Field Dressing & Transporting Deer

The quality of your venison will depend on how quickly you dress out the deer and cool the meat. It should be done immediately after you find the deer with a sharp, strong-bladed knife.

There are several variations of this procedure; here is one of the best:

If an incline is handy, position the deer with the head uphill and roll it onto its back. Stand over the rear of the deer, facing the head, keeping it on its back by leaning one of its legs against your leg.

With a buck, remove the sex organs first. Then make a horizontal cut at mid-belly, about 3 inches across, to help you find the proper depth of the cut. You must cut through the hide and several layers of muscle and connective tissue, making sure you don’t puncture the intestines.

Cut Through Carefully

Cut through carefully, one layer at a time, until you see the gray folds of intestine. When you cut through, the intestines will tend to squeeze out through the cut. If you are right-handed, place the first fingers of your left hand under the cut, palm upward and fingers pointing toward the deer’s head. Carefully put your knife blade edge-up between your fingers. Pull up with your left hand, pulling the hide and tissues away from the intestines. Using your left hand as a guide, make a vertical cut up the center of the belly until you reach the sternum (bottom of the rib cage). Then remove your left hand and use both hands to cut most of the way through the sternum toward the neck. (Cutting through the sternum requires considerable force, and you must be careful the knife doesn’t slip. Don’t make this cut if you are planning to have a shoulder mount made.)

Finish slitting open the belly by cutting back toward the anus, again using your fingers to keep from cutting the intestines. Let the carcass fall to one side, and the entrails will begin to roll out. Reach in on one side and pull them as far as they will easily come. You will have to carefully reach in and cut some connective tissue to get the entrails out entirely. Be careful not to cut the tenderloins — the two strips of muscle in the lower back lying parallel to the spine.

A thin membrane of muscle (the diaphragm) at the bottom of the rib cage must be cut away. This will give you access to the heart, lungs, and windpipe. Reach past the pink lungs until you can feel the tube-like windpipe near the throat. Grasping it, reach in with the knife and cut it free. Pull it out along with the heart and lungs. Save the heart (it is fist-sized and hidden among membrane near the lungs) and the liver (the large, dense, dark-colored organ).

Remove Digestive Tract

Wipe away any dirt or other contamination, and put them in a plastic bag. The final step is to cut completely around the anus to remove the lower digestive tract and bladder. This is easiest if you can split the arch of the pelvic bone with an axe or large knife, but it isn’t necessary. Some hunters insert a stick in the anus and cut around the stick. Be careful not to spill urine from the bladder — a small, translucent sac. Some hunters tie off the tube between the kidney and bladder to keep urine from spilling. It’s important to remove all fat and contaminating substances from the anus area. The meat in the area will quickly spoil otherwise.

If intestinal matter got on any part of the meat, wipe it off with leaves, snow, grass, paper, or cloth. Sometimes it’s better to slice away the outer layer of contaminated meat. Once it’s cleaned, elevate the carcass to help it drain and cool. It can be propped against a rock, bush, or double tree trunk. Insects may be a problem in warmer weather; if so, keep the body cavity covered and get it to a cool place as quickly as possible.

If you plan to let the carcass hang for a few days, remove the tenderloins first; otherwise they may become hard and dry.

Here are some other points to remember when field-dressing whitetails:

  1. Field dressing is messy and strenuous, so you may want to remove your blaze-orange coat, or other bulky apparel. If you do so, hang it up nearby so it is visible to other hunters. Your movement, bent-over outline, presence of the deer, and unawareness of other hunters may create a dangerous situation.
  2. Do not cut the deer’s throat. Dead deer do not bleed, so it is unnecessary and will just make more of a mess. Removing entrails will remove all the blood possible. If the deer is alive, it is dangerous to you and inhumane to the deer to cut its throat. It should be shot instead.
  3. Do not try to remove the tarsal glands of bucks. Some hunters perform this step under the theory that the gland may taint meat. But there is a better chance of that happening if it is cut or if scent comes in contact with the knife blade.

Taking Out The Carcass

Hopefully, you’ve made arrangements for getting the deer out of the woods and to a place where it can be butchered. Dragging a deer out is preferably a two-man operation. An average man has difficulty dragging an average whitetail more than a half-mile or so. A big buck can be near impossible for a sole hunter to get out by himself.

ATVs carrying a buck
Nothing beats an ATV for getting a buck out of the backcountry.

For a two-man drag, each hunter can simply grab a front leg or an antler and pull. Some hunters prefer to drag with ropes or with a stick tied to the antlers or front legs. When dragging, try to keep the deer on its side and dirt out of the body cavity. Dragging is much easier over snow than dry land. There are commercial aids to dragging such as big-wheeled carts and heavy-plastic sleds. They ease the dragging job, but are seldom practical to take hunting.

For long-distance hauling, some hunters use the pole-carry method, with the deer hung on a long pole with ends carried over the shoulders of two hunters. This method can create more work than it saves, however, and may be dangerous. Snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and horses make hauling deer a breeze. However, do so responsibly; don’t make ruts or disturb other hunters.

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