May 14, 2013
Wow! I’d almost forgotten about this one.
My friend, musician and hunting guide T. Michael Riddle wrote, performed, and recorded this theme music for the Hog Blog. I stuck a bunch of video highlights together to make a sort of showcase. It was fun, if a little narcissistic.
Oh well… I’ll re-share it anyway.
May 13, 2013
The original Hog Blog ran for almost five years before some changes happened. I ended up with this new site, and unfortunately had to leave an awful lot of stuff behind. Some of it wasn’t too bad, a lot of it was (I think) pretty informative… even educational. So despite some earlier personal misgivings, I’m going to occasionally take a look back at that older stuff. Part of it is simple reminiscence. And part of it is because it’s sort of a shame to just let all that work sit there. Maybe some of you folks who weren’t around then will find it interesting. Or not…
Anyway, it’s here if you’re that curious (or bored).
Something else I found myself doing this past weekend is scanning through some of my old videos. I’m no great shakes as a videographer, but some of these were a lot of fun to make. So I thought I’d re-share some of the vids that I thought were my better work. To my old friends, who’ve been here all along and have seen these before, I apologize for redundancy.
So, here’s a clip I did about one of my favorite hunts when I was guiding at Native Hunt. Hopefully, you’ll see why.
May 8, 2013
Sick of the lead ban discussion? I know I am. I actually have been for a very long time. But the truth is that we’re not really getting it anywhere else. What we are getting is the talking points propagated by HSUS and CBD, and very little in the way of substantial, factual counterpoints from hunter-friendly media or organizations that claim to support hunting and hunters. Where the hell is California Mule Deer Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Boone and Crockett, or any of the others? They’re practically silent on the lead issue. Why is this? What am I missing?
Well, I don’t have that answer and today, I’m not willing to go searching for it. I’m in Texas now, and I’m fairly certain that it will literally take an act of congress to impose lead ammo bans down here. So I’m gonna focus on something else for today…
What else? Well, that’s been a challenge lately. I haven’t done much hunting. Turkey season came and went, and besides a couple of short excursions early in the year, I didn’t shoot one. I had great opportunities if I’d wanted them. The turkeys got quite bold here as the season went on, and I could have assassinated a nice tom right out in the driveway if I’d wanted to do so. He and his little harem of hens established a habitual path from their roost, across my barn pasture, and into the wooded hillside behind me. I even stood at full draw one morning, half-hidden beside my truck with a 15 yard chip shot as he stood in full strut. I didn’t though, because it just didn’t seem appropriate. I hadn’t called him. I wasn’t even wearing camo. He just wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time.
I just wasn’t driven to it. I’ve still got a whole turkey in the freezer from January, and the wings, back, and legs from the other one I killed. Maybe I’ll regret this decision after the meat runs out, but the season opens again in the early fall and I will certainly have more opportunities to put an arrow through one. And I’ll be honest… when I want the meat, I’m far less particular about the circumstances around the kill.
In a couple of weeks, my brother will be here and I’ll take a couple of vacation days. I’ve planned an axis hunt at my friend, Levi’s lease. I think the odds are good of bringing home a little meat from that outing… although it could come up dry. They’re wild animals, and subject to the whims of their appetites and sex drives. Levi’s pastures could be empty all week. I hope not, though.
We’re also trying to line up some hog hunting. You’d think it would be easy to find a hog hunt in Texas, but I tell you what… to talk to some of these outfitters and ranchers, you’d think hogs were scarce as honest politicians. When you do find a hunt, it’s come to the point where it costs as much as a California trip. I guess it’s the drought, but I also think it’s because folks down here have come to recognize a cash cow (or hog) when they see it… and folks from all over the country will pay to come hunt Texas hogs. That’s a drag, but as I get to know more of the locals, I’m hoping to start getting access to private land.
I’m also actively looking for a small lease. Just a couple hundred acres for now, but enough to hunt and to take the occasional friend or relative. No luck so far, but the feelers are out.
So there… almost a whole post without discussion of the lead ban. Proud of me?
April 9, 2013
I was shooting the breeze with my friends, Carl, who owns the smokehouse, and Keith, who owns the local hardware store. As such conversations go, we spanned the gamut of topics from local news to weather, to the recent (brief) upturn in local business. And, of course, it came to hunting and bringing some meat in to be processed. Carl and co. make some awesome sausage!
So Keith mentioned that he started to shoot an axis the other morning, but it was drizzling rain and a little cool, so he held off. “I’ll get one later,” he said with a nonchalant confidence. “When the weather is nicer.”
It got me thinking.
For the past week or so, a pair of hens, a jake, and a tom turkey have been making the rounds in my barn pasture. I called a little on Saturday, and the tom fired right up, but since we were out there riding the horses, I put the call away and left him alone. They show up at almost the same time every morning, and work the same general route into the pasture, up past the barn, and then back down… feasting on the glut of grasshoppers, and picking through the leftover hay where I’d been feeding the horses. They’re almost like clockwork. I even slipped out the back door with the Benjamin Marauder the other morning, but decided not to try the 30 yard shot because… well, I don’t know why. I just didn’t feel the urge to kill the bird.
I figured it’ll be more fun later, maybe, to try to call him in and then kill him. Or maybe I’ll just let him be this year. I’ve got birds in the freezer already. And Kat doesn’t seem overly inclined to go after him. Let them breed and maybe next season there’ll be a bigger group. Or maybe later this season, I’ll get more motivated to go for him. Or Kat will decide she wants to try him. It’s hard to say.
