By Steve Sorensen
How many successful hunters know what to do when they pull out their knives? Ask any local deer butcher, and the polite answer is likely to be, “Some don’t.”
That’s what every butcher I’ve asked has said. One butcher I know has even turned work away because a hunter did such a messy job. Occasionally a hunter brings him a buck fully intact. They’ll say removing the entrails should be the butcher’s job. More likely, they’re embarrassed to admit it makes them queasy.
It may not be every hunter’s favorite part of the hunt, but it’s most definitely the hunter’s job to know his way around the innards of a deer. You probably do, but just in case you don’t, or you want to learn how someone else does it, read on for step-by-step instructions on how to field dress a deer and the low-down on the absolute best tool for the job.
Why, What, and How?
Before telling you the “how,” I’ll tell you the “why” and the “what.” Why do you field dress a deer? Several reasons. One is to make sure the meat cools quickly. The organs inside the body cavity all generate heat. Without field dressing, the only way for that heat to escape is through a hide covered with dense insulating hair. By removing those organs, you not only dump a lot of that heat out, you also let air into the body cavity to carry heat away.
Another reason to field dress a deer is to get rid of the blood. Some old-timers used to “bleed” deer by slitting their throats. That’s ineffective because after the heart has stopped there is nothing to pump the blood out. It will stay inside the body cavity and inside the muscles until field dressing.
A third reason is to remove bacteria from inside the deer. The digestive tract contains bacteria that help break down the deer’s food. If any of those organs were ruptured by a bullet or cut by an arrow, the bacteria will soon contaminate the meat.
A fourth reason is that field dressing the deer will lighten your load. The next time you harvest a deer, drag it 100 yards before field dressing it. Then field dress it, and notice how much easier it drags. Removing the entrails makes a big difference – as much as 25%. Would you rather drag 190 pounds up over the hill, or 145?
Now For the “What”
What it takes is a knife. I’ve dressed deer with all kinds of folders, fixed blades and even multi-tools. Once I used a slippery little slab-sided “gentleman’s knife” with a blade about an inch and a quarter long. Some resourceful hunters (who weren’t resourceful enough to remember to pack a knife) have bragged about using a razor blade box cutter, a utility knife, a broadhead, or even the edge of an axe. Most recently I’ve done the job with a surgical scalpel, and here’s where I tell you the best knife of all.
The surgical scalpel is far and away the best choice for the job. Where do you get one? Havel’s, a long-time medical supply company that makes scalpel blades for surgeons all across the continent, has branched out into the sportsman’s market with a new division named Havalon. They offer the Havalon Piranta, a knife that uses Havel’s replaceable surgical scalpel blades.
One of the big benefits of the surgical blade is that you no longer need to sharpen a knife. The blades are inexpensive and when one gets dull, you just replace it and keep going. It’s honed to a sharpness you’ll never achieve on your own.
Good for you if you sharpen your own knives, because knife sharpening is a dying art. But even if you are the best at it, and even if you have the newest fandangle sharpening system, you’ll never get as consistent an angle or as polished an edge as a Havel’s blade has when you tear open its sterile, protective wrapper.
Havalon makes several lightweight folders in various designs from metal and ABS plastic. Some have handsome laser-engraved handles, and they even make a couple of fillet knives for fishing. The common element is the way the scalpel blade attaches.
The blade has a keyed slot that snaps securely onto the knife “fitment.” It’s a good idea to practice removing and replacing the blade a few times before it’s actually time to use it. You probably won’t have to change it in the field but if you do, be especially careful – a little blood will make it slippery.
The beauty of this wicked sharp blade is that, instead of applying pressure to cut, you simply guide the edge where you want it to go.
Finally, the “How” of How to Field Dress Your Deer
Everyone does it a little differently. I’ve seen demonstrations at sportsman’s shows. I’ve watched other hunters. And I’ve tried different ways myself. I don’t claim to be the world’s expert on the subject, but I know how to do a nice, clean job in minutes.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but first be sure your deer is dead. If you think “ground shrinkage” of a deer’s antlers makes the moment anticlimactic, think of the effect of a kick to your head from a deer that isn’t quite dead.
I begin at the back end, work my way to the front, and then return to the rear to finish the job. I recommend wearing latex gloves. People debate whether you can get diseases from deer tissues, but for me a bigger reason is that gloves make clean up easier.
1) First I cut around what, in respectful company, we call the “vent.” Here’s the first place where you’ll notice the difference a Havalon knife makes. The tissues of the deer in the anal area are very soft, and also very elastic. The blade tip of every other knife I’ve used tends to stretch the skin without cutting through.
This elastic tissue offers no resistance at all to a knife as sharp as the Havalon. Just slip it in about an inch away from the orifices, and cut around them to loosen the plumbing. You’ll be coming back to this at the end.
2) Next, follow the crease between the legs toward the abdomen. (If the deer is a buck, you’ll need to separate his manhood (buckhood?) from his body, but don’t sever anything – later you’ll pull his sex organs through to the inside and out with the whole gut pile.)
3) Then you open the abdomen. Again, with a blade this sharp, you barely need to touch the animal’s skin to start a small incision. Insert the blade into that incision, sharp edge up, and put your thumb and index finger of your opposite hand on each side of the knife at the base of the blade. Using the backs of your other fingers, put light pressure against the abdominal organs to keep them away from the knife blade. At this point both hands will be together, and you can zip the abdomen open right up to the sternum, or breastbone. (Use a forward rather than an upward motion.) It’s almost like the proverbial hot knife through warm butter.
4) With the abdominal cavity open, reach in near the last rib on each side and slice away the diaphragm. That’s the thin wall of muscle that separates the abdominal organs from the chest cavity. Once you’ve severed the diaphragm, reach up inside the chest cavity and grip the heart and lungs. Pull them as far as you can without straining, and reach up farther with the knife to sever the windpipe, gullet and blood vessels. You’re almost finished.
5) Go back to the posterior end where you started, reach inside the pelvis, and grip the urinary tract behind the bladder. Pull the vent and sex organs through the pelvis. Some hunters recommend tying off the plumbing so that you don’t spill the contents of the bladder. That’s not necessary if you pinch the tube and avoid squeezing the bladder. Now you can strip out all the innards.
Finally, turn the deer right side up and spread the legs against the ground to open the cavity and let the blood drain out for a minute or two. Don’t forget to tag your deer, and you’re ready to drag.
Follow these instructions and your butcher will consider you a pro at field dressing a deer. He might even point to your deer to show the next guy how it ought to be done.
Was this useful to you? Ever used a Havalon to field dress and skin a deer? Tell us about it here.
About Steve Sorensen
Outdoor writer and speaker Steve Sorensen has been a fan of knives since he began begging his dad to take him hunting when he was six years old. His articles have been published in North American Whitetail, Bear Hunting Magazine, and many other top magazines across the USA. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, or follow his writing on his website, EverydayHunter.com.
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