So it’s hunting season and you’re standing over a deer you’ve just “reduced to possession,” as writers of hunting regulations like to put it. For some hunters, what comes next is the most intimidating, frustrating part of the whitetail experience. But making sure that just-killed buck or doe ends up as savory venison need not be difficult. Avoiding bad decisions while field dressing a deer is what matters most on the table. Here are some of the most common pitfalls to avoid.
1. Poor Shot Placement
The issues with a deer carcass often begin at first touch—the first touch of an arrow, bullet or slug, that is. Even if you’re using the right bullet or a shaving-sharp broadhead, improper shot placement can let the animal live for some time after the shot. In addition to increasing risk of losing the deer, a poor hit results in higher stress, which can degrade meat tenderness and flavor even if you do recover your quarry.
Of course, the projectile can also cause direct damage to otherwise fine venison. This is especially so with a bullet or slug, which send a shock wave through tissue around the wound channel. The concussion can degrade meat to the point it’s not worth keeping. Making a good, ethical shot minimizes meat loss—and your frustration.
2. Delaying the Inevitable
Many hunters eagerly charge off in pursuit of the deer they’ve just hit, not giving it adequate time to succumb. But then, after securing their kill, they parade it around all day in the back of the truck before dressing it out. How big of a mistake that is depends on how (and how often) the animal was shot, how much stress it was under prior to its death and how warm the weather is.
A whitetail’s body is well insulated, particularly if the animal is big, fat and in its winter coat. Even if the air temperature is cool, it takes body heat a long time to dissipate from the carcass. Keep in mind, high temperatures quickly turn a few harmful bacteria into many.
This isn’t to say you must start field dressing as soon as you tag your deer. But don’t drag the ungutted critter around all day if you can avoid it. There’s no upside to letting the body temperature stay high, even for the time it takes to show your deer around town. Those entrails and organs need to come out eventually, so get it over with.
And in case you’re wondering, no, field dressing deer on your hunting land isn’t likely to spook others out of the area. So don’t get too worried about that. Of course, disturbing where you hunt is never a plus, but once the animal has been located, taking a few more minutes to get it gutted probably isn’t going to run off additional game.
3. Using the Wrong Tools
The joy of taking a deer can turn to frustration if you’re ill equipped to get it dressed out. The process even can be dangerous if you try it with the wrong tools.
Unless you’re adept at chipping flint into hand tools, the most obvious item needed for field dressing is the right knife in the right condition. A poor knife with a workable edge won’t stay that way for long. Nor will a great piece of steel that starts out dull magically sharpen itself during gutting.
Just about any piece of metal more rigid than aluminum foil will get you inside a deer eventually. But how quickly, easily and safely depends on knife design, quality and condition. Making a sound choice is the topic of a feature all its own, but suffice it to say you need a quality blade if you want to do quality work for long. Just ask a butcher.
In addition to a good knife, several other items are handy to have on hand. First, consider a product that’s brand new to the market. It’s called the High Tail, from Viking Solutions. This handy device solves a couple of big problems hunters—especially solo hunters—encounter in field dressing whitetails. First off, as its name suggests, the High Tail elevates the deer’s back end slightly and positions it properly for gutting.
Secondly, adjustable straps on each side hold the animal’s back legs securely in place throughout the process. The word on the street is the product will be available August 1, just in time for early season.
Another must is a pair of field dressing gloves, such as the disposable, arm-length version from Hunter’s Specialties. Along with shielding you from deer blood and odors, these lower your risk of getting an existing skin cut or scrape infected. And yet another handy HS product is the Butt Out. It’s a simple plastic tool that helps you remove the deer’s anus without splitting the pelvis. And speaking of that part of the anatomy, if you’re one who wants to split the pelvis during field dressing, it’s handy to have a small hatchet or bone saw. Even a pair of pruning shears (“loppers”) can do the job quickly and safely.
4. Cutting Without A Clue
Now that you’re actually ready to work on the animal, take a deep breath. Think before you make even a single cut.
Start by simply looking at the deer. Which organs were punctured by your shot(s)? How is the carcass positioned? Do you need to move it in order to make field dressing easier, quicker, safer and/or less of a mess? Now—not halfway through gutting—is the time to assess what you’re working with and come up with a plan to dodge problems.
It’s a plus to have assistance in dressing out any large game animal, and a whitetail is no exception. If the deer is still limber, for a single hunter it’s like trying to wrestle a Slinky. If it’s already as stiff as a board, it’s hard to hold the legs apart. Either way, it helps to have help. So if it takes a 15-minute drive out of your way to get someone to assist in the process, that’s typically gas and time well spent.
Working up a sweat hacking away at the deer doesn’t reduce the overall time it takes to end up with a clean carcass—it adds to it. Slow and steady is the way to go, particularly in terms of safety. While field dressing a deer, you might have to operate more by feel and knowledge of its anatomy than by sight—because your hands typically are out of your sight inside the body cavity. Don’t make any sudden movements. When in doubt, back out and think before making another cut.
In some deer camps, a crowd typically gathers to watch the hunter gut his or her deer. This is understandable, as it’s part of celebrating the kill. But it’s hardly helpful. In fact, I’m convinced more sliced fingers occur as a result. The distraction of having too many “helpers” should be avoided. At most, you want only two assistants to help you position the carcass, hold legs apart, shine a light inside the rib cage, etc.
Actually field-dressing a deer is a fairly simple, straightforward process. Huge buck or scrawny fawn, the stuff inside the body cavity is in the same places, and it comes out the same way. The main complicating factors are the possible presence of a broadhead (yours or some past hunters’), fractured bone that could cut your hand or arm and whether or not you want to preserve at least part of the cape for taxidermy purposes.
5. Improper Cleanup and Beyond
Even after dressing out the deer, you’re still a few steps removed from dining on juicy backstrap. What happens after the entrails leave the animal has a lot to do with the quality of venison you’ll ultimately enjoy.
First off, if you have a way to wash out the carcass with clean water, do so before all of the blood dries. Note the inclusion of the word “clean.” Not all clear water is sanitary—that mountain brook 20 feet from where your buck fell might be swarming with bacteria or parasites that will sicken you. No water at all beats the wrong water. Even fresh snow can be an option for “scrubbing” the interior of a gutted deer.
Getting your prize home in good shape means keeping it cool and away from insects, dust and diesel fumes. Throwing a bag or two of crushed ice into the body cavity, then covering the animal with a tarpaulin to cut down on wind and bug exposure tends to help. There also are specialized products, such as the Buck Bag and Trophy Tote, for transporting a whole deer or just the head and cape, respectively. I’ve used both and like them a lot.
Avoiding exposure to contaminants is just one reason to avoid skinning your deer at the time you field-dress it. Unless the carcass will be processed right away, the default choice should be to leave it unskinned. All scientific studies of venison point to better overall meat quality when the meat is aged for a week or so at a temperature of 34-38 degrees Fahrenheit, with the hide on. This helps retain moisture, a key factor in palatability.
You have time, effort and money invested in every whitetail you shoot. Taking the right approach to field dressing deer will help your family get the most out of that investment. With a good plan in place and the right tools in hand, the results of a successful hunt can be tastier than ever.