If I look back at this past deer season, I had some similar thoughts. Sure, I killed a few deer, but I also let an awful lot of them walk. On a bunch of days, I didn’t even hunt… which is sort of a strange thing for me when I think about it. I kept the feeder running, and the cameras showed me a lot of deer. There were even a couple of decent bucks coming and going. But I just didn’t feel the need to get out there at every opportunity.
There’ll be more opportunities.
That was the “revelation”.
Folks who live out here start (fairly quickly) to take the wild bounty sort of for granted. Why freeze your ass off in a frosty stand, or sit miserable through a rainy morning, when you can go out almost any day and fill a tag? I always sort of wondered at how complacent folks are around here when they see a big herd of axis deer, or a flock of 40 or 50 turkeys loafing in a pasture. These are things that once got my blood boiling and my trigger finger twitching. But now the realization that they’re always right out there for the picking has sort of tempered that flame.
It’s not that I don’t still get excited about the hunt, because I do. And when I’m on the stand, even within sight of my own back door, I’m 100% in the game. But I’ve noticed the excitement is usually highest when it’s about hunting something I can’t get right here behind the house. When I spotted that hog on the game camera, I was stoked… at least until I realized he’d only been there once in almost two months. When Kat told me a group of axis had trotted down the road in front of the house, I got a little fired up. I’d like to put another axis in the freezer. Or when my brother and I were talking about doing another elk hunt, I could feel the pulse in my chest.
It’s not earth shattering or life changing or anything like that. It’s just an interesting realization.
January 9, 2013
I was over on the DaggaBoy blog earlier this week, and he and I were sharing comments about one of his recent hunts. He mentioned that, like me, his game always seems to want to fall in the worst possible places. That got me to thinking about some of my past hunts, and my own propensity for dropping animals in hell holes, and I thought it was worth sharing a tale or two.
I’m not sure when I first gained my reputation for killing animals in “hell holes”, but I’m guessing it must have been around the same time I started hunting at the Tejon Ranch.
Now truth be told, the terrain at Tejon makes it pretty tough not to end up at the bottom of a steep canyon, or way out in the back of beyond in the mud and snow where no vehicle can reach you. Sure, there are plenty of gentle rolling hills, and even flat pastures and meadows on that ranch, but in my mind, big hogs love bad country, especially when the hunting pressure is on. To get them, you have to go where no one else wants to be.
Something few people warn you about when hunting a place like Tejon, is that the terrain can also be deceptive. That big, wide finger ridge you strolled down so comfortably when you walked in was actually an extended downslope, ending in a steep drop into the chemise thickets and creek bottoms a hundred feet below. The return walk is almost always uphill, which is bad enough if you’re walking back empty-handed. It’s pure torture if you’re trying to drag a dead hog.
That’s how I found myself on my first hunt at the ranch, well out on one of those fingers and dreading the long haul back to the truck. Moments later, I shot my hog and he did what all hogs do when you kill them on a hillside… he rolled. And he rolled some more. And then, just to prove the point, he rolled some more.
Just a note here… Unlike deer, hogs are very difficult to drag. They’re all dead weight, no matter where you try to pick them up. They don’t have antlers for handles, or long, thin legs you can easily grab and drag standing upright. It’s a matter of brute, hunched-back force… and that’s just on flat ground. Getting a dead boar up a steep hill that’s been rooted to rubble and covered in oak leaves and dried grasses is the sort of thing they write about in Greek mythology.
I remember that recovery well, because it included three guys’ worth of backbreaking labor just to get the hog within reach of my 300 yards of rope. With that rope and my winch, I dragged that hog the rest of the way to the truck. And he wasn’t even all that big!
In retrospect, that was one of the easier recoveries I ever had at Tejon. For example, I can compare that first one to the huge boar I shot at Tejon several years later, but not all that far from where I’d killed the first one.
I’d killed several hogs at Tejon by this point. My last one ended up being way back in the canyons, and by the time I’d hiked it out with my friend, Scott, it was so late that the Tejon security officer/game warden was waiting for us at my truck to make sure that:
- We weren’t dead
- We weren’t poachers
My reputation for hunting hell holes was already pretty much established by this point, and I’d made the half-hearted pledge to kill my next pig on flat ground, with an easy drag to the vehicle. Add to this the fact that I’d hyper-extended my knee earlier in the weekend, so I wasn’t all that excited about the possibility of dropping down into another chasm of death to recover a hog.
My friends and I were way up on top of a high ridge, glassing an area where I’d seen a lot of very fresh and very large sign. We knew the hogs bedded down on the hillsides and ravines, but I was trying to keep myself up on the flats, away from the cliffs and holes.
The morning was moving slower than I was. I’d overslept after being up pretty late the night before helping other hunters recover hogs from their own hell holes, my knee hurt, and it was getting warm. All I really wanted was to find an elk bed in a nice patch of sunshine, and collapse for a long nap. Truthfully, I may have been looking for just such a place when I spotted movement across the distant hillside.
At first I thought it was a black calf, trotting solo across the open hill. I dug out the binoculars and took a closer look. Boar! BIG boar!
He was about 500 yards away, but following a cattle trail that would lead him to the ravine directly below me. Yepp… a hell hole. I tried to steel myself for the inevitable, but then I saw the hog turn and start along another trail. This one ran higher, skirting the ravine and leading pretty much right to my spot. I slipped the .30-06 off of my shoulder and jacked a round into the chamber as I found myself a comfortable spot.
From my new perch, I could see the hog still coming and my truck just a couple hundred yards away. The boar disappeared into a little hollow, and when he came out he was only 20 yards away. In a flash, I leveled the rifle and made a textbook headshot, driving the hog to the ground with thud. I had done it! I’d killed a hog on flat land, within sight of the vehicle! An easy recovery at last!
