basics of meat cutting yourself. It’s not that difficult, and in my mind adds considerably to the greater hunting experience—from the field all the way to the table.

Hunter tips:

Make a Clean Kill

What happens if a follow-up shot is needed on a wounded animal? To help ensure the integrity of the cape for mounting, expert taxidermist Brian Dobson says not to shoot the animal in the head or neck, or cut its throat. A shot to the heart or lung area is equally effective, and less likely to damage the hide.

Mind the Blood

Bloodstains on the hide can sully a picture-perfect trophy. This is especially a problem on animals with a light-coloured hide or a lot of white hair, such as antelope. Since most blood leaves the animal through its nose after you’ve removed the head, a simple remedy is to stuff a damp cloth into each nostril to staunch the flow.

Put the Velvet on Ice

For mounting velvet-covered antlers, Dobson recommends freezing the antlers as soon as possible if you can’t get them to your taxidermist right away. Most big game are poised to strip their antler velvet when hunting seasons open, meaning there’s very little blood remaining in it. As a result, the velvet can dry and harden very quickly after a kill; even four or five days can render it unsalvageable. But if your taxidermist gets the antlers in a timely fashion, he can protect the velvet with injections of formaldehyde, or by freeze-drying the entire rack.

Find a Good Taxidermist

Shop around for a taxidermist before you go hunting if you plan on keeping a trophy. As with any craftsmen, the quality of work on the market varies greatly, and a little scouting can pay significant dividends. To a certain degree you’ll get what you pay for, and I would suggest not letting a few extra dollars stop you from selecting the best available taxidermist. The good ones will ensure your mount lasts as long as your memory of the hunt. And before you head afield, talk to your taxidermist about how he would like you to cape your animal, as different taxidermists can have different preferences.

Hold the Flies

When hanging your game outdoors, you may find that flies are a persistent problem. If you don’t have game bags, sprinkle the carcass with coarse ground pepper as a deterrent.

Hang It in Pieces

While deer can usually be hung whole, moose or elk can pose a problem because of their sheer size. In that case, halve or quarter them. To halve them, cut between the 11th and 12th ribs. To quarter them, you’ll need to use a bone saw to work your way through the spinal column. Avoid getting bone chips and other debris on the meat, and be sure to wipe the carcass clean when you’re finished.

Be Careful

Never handle or eat meat from animals that appear sick, or act strangely, like the small buck I shot a few years ago while hunting a favourite hayfield. When I first saw the deer, it was walking around in a continuous series of 20-foot circles, much like a horse on a merry-go-round. It let me approach to within 10 feet or so before bounding off for 20 feet and resuming its circles. I shot and tagged the clearly ill deer, then took it directly to the local conservation office. They were only too happy to issue me a new tag, and were considerate enough to call me a few months later when the results from the lab came back. In this case, a growth on the back of the deer’s eye had been putting pressure on its optic nerve, leading to the abnormal behaviour. Its meat would have been perfectly safe to eat, as it turned out, but I was taking no chances. Besides, local wildlife managers welcome the chance to examine such abnormal animals—if only to monitor for the spread of diseases such as CWD, or parasites.

Ken Bailey

Ken Bailey

An all-around hunter, Ken Bailey enjoys pursuing waterfowl the most. Based in Edmonton, Outdoor Canada's longtime hunting editor Ken Bailey has hunted every major Canadian game animal, in every corner of the country. For many years, he’s shared his deep knowledge of game behaviour, and wide expertise with all manner of firearms with OC's readers. His work has been recognized numerous times by both the Outdoor Writers of Canada and the National Magazine Awards. Ken is a committed conservationist, dedicated to habitat preservation, sustainable harvests, and passing along our hunting heritage to the next generation. He's also an avid fly fisherman, and a pretty darn good game chef.