How to Field-Dress a Deer

A Series of Essential Advice, This Month from Editor Roger D. Hodge

How to Field-Dress a Deer

Roger D. Hodge
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The first and most difficult step in field-dressing a deer is the kill. Go out and procure yourself a lease, or access to a lease, or buy a ranch or a farm or an old field grown up with scrubby trees and a nearly impassable understory, or find some public land that permits hunting. Invest in a good rifle, commit gun-safety procedures to habit, and learn to shoot accurately. Acquire a gun safe. Do not neglect to consult your state’s hunting laws—the rules are inflexible and the penalties harsh. Game wardens possess wide discretion and broad powers, so beware. Leave the whiskey at home. Decide whether you wish to sit for untold hours in a small, cramped, elevated box, known as a blind, staring at a corn feeder, or use some other, more sporting method. (Somehow, shooting an animal that you’ve been feeding for six months feels like cheating, or killing a pet, but maybe that’s just me.) Some hunters, like Ted Nugent, sit in trees clutching compound bows. Others stalk through the brush like Natty Bumppo. Personally, I prefer hunting from a warm pickup, with a thermos full of coffee or hot chocolate at my side, because that’s how we always did it on my family’s ranch in Texas.

Squeeze the trigger. When my ten-year-old son shot his first deer, it leaped high in the air and went bounding off through the brush. It was an axis buck, an exotic species from South Asia, beautifully spotted with tall, elegant antlers, that has recently established a breeding population on our ranch. Unlike native species, such as whitetail and mule deer, exotics are typically not regulated by state authorities. It’s open season all the time, though the best hunting season for axis deer is the summer, when the bucks are rutting. Perfect for a school-age child living in a large city far from his ancestral ranch.

We followed spots of blood for about a hundred yards and lost the trail. A common outcome, so fear not. Trace ever-widening circles, looking for footprints, blood, or broken twigs. This is called “cutting for sign.” We soon found the animal. Dead, fortunately. It was a young buck, a six-pointer. If your deer continues to breathe when you approach, I suggest you shoot it again. A wounded deer can kill a person. Beware the sharp hooves as well as the pointy antlers.

I didn’t really expect my son to shoot a deer that day. We had been hunting these axis deer for three years. It was late in the afternoon, and now I had a large dead animal to butcher the night before we drove to San Antonio to catch our flight home. I felt somewhat unprepared. I had a good knife but no gloves. When I was a kid, we never gave a thought to blood-borne diseases.

After determining that your animal is in fact dead, cut its throat and let it bleed for a few minutes. Make a small incision at the sternum and then stand astraddle the deer, facing its hindquarters, and insert your index and middle fingers into the cut, making an inverted peace sign, and pull up the skin. Place your knife between your fingers, edge outward and point shallow, and gently open the abdominal cavity. Don’t force the blade—let your edge do all the work—and be sure to avoid puncturing the gut sack. Cut around the penis, testicles, and anus, freeing them from the surrounding tissues and taking great care not to sever the urethra or the anal tract.

What follows is a bit messy. In sum, you reach into the body cavity of the animal, pulling with one hand and slicing the connective membranes with the other. Make sure you get everything out, and be careful with the bladder. Turn around, facing the deer’s head, and open up the chest and throat. If your knife is very sharp, you can split the sternum. When you have finished, you’ll have a large steaming pile of guts and a carcass that’s ready for transport. Slice open the stomach if you’re curious to see what the deer has been eating. With my son’s deer, it was mesquite pods. Turn the animal over a sturdy bush and let it drain. Find a handkerchief or a rag to wipe your hands. If you’re hunting with a child, smear blood on his or her cheeks and take a photo. Resist the urge to post it on Facebook; it might freak out your city friends.

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