by David Harper
It's hunting season again. Time for those who savor the
flavor of venison, elk, and antelope roasts to attempt to
lay in a supply of healthful, low-fat meat for the winter.
Each fall hundreds, perhaps thousands, of newly successful
hunters are faced with the problem of how to handle a large
meat animal once it's been reduced to possession. Because
many of these nimrods lack the skills necessary to properly
process their kills, a lot of meat is wasted, and even more
is tainted—giving wild game an undeserved reputation
of being "strong," "gamey," or "wild tasting."
So if you plan to head for field or woods this
year as a meat hunter but have no experience in dressing,
transporting, and skinning deer-size animals, read on as
the author shares his 24 years of game-handling experience
Keep in mind, too, that the information that follows isn't
just for antelope, deer, and elk hunters
...similar techniques can be used to skin and dress midsize
livestock such as goats and sheep, and thus can be valuable
skills for any meat-eating homesteader to master.
T he first factor to influence the flavor of an animal's
meat comes into play with the squeeze of a trigger or the
release of an arrow. Was it a clean, fast kill that dropped
the game in its tracks ...or a poor shot that required
several arrows or bullets to finish off the wounded and
terrified beast? In the latter case, expect subtle but
nonetheless detectably unpleasant flavors from the
adrenaline that was pumping through the animal's body those
last few panicked minutes of life. And if a bullet or arrow
penetrated organs other than heart, lungs, or brain, expect
even worse. In short, if a hunter can't be sure of making a
humane, killing shot, then he or she has no right to waste
an animal's life for what may well turn out to be inedible,
or at least inferior, meat.
But let's assume you won't take a shot unless you can be
reasonably sure of killing cleanly. What else do you have
Before you take to the woods, you'll need to collect the
accoutrements necessary for field-dressing and transporting
a large animal. If you know that you'll be able to haul
your game out the same day it's killed, you can get by with
just a sharp knife, a small whetstone, a plastic bag for
liver and heart (assuming you enjoy such cuts), a foot or
so of heavy string, and a few yards of rope. (If you're
after elk, you'd best carry two knives—one small and
sharp, the other large and sharp—plus a good
When hunting in a more remote area where you may be forced
to leave all or part of the meat in the wilds overnight,
you'll need a bit more gear: a cheesecloth game bag to keep
flies from "blowing" (laying eggs in) the meat, and a bone
saw or hacksaw to aid in quartering the carcass for packing
out. And while one strong individual can hoist a deer into
a tree with nothing but a rope, you'll need a small block
and tackle to get an elk of the ground.
Always approach a downed animal with caution. (I once had
my shin sliced open by a kick from a "dead" deer.) After
you're certain the animal is down for keeps, unload your
gun and place it out of harm's way. If your state mandates
immediate tagging of big game, do it now. Then, if the
ground slopes, pull the animal around so that its head is
uphill, and roll it over onto its back. (You may have to
prop rocks or logs under its sides to keep it belly-up.)
Every experienced hunter knows that the first two things
you do in the field-dressing process are  cut the
animal's throat to "bleed it out" and  remove the musk
sacs from the hind legs if it's a male. Right?
Wrong and wrong.
 The animal is dead. The heart is no longer pumping. All
you'll accomplish by slitting its throat is to dump a few
ounces of blood onto the hide and mess up some neck meat.
 Musk glands? The idea is to get rid of them so the foul
liquid they contain won't contaminate the meat. But it's
the rare hunter who can slice and pull those sacs free
without getting some of that same nasty stuff on his or her
hands ...hands which will then contaminate all the meat
they touch while dressing out the animal. I've found it
safer just to avoid touching the musk glands; if you don't
bother them, they won't pollute your meat.
What you do want to do as soon as possible after the kill
is to remove the sex organs and open the belly from rectum
to sternum to get at the viscera (internal organs). It's
messy, hard work that requires a sharp knife and an even
sharper eye, plus some energy and patience. But it's not
really difficult . In the next few paragraphs I'll
lay out what I've found to work best under most
circumstances, with most animals. You may read or hear
about another method somewhere else. Fine; there's more
than one way to skin a cat—or a deer, elk, antelope,
sheep, or goat.
The first step (Fig. 1) is to seal off the vent so that
feces can't escape. Use a thin-bladed, very sharp knife to
"core" around the anal opening so that you can grasp and
pull it out far enough to tie it of with stout string.
Next, make an incision around the sex organs and remove
them (Fig. 2). But to avoid piercing the bladder or
intestines, cut no deeper than necessary; try not to get
into the body cavity.
