Field Care And Processing Advice For The Neophyte Nimrod

October 20, 2015

Are you new to hunting, or maybe just new to dressing and processing your own game?

Don’t be ashamed.  We were all there once.

Some of us had the benefit of family and friends to guide us through the learning process.  Others learned the hard way, through trial and error.  And some studied books, magazines, and more recently, the Internet.  (I expect there are several of us who’ve leveraged all of this.)

There’s an awful lot of really good information out there. There are any number of real experts sharing their knowledge in writing and videos, and some of it is actually useful to the novice.  You can look up just about anything you want on YouTube or Google.  There are also many quality websites, like my friend, Hank Shaw’s Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.

That all said, in my opinion, the worst possible source of information for the new hunter is social media.  Just don’t do it, as tempting as it may be to get that instantaneous gratification.  Everyone on social media is an expert in their own minds, and every piece of advice is self-perceived perfection… sometimes couched in experience, but as often as not, it’s little more than theory expounded to the extreme.

So I’ve taken the long way around to my point, but that’s sort of the point itself… there’s a LOT of information about how to turn your game into quality meat.  It can be overwhelming.  It can make you want to give up.

Don’t do that.

In keeping with the title of this piece, I’ve got some advice.  But it’s not going to be detailed, step-by-step procedures for field dressing or butchering.  You can find that anywhere.  No, my advice is about how to utilize that information without getting an aneurysm or a PhD.

First things first, taking care of your game after you put it down is not rocket science.  There are some basic rules, but there are only a couple of ways you can really screw it up.  Keep that in the top of your mind.

There are only a couple of ways to really screw it up.  

So don’t be afraid.

Start with field dressing.

One of the ways to really screw up is to put off the field dressing for too long.  I’m not going to offer the complicated explanation of why this is bad.  It just boils down to the simple fact that you’re essentially marinating the meat in blood and guts.  If you don’t want the meat to taste like blood and guts, you need to remove them quickly.

How quickly?  As quickly as practical.  You’ll hear a lot of “experts” who make it sound like you need to race right out to the animal and strip the guts out before its heart has fairly stopped beating.  If that’s realistic in your situation, then there’s absolutely no argument against the sooner, the better approach.  It is a fact that the sooner you can get the carcass cooled down, the less likely you are see tainted or spoiled meat.  (Just, for your own sake and a little humanity, make sure the critter is actually dead before you start cutting.)

The truth is that you’ve got some time.   The amount of time you have depends on things like the weather (heat is the enemy), the kind of animal (pork and bear can turn pretty rapidly, while venison is much more forgiving), and where the shot went (the nastier the body fluid, e.g. gut shot, the faster you want it out).  But even on a 90-degree, early season day, you’ve got a couple of hours if you need them.  Don’t panic.  The very worst that will happen is that you’ll lose some meat… a shame, no doubt, but it’s not going to kill you.

How do you know it’s lost?  Rinse it off well, and then smell it.  Is it something you would put in your mouth?  Truly spoiled meat can be harmful, but by that point, it’s usually going to smell too bad to eat anyway.  

Field dressing really entails two, simple steps.  You have to take out the guts, and take off the skin (not always in that order).  There are a lot of mistakes you can make during these two steps, but honestly, none of them are irreversible.

In fact, when it comes to skinning, pretty much the worst thing you can do is maybe cut off some good, edible meat or get hair on the carcass.  Does that sound like the end of the world?  Here is critical data point, #1… it’s not the end of the world.  For the most part, you can rinse a little hair off when the skinning and gutting is done.  A more thorough clean-up should also take place during butchering.

Sure, food safety experts will warn that hair can carry bacteria, or that your knife blade can be so sullied from cutting the skin that it will contaminate the meat with any number of nasty microorganisms.  Just remember, those experts work in a world of sterile laboratories and Petri dishes, not the field or the skinning shed.  I wouldn’t cut up an animal with a feces-covered blade, but it’s pretty much impossible to maintain sterile equipment during the field dressing process.  Just try to be reasonably clean.  Wipe the blade off if it gets nasty, and keep at it.

Gutting the animal can be a little trickier, but even here, there’s just not much you can do to ruin the job.  If you ask for instruction or advice about gutting an animal, you’re going to hear a lot about not cutting into the paunch, slicing the large intestine, or nicking the bladder.  The warnings can be so dire that I know hunters who are afraid to field dress their own animals.  Don’t let them get to you.

First of all, there’s no doubt that cutting into the paunch or spilling feces and urine can make for an unpleasant field dressing experience.  The paunch, in particular, can be gag-a-maggot foul.  I’ve seen grown men choke and turn away at the stench.  The only thing that touches the paunch contents for nastiness, in my experience, is the rumen (sort of the “cud”).

Of course, none of this is something you want to marinate your meat in.  So don’t let it marinate.  If you cut the paunch or spill the bladder, finish gutting the animal and rinse the cavity out thoroughly.  That usually takes care of any risk of flavoring the meat.

Let’s be clear here, now.  I’m not advocating being sloppy or careless when you field dress.  You want to avoid spilling waste or body fluids on the meat if you can.  Take your time and pay attention to what you’re doing, and you reduce the chances of doing so.  But if you slip (and even the best of us do), it doesn’t mean you have to throw the meat to the dogs.