As I started to walk up to the boar, he started to twitch as his pulverized brain sent some final signals through his spine to his muscles. The twitching became violent spams, and I watched in horror as the hog, stone dead, flopped himself to the edge of a cliff and then over. A dry waterfall dropped about 20 feet into a ravine, but the hog wasn’t satisfied there and kept rolling even deeper into the hell hole.
When all was said and done, I had to cut that boar into pieces and backpack him out like an elk.
Speaking of elk…
My luck with hell holes hasn’t been limited to hogs. I’ve managed to drop several big game animals in nasty places. Deer seem to want to find the most isolated canyon to drop into, or to stumble off into a dense swamp. And elk… residents of some pretty tough country in the first place, present a real challenge.
Nevertheless, my first elk was a blessing of luck and serendipity. Within yards of the truck, on a road, I spotted and shot my first bull as he sped up the hillside. I led him like a rabbit, and my shot took him in the neck at the base of the skull, dropping him on the spot. We were able to back the truck up to the hillside and simply slide the carcass right into the bed. Easy peasy.
Not so, my next bull, a couple years later.
I’d just finished my lunch in a lovely meadow, hoping all the while that a bull wapiti would stroll out into the open where I could gently kill him right by the trail. I’d merely have to quarter the beast where he lay, and then walk the horses in for a simple pack out.
Except it never works out quite that way. Instead, after lunch I decided to take a little walk into the dark timber that covered the steep sides of the ridge. The guides were down in the valley below me, helping my brother load and pack out the bull he’d killed the previous morning, so I was pretty much on my own. I figured I’d just kill some time, poking around close to the meadow until they came back.
A hundred yards from the top of the ridge, I happened on a mule deer doe and yearling. The ground was damp, and I was able to get pretty close. I enjoyed watching them browse, unaware, when something caught our attention. A limb snapped behind me, and I turned slowly to see the tip of a large antler appearing from behind a tree. At first I thought it might be a huge mule deer buck, but the antler got larger and larger, until the 5×5 bull elk stepped into the open at about 20 yards.
Without hesitation, I slipped my rifle from my shoulder, chambered a round, and let fly before the startled bull could even move. He stumbled, and then fell. My silent jubilation stopped short, though, when the huge beast began to slide and tumble down the steep hill, bulldozing the small trees and gaining speed until, finally, he fetched up hard against a big trunk. The ground, at this point, was so steep I had to hold onto tree trunks to descend to my prize. In order to field dress him without sliding even further down the hill, I had to use the parachute cord I carry in my pack to tie his legs to trees.
It took some effort, but once he was boned out, I hiked back up the hill to find the guide just returning. I showed him where the bull had fallen, and he laughed. “We’ll never even get the mule down there. Gonna have to bring him up by hand. Good thing you boned him out.”
I beamed with pride at my self sufficience.
“Of course,” he added. “If you’d just given him a shove, he’d have probably rolled the rest of the way down that trail down there and we could have ridden right up to him.”
Sure enough, a few hundred feet through the trees I could see the outline of a horse path.
Sometimes, I guess, we make our own hell holes.
December 11, 2012
Up to my elbows, caping out a nice mule deer this weekend (not mine… a smokehouse customer shot it near Marfa, TX and brought it in for processing), it occurred to me that there are some things that just bear repeating. You know… things like don’t text and drive, make sure of your target before you shoot, and treat every gun like it’s loaded.
When it comes to field care of your game, there are a few key things you should keep in mind as well. It’s all basic stuff, and it seems redundant as hell to say it again here, but from what I’m seeing in the skinning room, it needs to be repeated some more. So here goes:
Keep it cold – Warmth and moisture are the essential qualities of the petri dish. Together, these factors provide an excellent environment for the growth of bacteria. Freshly killed meat also shares these attributes. If you plan to eat that meat, you need to cool it down pretty quickly before the bacteria has an opportunity to get established. Failure to cool the meat results in spoilage, which is a wasteful shame.
The thing is, there’s never any good reason for letting meat spoil. Even on a summer day, it’s possible to defend against spoilage by gutting the animal immediately, skinning it quickly, hanging it in a shady spot with the carcass propped open to encourage air circulation. Wrap it in a cloth game bag to keep the flies off (flies can lay eggs amazingly quickly, and those eggs become the most unappetizing maggots). Quarter the carcass out as soon as it’s practical, or even bone it out, and then get it in the ice chest. If you have to transport the carcass whole, fill the body cavity with bags of ice, wrap the carcass in a sleeping bag (or a couple of old blankets will serve… throw them in the truck before you leave for hunting camp), and don’t spend a lot of time jawing at the Starbucks on the way home.
Some game meats, like venison, can stand a bit of abuse and still be perfectly toothsome. Others, like hogs and bear will “turn” quickly in even mild conditions. It takes a little effort, but that effort can save the prize.
Field dress it properly – When skinning and breaking down carcasses that customers have brought to the smokehouse, I’m constantly amazed at the number of deer with bladders, genitalia, sections of intestine (often full of fecal matter), chunks of heart, and entire windpipes (filled with yummy, regurgitated ruminate) still inside. All of these things can add a gamey taste to the meat, especially if they’ve been left the carcass for a couple of days.
On some animals, like pigs and bear, the outer layer of fat can quickly turn rancid and flavor the meat. I recommend that, as part of your field dressing you skin away most of that external fat before storing the animal. I know bear fat can be rendered into a useful (and tasty) product, but you need to either process it right away or get it cold fast. Also, if you’re planning to save a bear hide, try to cut away as much of the fat from the skin as you can before stowing it.