Now comes the major incision. Start just ahead of the
rectum and draw your knife forward, slicing carefully with
the blade rather than "stabbing" in with the tip. When the
opening is several inches long and the intestines begin to
bulge out, insert your free hand and push the entrails down
and away from the abdominal wall. Then turn the knife over
so that the cutting edge is up, and place the blade into
the opening just ahead of your hand (Fig. 3). Cut slowly,
holding the viscera away from the knife to prevent
puncturing the intestines. Stop the cut at the base of the
With that done, locate the bladder, cut it loose, and
attempt to remove it without spilling the contents (Fig.
4). With the pee-sac out, pull the rectum through from the
inside, cutting away any remaining tissue holding it in
place. Roll the animal onto one side, reach into the body
cavity, and cut loose any tissue anchoring the entrails to
the abdominal wall; then roll the carcass over and free up
the other side. Now sever the gullet (esophagus) just ahead
of the stomach, and use both hands to drag the whole works
out onto the ground (Fig. 5). If you wish to save the
liver, allow it to cool, then drop it into the plastic bag
you brought along for that purpose.
Good. Now it's time to move up in the world of
field-dressing ...to the chest cavity. Cut through the
diaphragm (a membrane separating the chest from the
abdominal cavity), reach up into the chest as far as you
can, and sever both the gullet and the windpipe (Fig. 6).
Give these two tubes a tug and they should come out with
the heart and lungs. After the heart has cooled, put it in
the bag with the liver.
Finally, roll the carcass over onto its stomach to dump the
blood that will have pooled in the body cavity.
That's it. Your animal is field-dressed.
Out of the Woods ...
A strong person can sling a dressed-out antelope, or even a
small deer, over his or her shoulders and carry it
out—as long as "out" is downhill or fairly level
...which is one reason behind the old saying "Always hunt
uphill." But, in most situations, you're going to wind
up dragging your kill. (If you ever do carry an
animal, be sure to cover its head with a bright red or
orange cloth—don't take a chance on meeting an
unethical hunter who might shoot at a bobbing pair of
antlers!) Stuff the plastic bag containing heart and liver
into the animal's chest cavity, produce your length of
rope, throw a noose around the base of both
antlers (or around the neck if there are no antlers), and
get on with it.
Are you stuck in camp a few days waiting for the rest of
your party to fill their tags before you can get home with
your meat? If so, since rapid and thorough cooling is
important to insure good flavor, it's best to go ahead and
split the breastbone, then prop the body cavity open with
sticks cut to length. Slip the carcass into a cheesecloth
game bag and hang it, head-up for better drainage, on the
north side of a large shade tree, high enough to be out of
the dust and away from four-legged nocturnal visitors. If
you can't cool the heart and liver in an ice chest, it's
best to either eat them right away or toss them out for
Though some hunters and even guides prefer skinning an
animal out if it must be kept in camp for a few days, my
experience has been that it's better to leave the hide on
until you get home. What little flavor might be lost as a
result of slower hide-on cooling is more than made up for
by the protection this natural wrapper provides for the
meat, both while it is hanging in camp and while it is
No single action marks a hunter as inexperienced and
egotistical Lister that) hauling a game animal home
strapped across the hood of a car. After all, few things
can ruin meat faster or more thoroughly than exposing it to
engine heat and high speed airflow (air that's most likely
filled with dust, pollution, and bugs).
The only sensible places to haul big game animals are
inside a vehicle, or (covered with tarp) in the
bed of a truck. If you don't own a truck, van, or station
wagon, see if the carcass will fit into the trunk of your
car—or even in the backseat (on a tarp to protect t
the upholstery). If there's absolutely no alternative, wrap
the animal in a heavy waterproof tarp and lash it to the
trunk. That way the meat will at least be out of the brunt
of road wind, have some protection, and be politely hidden
from the eyes of those who really aren ' t impressed by the
sight of large, dead animals. (In some states, it's
actually illegal to trills port a big game animal strapped
on the exterior of a vehicle.)
Back home, you'll need to rig a gambrel (Fig. 1), which is
nothing more than a rack for hanging an animal by its back
legs. Scrounge up a three-foot length of rebar or other
small-diameter rod or pipe (a sturdy limb will do if
nothing better is available), plus a few feet of rope, and
you're in the gambrel business.