By the way, this is why I often prefer waiting to field dress an animal until I get back to the barn, where I have the equipment to do a clean job.  Tools like proper lighting, a gambrel, hanging pole, and a water hose can ensure that you can work carefully and cleanly.  If you can get the animal back to camp within a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable effort, the benefits can outweigh the risks.

What about butchering and such?

When you look at a skinned, big game animal, it’s pretty easy to see certain “cuts”.  The hams, for example, are hard to miss.  Shoulders are right there.  The “backstrap” or loin is not difficult to pick out.  The tenderloins are invisible from the outside, of course, but if you look inside the cavity, they’re pretty much the only show in town.  And that’s the basics.

There is definitely a “right” way to butcher a big game animal… especially if you require textbook cuts to show off to your foodie friends.  That said, just like any other endeavor, it’s also nice to be able to do a good and proper job.  Butchering game has a bit of a manly overtone, I suppose, and it’s a skill set that is widely lacking in current society.  So there is some rationale to study up, learn the charts, and do it like a pro.

But you don’t have to.  If you start whacking away and accidentally cut your sirloins into stew meat, then the worst that happens is you have some really good stew meat.  The primary purpose to butchering is to separate the parts you want to eat from the parts you don’t want to eat.  Everything beyond that is finesse, and you learn finesse through experience.  You can learn a lot from just diving in and getting it done.

You’ll hear a lot, especially on social media (because I know you looked there, even though I told you not to) about hanging, or aging, venison.  To hear some people, you’d think venison is inedible if it’s not aged anywhere from 24 hours to a month.  That’s not true.

What is true is that aging can make some cuts of meat very tasty and tender.  It’s an excellent practice to adopt, if you have the proper place to get it done.  But it is absolutely not a requirement for good meat, and if you screw it up by letting your meat get too warm or moist, it will ruin the whole danged thing.

The point is, if you don’t hunt in a place where the temps are chilly all season, or if you don’t have a spare refrigerator or walk-in cooler handy, you don’t need to go buy one to “properly” care for your deer.  If, like a lot of hunters around the country, you’re only likely to go out and kill one deer every couple of years, it’s hardly worth the cost or effort.  It will be OK to cut and freeze your animal in fairly short order, and if you took reasonably good care of it after the shot, it’s still going to be wonderful.

So there it is, for what it’s worth.  My intent is not to dispel “myths” about game meat care, because a lot of the advice and information out there is valid… in its own, overkill sort of way.  But I think it’s important, especially for the new hunter, to recognize that there is no deep mystery or magic to proper game care.  You can do it yourself, and there’s a good chance that when you do, it will deepen the value of the hunting experience for you.




6 Responses to “Field Care And Processing Advice For The Neophyte Nimrod”

  1. Field Care And Processing Advice For The Neophyte Nimrod | on October 20th, 2015 17:36

    […] Field Care And Processing Advice For The Neophyte Nimrod […]

  2. JAC on October 20th, 2015 20:41

    This is super helpful, Phillip. Thanks!

  3. hodgeman on October 20th, 2015 23:21

    Great piece Phillip!
    One of the very good arguments for butchering your own game…nobody will take care of your meat like you do. Nobody.

    By now, I’ve taught at least a couple dozen folks to field dress and about half that to butcher. It’s not that hard and once you learn, you can’t imagine letting someone else do it.

    I agree the whole aging bit is overdone. I hunt a lot in August- warm and buggy up here. I can’t hang anything…I just cut it up and freeze it. After 6 months in the freezer I defy anyone to tell me if it was aged or not…there’s no difference at that point.

  4. Phillip on October 21st, 2015 12:01

    Thanks, guys.

    Hodge, I’m with you. The bulk of my hunting has been in warm weather. While I’ll hang a deer overnight, if the weather permits, most of the time they go from field to freezer in relatively short order. With good treatment during the processing, and a little kindness in preparation for the table, I get a lot of positive feedback. My favorite was a friend in Texas who accused me of serving axis deer in place of whitetail, because whitetail just couldn’t be that tender or flavorful.

  5. Robb on October 23rd, 2015 17:10

    Last week I brought the heart/liver/lungs to someone I hadn’t given meat to before. She was overjoyed, and next thing you know she’s begging my wife to let her know next time we get something down so she can go right there and get the other parts she wants. What she is particularly interested in is the contents from the first stomach. Pia they call it where she comes from. I’m not so enthused. I’ve about had enough organ meat for a while, no interest in rumen soup.

    I gut an animal to shed weight as much as anything. That young cow elk that I figure was a year and a half old had probably 140 pounds of guts. It’s legal to see if bears show up too, it’s not considered baiting.

    I don’t hang anything because I don’t want to lose meat to drying and I don’t like skin on because I don’t like the smell of the skin.

  6. Phillip on October 23rd, 2015 18:08

    I try hard to keep an open mind, and I’ve been surprised by some things I thought I’d never eat… but rumen? That one’s gonna have to stay a hard limit for me.

    And, I know what you mean. When I hunt backcountry, I definitely drop as much weight as possible, so nothing comes out with me but meat (and proof of sex where required). Of course, hunting right out the back door here in NC is a somewhat different situation. I do miss CO, though. Looking forward to my next trip to get out there.