Yeah, I know… field dressing is messy work. For most hunters, it’s the most dreaded part of the hunting experience. And if you’re actually doing it in the field, without the benefits of a hoist and gambrel, it can be a challenge to really get the carcass cleaned out. Nevertheless, this is an important step in ensuring that the meat is clean and tasty. Go ahead and get bloody. Get in there and make sure you got everything. It’s worth it.
Keep it clean - Be careful where you stick that knife. There are things you don’t want to cut, such as the paunch and the bladder. If you’ve never experienced the fragrant aroma of partially digested stomach contents, trust me… it’s simply not the kind of marinade that great meals are made of.
The bladder is another story altogether. While some animals will void their bowels in death, the bladder often stays quite full. And worse, it is situated right there with the best cut of meat… the tenderloins. An incautious poke of a sharp knife floods the lower part of the body cavity with urine.
Accidents happen though, and all is not lost. A water hose is your friend in these instances, but a few bottles of water will work in a pinch. A thorough rinse, right away, will usually get the worst of the contamination off of the meat. The trick is to clean that stuff out ASAP. Don’t wait until you get home the next morning, or until you get ready to start processing.
On the topic of keeping it clean, a lot of guys don’t seem to give much thought to hair. This is especially an issue with whitetails and axis deer, as the belly hair is fine and soft, and comes loose from the skin with minimal effort. It ends up all over the meat, particularly around the hams and tenderloin. It’s not harmful, but it’s unsightly, and most folks don’t particularly enjoy picking hairs out of their dinner.
You can’t keep all of the hair out of a carcass, but you can cut way down on by observing some simple practices. First of all, use a sharp knife. A dull knife pulls the hair. And with that sharp knife, try to cut with the grain of the hair (towards the back of the animal) rather than against the grain. You won’t cut, break, or pull as much hair this way. And when you’re done, use a damp paper towel to dab away the remaining hair. In a pinch, you can rinse the meat using a hose with good water pressure. Just be aware that sometimes spraying water on the meat merely makes it harder to get the hairs off. Anything that’s left will usually stick to the meat, and can be removed during trimming and butchering.
A couple more tips for using a game processor - If you’re taking your animal to a processor, you’ll find that they usually charge a base rate per pound for processing. That weight is calculated as-is, which means that if you bring your animal in with skin, head, and hooves attached, you’re going to pay the processor for that unusable weight. That can equal as much as 30 or 40 pounds on a decent sized animal. You’ll save a significant chunk of change if you skin your animal yourself, before bringing it to the processor.
If you do skin your animal, do your processor a favor by not cutting the hamstrings on the hind legs. This is the most convenient way for the processor to hang your animal in the cooler. It’s not a requirement, but your effort will be appreciated.
By the way, if you choose to cape your animal for mounting, I’d recommend stopping at the base of the head instead of skinning the face. This is tricky work, and in my opinion, it’s part of the reason we pay so much for a taxidermist. Unless you’re well practiced, leave that fine work to the professionals. It can mean the difference between a great trophy and a marginal mount.
Finally, I always recommend pulling the tenderloins out of your animal prior to dropping it off. Most processors are conscientious and honest, but screw-ups happen and sometimes those toothsome morsels accidentally end up in the sausage grinder. Of course, that can only improve the sausage, but it seems sort of a waste to see them ground up, mixed with pork or beef fat, and spiced beyond recognition. Just a thought…
November 21, 2012
Notes from the Skinning Shed is a very occasional column, based on topics generated while I’ve been helping out as a skinner at the local game processing shop (Nueces Country Smokehouse). Maybe it’ll roll on, or maybe it’ll dry up when the local deer season ends in January. We’ll see.
In the hunting community there are a handful of topics that are guaranteed to generate discussion and debate. Best caliber for hunting X. Best rifle action. Best shotgun action. Best load. Best bullet. Best scope. Best reticule. Best binoculars.
And so it goes.
A topic just as full of contention is the choice of skinning knife. Like every other piece of hunting equipment, there are as many opinions about skinners as there are styles and brands of knives. Arguments range from the best type of metal to the best level of hardness. Blade design is another common thread, as is the debate over fixed-blade or folding knife.
Personally, while I’m definitely no expert, I’ve always been intrigued by knives and the knifemaking art. I once fancied myself a collector, but the idea of spending hundreds of dollars (or more) for a knife that will never cut so much as a loose thread never sat well with me. Since then, my tastes have run to the practical… especially when it comes to hunting knives. I have had the opportunity to use several different knives for skinning a wide variety of critters… from little stuff like upland birds, squirrels and rabbits, to bigger game including deer, hogs, elk, and even bison. I’ve also hunted with a diverse collection of individuals who carried and used a dizzying variety of blades.
The first thing I’ll say now, is that they almost all work. Some certainly perform better than others due to various features or flaws, but when it comes time to disrobe a creature, they pretty much all do the job. I have skinned deer with my pen knife, and I’ve used a US Marine Ka-Bar fighting knife to skin squirrels. I know a guy who does all of his hog skinning with a carpenter’s utility knife (and he swears by it).
I don’t suppose this is much help, if you’re reading this in hopes of discovering the perfect skinning knife. I’ll make it even murkier, though, and tell you that there is no one, single, perfect skinner. There’s not a one-size-fits-all contender out there. To repurpose the same advice I give people who are looking for a new gun, the best knife is the one that suits you the best. It’s all about what feels best in your hand, what your fingers go to naturally, and what works with your unique kinaesthetic.