Now find a place to hang the animal for skinning. An open
garage or shed is ideal. A basement or other cool, clean
indoor area will also serve the purpose. Hang the carcass
outside, as from a tree or clothesline pole, only as a last
Once you've located a suitable overhead support, position
the gambrel components and the carcass beneath it. Feel
around just below the animal's hocks for the "empty" space
between the cannon bone and the Achilles tendon, and use a
sharp knife to open a slit to each leg just long enough to
run the gambrel rod through. (Be careful not to cut the
tendon, or you'll have nothing to hang the animal by.) Slip
the rod through both legs, spread the legs as far apart as
you can (to facilitate both skinning and cooling), and tie
them to the gambrel so they won't tend to slide toward each
other when you hoist the carcass.
Now tie a section of rope from one end of the rod to the
other, just outside the legs, leak ing enough slack to form
an inverted V when you tie the hoisting rope to the center
of this "bridle." Toss the rope over the support, haul the
animal up until its head is clear of the ground, and tie
off the other end of the rope (Fig. 8).
Since the hide is no longer needed to protect the meat, the
sooner you peel it off, the tastier your steaks and roasts
will be. (And yes, you have to skin your own game even if
you plan to have it butchered professionally, since most
butchers won't mess with it and most states don't allow
hide-on carcasses to be even brought into
meat-processing plants )
Let's get with it, starting with the back legs (Fig. 9).
Using a thin-bladed knife (I prefer an inexpensive
fish-filleting model), cut around the legs just above each
hock (remembering that "above" is now upside down). You'll
know you've cut deep enough when the white of hide turns to
the red of muscle.
Now use the tip of the blade to slice down the inside of
both legs; these two cuts should meet at about the point
where the genitals used to be. The next incision was begun
during, the field-dressing operation—that long cut
down the belly from rectum to sternum. now you can extend
that, slicing up the center of the chest to just below the
jaw. (No need to split the breastbone. Let the butcher
worry about it, or do it after the hide's off.)
Move to the front (bottom) of the carcass and make the same
cuts on the forelegs that you used for the back. Your final
cut will be around the neck, just below the jaw.
Muscles are encased in membranous sacks and separated from
the hide by a few more thin layers of membrane. The trick
to skinning is to peel the hide away from the muscles
without damaging either the skin (assuming you want to save
it for tanning) or the meal ...and that thin membranous
layer is what allows you to do it.
Start by grabbing the hide where you cut around one of the
back legs. Pull it out and down, working around the leg as
you go. When you get both hind legs peeled down to the
rump, you're likely to encounter some fat. The best bet
here is to leave the waxy substance attached to the meat;
that way you'll have a buffer in case you slip with the
knife. After the hide's off, you can remove the fat
...which you'd be wise to do, since fat imparts a gamey,
strong taste to wild meat—just the opposite of the
effect it has on grain-fattened domestic livestock.
If you work the fingers of one hand between the hide and
meat while you tug out and down with the other, you should
be able to peel back great swaths at a time once you're
past the legs. But sooner or later (probably sooner), the
hide will get ornery. You'll tug all the harder, and some
of the meat will come of with the skin. Now's the time to
bring the tip of that razor-sharp knife back into action.
Gently slice the meat away from the hide, working the blade
carefully in between the skin and that ever-so-thin muscle
When you reach the shoulders, allow the hide to "hang out"
while you peel the front legs back to meet it.
Your last skinning job—and the toughest because the
hide is usually thickest there—is the neck. You'll
probably have to use the knife frequently to help things
The reason we didn't sever the head before skinning out the
neck (which, on first appearances, would seem to be the
thing to do) is that antlers (or even ears, if that's all
your animal came equipped with) make good "handles" to grab
when manipulating the carcass while skinning. Cut the head
off after the hide is removed, by slicing down the
spine with your knife and sawing through the bone with a
hacksaw. And since you've got the saw at hand, go ahead and
remove the front legs at or just above the knee joints.
How Long to Age?
If you're planning to have a professional do the cutting-up
chores, lower the animal, remove the rear legs at the
hocks, wrap the "naked" carcass in a clean sheet or piece
of cheesecloth, and haul it to the butcher. He can age it
in his meat locker.
On the other hand, if you're doing the butchering yourself,
the aging time will be dictated by the temperature of the
area where the meat is hung. In warm weather, it's best to
go ahead and butcher in the morning of the following day,
then "age" the wrapped meat in the refrigerator for a few
days before freezing. However, if it's cool enough for
frost at night, you can safely let the meat hang for
There can be no argument that wild meat is more healthful
than its "industrialized" commercial counterpart. But what
it tastes like depends almost entirely on the
skill and care exercised in its handling from kill to
The things that spoil meat are  a shot that doesn't kill
fast and clean,  poor handling during field-dressing or
transportation,  too little or too much aging (cooling)
time before processing, and  sloppy butchering ...which
is meat for another article entirely.