Having said that, however; I do have some thoughts about criteria you might consider in selecting a knife. These are, largely, my own opinions, but they are opinions shaped by my own, firsthand experience.
Before we go on, let me be clear about what I call “a skinning knife”. This is the knife I use for everything from the time the animal falls down dead (and I have used my skinner to finalize that part of the deal too) until I’m ready to start butchering. The skinning knife should be the singular tool for field dressing, skinning, and boning out my game. Yes, you can go out and buy various kits with specific knives or blade configurations for every step of the process, and if that’s your choice then more power to you. For me, it’s easier to hang onto one tool than to keep up with several… especially in the back country.
It’s all in the blade
I’m not a metallurgist, and I’m not going to bog us down in discussions of Rockwell scales, edge profiles, or any of that sort of thing. If you want it, you can get it on most any good knife blog. It’s useful information to know, after you’ve got the basics, but for most hunters it’s not really necessary.
But I will say that there are pros and cons to the hardness and composition of your knife’s blade. In simplest, general terms, a harder blade holds an edge longer, but it’s also much more difficult to sharpen when that edge is gone. Of course, excessive hardness can equal brittleness, and with some of the super-hard blades, you’ll see issues with chipped edges and possibly broken points.
On the other end of the scale, softer blades can be made razor sharp with much less effort, but those edges are more easily blunted… especially when cutting through hide and hair. If you’re only dealing with the occasional deer, or small game, the sharpness and easy upkeep of a softer blade can be a nice thing. On the other hand, if you’re looking at tougher skinned critters like hogs and elk, or if you’re skinning multiple animals in one day, constantly having to resharpen that soft blade is probably going to become a hassle.
What the blade is made of is important too. Most of the more popular (mass market) hunting knives these days are made of some version of stainless steel. Stainless tends to be on the harder side, but if you want a hunting knife to go into the field day in and day out, with minimal need for maintenance, it’s definitely the way to go. There are some really nice knives made of variations on carbon steel, but without maintenance these blades will usually discolor or rust.
There are several other materials used to make knives these days, and I can’t begin to address them all (I don’t know them all). If they’re interesting to you, do the research before you spend the money. The Internet is a wonderful thing.
By the way, if you’re one of these guys whose hunting knife only comes out to show off to your buddies around the campfire while the guides are out in the skinning shed tending to your trophy, I’d highly recommend a fine knife with a damascus blade. Damascus is made by folding and re-folding the steel, and it results in some really beautiful and unique looking knives. These are generally pricier, custom-grade knives, but they’re guaranteed to spark envious stares… and maybe some drooling from the guides. (Oh, and truthfully, a good damascus blade can be sharpened to a scary edge, and if you’re willing to use something this pricey, it makes a great skinner.)
What’s the point?
What about blade shape and point? Is that important in a skinning knife?
I’d answer that with a solid… sort of.
First, understand that there are a bunch of blade shapes and configurations. You can find a graphic that lays them out here.
If I think about it, there are really about three key functions a skinning knife blade has to perform. It has to be able to puncture and slice skin, to start the process. It has to be able to slice membrane between the skin and muscle. And it has to be able to cut muscle (meat). If the shape of your blade allows you to do all of these things, then it’s a good shape. If any of these processes are a challenge with your blade, then it’s not a good shape.
Personally, I’ve found that I lean toward either a clip point or a drop point in my skinning knives. The clip point usually offers a sharper point, which is handy for puncturing the skin. However, that sharp point can be a little bit of a detriment when it comes to opening the abdominal cavity, as you don’t want to poke holes in the paunch, bladder, or intestines. Of course, all you have to do is be careful… but sometimes, like kneeling on a 40-degree slope with one knee holding the animal to keep it from rolling into the abyss while trying to get the insides on the outside, being careful isn’t such a mean feat.
The drop point still has enough point for puncturing skin, but it’s not as pronounced as you can see in the photo of my Uncle Henry clip point. This makes it a little easier to avoid accidentally popping something that you don’t want to pop while working in a slippery, gory body cavity.
Some skinners like a blade with a lot of belly, such as the swept or “trailing point” blade design. The belly allows the edge to follow a curving stroke as it passes along the membrane. For the hunter who is used to this type of blade, the skinning process can certainly go more quickly. I have a custom knife that I sometimes use for elk and big hogs that has this design, and I do like it a lot. Unfortunately, this knife is a little too bulky for my regular skinning and field dressing work (although I’ve used it on several deer and smaller hogs). It’s also made of commercial saw blade steel, which is very durable, but also extremely hard to sharpen. I’ve had to send the knife to a professional sharpener to put a good edge back on it, which makes me hesitant to use it. That’s something to consider… remember what I said about hard steel?
Bigger is not always better
Like many of the other kids I grew up with, when we thought of a hunting knife, nothing short of a Bowie would suffice. Our imaginations were full of dark, dense jungles and hand-to-hand combat with wounded game or predators. Those of us who could packed Ka-Bar fighting knives, survival knives, and the occasional Arkansas toothpick. Those of us who couldn’t, tagged along in envy and shame, hiding our little Marbles camp knives, or Buck Folding Hunters from sight as best we could.
These big knives all carried sufficient “cool factor”, but their practicality was very limited… especially when it came time to skin game. The large, heavy blades were unweildy when it came to making some of the more delicate cuts, such as opening the abdominal cavity without puncturing the paunch. For skinning small game, or dressing birds, the big knives made for sloppy work. With a little practice, some of these knives could be considered serviceable, but I wouldn’t consider any of them ideal.
The other thing about these large knives is their simple bulk. Of course, strolling around with eight or nine inches of knife strapped down to our legs made us look like our movie and television heroes, but when it came time to humping our gear through the woods, the big sheaths were a bit of a detriment. And they were heavy, which was something we didn’t really notice until it came time to backpack and we learned that under the right conditions, even a few extra ounces could make a big difference in comfort.
Once we moved past the desire to look cool, those of us who took hunting seriously began to look for more suitable equipment.
Don’t go too small
As I mentioned, I’ve skinned deer with a pen knife. That wasn’t meant to imply that a pen knife is the best choice, or even a good choice. It just happens to be all I had handy at the time.
A small knife has some appeal, particularly when it comes to fine work like caping. The short, light blade is easy to maneuver. It allows you to get in there around the tricky places without butchering the skin or poking holes that the taxidermist will need to repair. It’s also useful for small animals and birds, where skins are usually thin and the entrails are easy to reach and remove.
But on bigger jobs, the tiny knife simply makes more work. At some point, I received a package of Z-Blade knives to test. The Z-Blade is essentially a scalpel on a large, plastic handle. It’s insanely sharp, and when I first received them, I thought they were one of the greatest ideas going.
And then I tried to use one on a wild hog.
If you’ve never skinned a hog, you should know that the skin is thick. Older hogs, especially mature boars, are practically like cutting through a couple of layers of hard leather, bonded to a dense layer of greasy fat. The little blade made the cuts across the skin well enough, but when it came to removing the skin and fat the effort was painstaking. As the knife dulled (which it did fairly rapidly), the work became even more difficult. Unlike a larger knife with which I could make long, sweeping movements between the skin and hide, I found myself holding the thin handle like a pen, and making a number of short movements with my fingers.
I had a similar issue using a caping knife to skin a large boar. It was a beautiful knife, sharp as a razor, and it held an edge well. But the tiny blade required me to work twice as hard to peel away the thick skin and fat. I can see where the caping knife may have been a little handier on something like a deer, with thin skin that is relatively easy to remove, but even then I think I’d want something with just a little more of a blade.
This one is just right
I’ve found that, at least for me, I like knife with a stainless steel blade between three and six inches long. It also needs to have a handle large enough for me to get a good grip. I’m a little shy of six feet tall, and my hands are relatively large. For the bigger cuts and peeling hide, I like to wrap my whole hand around the knife and let it do its thing. Other people may like a thinner grip. There are plenty of knives to suit either taste.
One of my favorite, all-around skinners is my Uncle Henry “Smokey”, which is a folding knife with a 3″ “clip point” blade. It’s small enough to stow in my day pack, or in a pocket, sharp as hell, and sturdy enough to split a breast plate or separate leg joints. If it has a limitation, it’s that the blade is a little small for boning out larger animals. Nevertheless, this is still my go-to knife. If I know I’m hunting bigger animals, I’ll carry a second knife to do the big work.
Despite my love of the Uncle Henry, when it came time to jump in and skin a lot of animals fairly quickly at the smokehouse, I wanted something a little more heavy duty. I chose to carry my Buck 110 for this work. The 110 has been a workhorse for outdoorsmen since 1962, and while it’s certainly not considered anything special, it’s a very good knife. With a folding, 4″ clip point blade and relatively large handle, this knife offers some substance and weight. The extra weight is nice when I’m peeling off the hide, and the thick, sturdy blade lets me break through the breast plate and pop leg joints without too much concern about breaking the blade. The Buck knives have been criticised because the hard steel is difficult to sharpen, but I’ve found that if you keep the edge tuned up with a steel, and sharpen with a quality stone before it gets dull, they’ll hold a pretty keen edge for a long time. Note that the hard steel does have a degree of brittleness, and I’ve busted the point off of my Buck knife (see picture above) a couple of times. It is not a pry bar or chisel.
How sharp is too sharp?
I know a lot of guys (and some gals) who take a lot of pride in the sharpness of their knives. I see folks shaving hair, splitting paper, and some even trying to split hair. I’ve spent a lot of time in skinning sheds watching displays of one-upmanship as guides try to out-sharpen one another.
And that’s all cool. Sharpening a knife well is a skill that requires practice, patience, and knowledge. Putting a true, razor edge on a skinning knife (especially stainless steel) is a good display of that skill, and I’ve seen some truly impressive displays.
But I’m going to challenge “conventional wisdom” and suggest there is such a thing as a skinning knife that is too sharp.
First of all, consider what a sharp knife blade really is. Think of a blank of steel, about 3/8″ thick, a couple of inches wide, and four or five inches long. Now that blank is rigid and strong. You’re not gonna bend it. You can beat on it, and as long as it’s not excessively hard and brittle, you’re not going to break it. It’s solid steel.
Now take that steel and grind it down until it’s, say, about as thick as a sheet of tin foil. Everything has changed. You can bend it, crumple it, and maybe even tear it.
When you sharpen a knife, you’re essentially turning the edge of that piece of steel into a piece of foil (actually, more like wire I guess). True, the geometry of the knife blade provides strength to that narrow strip so that it’s not quite as weak as your sheat of tin foil. But that edge is still delicate, and far weaker than the thick blank from which it was created. The finer you make it, the weaker it gets. If the steel is particularly hard, that fine edge gets brittle and chips easily. If the steel is soft, the edge gets malleable and rolls away from contact. Suddenly, your sharp knife isn’t so sharp anymore and you’ve only just started skinning your animal.
When asked, I propose that a knife should be sharp enough to smoothly and easily slice vertically through a piece of notebook paper, but not sharp enough to shave. This will be plenty sufficient to cleanly cut skin and flesh, but will provide the strength to stand up to the occasional contact with bone. An edge like this will hold up longer under field conditions with less need for honing or touch-up in the middle of the job.
You’d probably expect that here is where I’d insert a segment about how to sharpen your knife. I hope you’re not too disappointed, but I’m not going to do that. There are excellent sites all over the Internet that provide that instruction, and while some are better than others, I just don’t see the value in adding my own voice to the fray.
If I did, the key points I’d emphasize are maintaining the proper angle on the edge (somewhere around 40-degrees), and following up the stone with a steel. The smaller the angle, the weaker the edge. And a steel puts a smooth finish on the rough work done by the stone. A leather strop is a good practice too, although I think that’s sort of overkill for a field knife.
Now go buy a knife!
It’s important to note that my favorite knife doesn’t necessarily translate to your favorite knife. If you’re seriously shopping for a skinning knife, get out to the shops and handle some. Feel the heft. Hold it in your hand and imagine skinning your favorite game animal. Give some thought to what the knife is made of, and your own needs and habits. Can you keep it sharp? If it’s not stainless, will you keep it oiled and clean?
August 26, 2012
Some of you who’ve read this blog regularly will know my friend, Bruce Cherry. Bruce is living in paradise over in Hawaii, hunting, fishing, and well… hunting and fishing anyway. But all is not perfect. Bruce recently sent the following to me, hoping for some input from the Hog Blog readers. Check it out, and let him know what you think.
Seven years ago, one month before my wife and I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, I was stopped in a line of traffic at a red light on a busy street in San Diego, right across from the sheriff’s substation. A lady driving a black Chevy Suburban was chatting on her cell phone and didn’t see the traffic stopped up ahead. She rear-ended me at 45 mph, never touching her brakes. My truck and my body were totaled, and a couple weeks later, when I hobbled to the sheriff’s station to get the accident report,, arm and leg in casts and my neck wrapped in a cervical collar, I met the deputy who was the first on the accident scene. He told me that the lady would not put down her cell phone because “This is an important conversation with my friend!!” The deputy took the phone away from her and she threw a fit, shrieking, “How long is this going to take? I’ve got important things I need to do!” The deputy told me that she was angry with me because I had caused the accident. She was in a hurry, talking to her friend on her cell phone, and I had the audacity to stop for a red light and cause the crash.
Long story short, besides fractures, I had damage to my left shoulder and damage to the C6 and C7 vertebrae and the disk in between. The lady was from Mexico, had virtually no insurance, and I was moving everything I owned to a big rock out in the middle of the Pacific in 30 days. We made the move, I went through physical therapy for 4 months, and the ortho surgeon in Hawaii told me that I was going to have major problems with both my shoulder and neck later on. I spent the next 5 years hunting big game every week, birds in the winter, and fishing for game fish in between. Lots of ibuprofen and physical therapy later, my shoulder fell apart and I underwent the Mumford procedure and two muscle reattachments. Part of my collar bone was removed and the infraspinatus and supraspinatus were reattached. The surgery failed and a second surgery was necessary. That surgery was only partially successful, but both muscles could not be reattached and as a consequence, I lost 30% of the use of my left shoulder. I was an avid archer and that came to a halt. I applied for a disabled archery permit and got it. That allows me to hunt with a crossbow instead of a compound bow. I was happy.
Then 12 weeks ago, I awoke with excruciating pain in my right shoulder and arm. My right hand was completely numb, virtually paralyzed. Another long story short, 2 weeks ago I underwent Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion [ACDF] surgery. The disc had completely fragmented and was pressing against the spinal cord and the nerve that branches out from the cord that controls my right shoulder, arm, and hand. Paralysis would become permanent if I didn’t have emergency surgery ASAP. And with my left arm only partially usable, losing the use of my right arm would be the end of the road. Here’s a link to an animation of the surgery:
I now have a titanium plate and screws holding the two vertebrae together. I also have a plastic cage and organ donor bone [from the femur of an accident victim] replacing the disk and stem cells, marrow, and bone shavings from my vertebrae that are inside the plate. I have a scar across my throat that looks like Jack the Ripper had had paid me a visit.
Now, here’s where all of this enters into the domain of the Hog Blog. My recovery time is LONG. I have to wear a cervical collar for 6 weeks and can’t drive. No lifting over 5 pounds. Then another 6 weeks of limited activity, no lifting over 10 pounds. Then 4 weeks of more activity with 20 pounds max and no overhead lifting at all. Then [and this is the tough part] no shooting any rifles with any significant recoil [10 pounds or less] for 9 months after that, or until such time as the bone fusion is complete. I can hike anywhere and carry a backpack, but the recoil limitation presents a problem.
I intend to go hunting again in about 3 months, but I need to go to the lowest recoil possible. That means hunting pigs with my .243 and 7-30 Waters. Sheep with 25-06 and light ballistic tips. And I want to hunt the wild cattle again. I may use a 25-06 for that. Or my .270. I need recoil that does not exceed 10 pounds.
So, readers, what light loads and what specific bullets would you recommend for hunting sheep [thin skinned], pigs, and wild bulls if I’m limited to 10 pounds of recoil and my calibers are .243, 25-06, 7-30 Waters, and .270? The .243 and the 7-30 Waters are already hand loaded at about 8 pounds of recoil, the .243 with Nosler partitions and the 7-30 with Sierra Flat Nose, but the 25-06 is loaded with Ballistic Tips and that makes me nervous with pigs and really nervous with wild bulls. Maybe the Barnes TSX or TTSX? Anybody got a way to get the .270 recoil down to about 10 pounds? The trick to keeping recoil down is to use the lightest weight bullets possible.
Here’s a link for figuring recoil. The little 7-30 Model 94 weighs 7 pounds and the other rifles weigh about 8 pounds:
So that’s my sad story. I moved to the Big Island to hunt, but in the past 2 years I’ve been disabled for 18 months and I’ve got another 4 months to go, all because a thoroughly self-centered woman could not manage to put her cell phone away long enough to drive her Suburban to wherever she was going.
Mahalo from the Big Island. I’ll be out in the field again, soon I hope.
So help a brother out. I sent Bruce my suggestions via email earlier, but I’d love to read what you guys think, and whad you suggest.
August 15, 2012
It’s been a slow week, and I haven’t had a lot of particular import to write about… so I left the page blank for a couple of days. However, earlier today I caught a press release from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that offered a glimmer of good news. It looks like the steady decline of hunters in the US may have stalled or even turned around since 2006. The news is based on a preliminary report from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The final report is due out in November, and should include state-by-state numbers, as well as the national count.
Here’s the press release:
MISSOULA, Mont.—A new report that shows more people are hunting is good news for conservation, according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The just-released 2011 National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation shows 13.7 million people, or 6 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and older, went hunting last year. That marks a 9 percent increase over 2006, reversing a previous downward trend.
“This is great news for everyone in the hunting and conservation community,” said David Allen, RMEF president and CEO. “But it’s even better news for our conservation efforts to protect and improve habitat for elk and other wildlife. We strongly believe that hunting is conservation. This is also a reflection of the importance of our hunting legacy of the past and our hunting heritage as we look to the future.”
Thanks to hunter-generated dollars, RMEF protected or enhanced more than 6.1 million acres of wildlife habitat. RMEF also recently added “hunting heritage” to its mission statement, reaffirming a commitment to ensuring a future for wildlife conservation through hunter-based support.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service data show hunters spent $34 billion last year on equipment, licenses, trips and other items to support their hunting activities. If you break down the numbers, sportsmen and women spent $10.4 billion on trip-related expenditures, $14 billion on equipment such as guns, camping items and 4-wheel drives, and $9.6 billion on licenses, land leasing and ownership and stamps.
“The more hunters spend on firearms, ammunition, bows, arrows and hunting licenses and permits, the more money is generated to provide the necessary funding for successful science-based wildlife management across the United States,” added Allen.
Here are some brief highlights from the report:
- 13.7 million hunters in 2011 compared to 12.5 million in 2006 (9 percent increase)
- Hunters spent an average of 21 days in the field
- 1.8 million 6 to 15 year olds hunted in 2011
- Big game attracted 11.6 million hunters (8 percent increase since 2006)
- Hunting-related expense increased 30 percent since 2006
- The overall participation of hunters increased more than 5 percent since 2001
- Total hunter expenditures increased 27 percent since 2001
- Expenditures by hunters, anglers &wildlife-recreationists were $145 billion or 1 percent of gross domestic product
The 2011 FWS report contains preliminary numbers. Read it in its entirety here.
The final report is due in November. An FWS preliminary report containing data from the states is due out later this month.
May 30, 2012
I’m not going to start promoting lots of hunting operations or their special deals, so don’t worry. I’ll generally only write about an operation, guide, or property with which I have personal experience.
Such is the deal with Golden Ram Sportsmen’s Club, as I was a member for several years and in that time I hunted blacktail deer and hogs on several of their properties. One thing I never hunted there was tule elk, as that’s a rare treat for the CA hunter… or for any hunter, as far as that goes. Tule elk can only be found in California, and while they’re not as big as Roosevelt or Rocky Mountain elk, they’re a rare and sought-after trophy for afficionados of these big ungulates. Short of winning the DFG lottery and drawing a public land tule elk tag (I’ve been applying unsuccessfully for the entire 15 years that I lived in CA), the only way to hunt these beautiful animals is to pay pretty big money to hunt them on private land.
Well, the “big money” part hasn’t changed much, although I guess “big money” is relative. To a lot of public land hunters, a few hundred bucks is “big money”. However, to those who travel and hunt widely, the term defines a whole other level of expense. This offer from Golden Ram is for that second group. Here’s the deal:
Golden Ram has recently gained access to a PLM tule elk hunt in central California (about three hours south of San Jose). They’re going to sell this hunt for $12,500, fully guided and outfitted to include meals, lodging, and guides. Sure, this ain’t chump change for most people, so let’s just recognize that from the get-go. But, this kind of hunt ordinarily goes in excess of $15K, and for a real trophy, that rate gets even higher.
I’d love to have that kind of money to toss into a hunt, but it’s way out of my league. Still, the last couple of years that I guided down in the Central Coast area, I watched the elk herd swell and spread. On one pig hunt that I recall, we sat on a ridge and watched dozens of elk, including a couple of real bruiser bulls, feed unmolested over the countryside. Every man in the group was practically drooling, and daydreaming of the opportunity to get out and hunt these things.
If you’re interested, you can contact Golden Ram through their website.
By the way, if you’re about to make a comment here about how this is too expensive for an elk hunt and how people would be idiots to pay that much for a hunt, please hold your water. It’s a waste of breath and time. If it’s out of your league, it’s out of your league. Don’t denigrate someone else who is willing and able to pay that sort of money to access private land and chase a trophy bull. This isn’t taking away from you. If you want a cheap elk hunt, go DIY on public land in CO or OR.