Notes From The Skinning Shed – Field Care Reminder

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…


4 Responses to “Notes From The Skinning Shed – Field Care Reminder”

  1. JAC on December 11th, 2012 11:08

    How do, Phillip: How do I get this in a pamphlet? I may print this out and stick it under my hat.

    I think you should make an instructional video on field dressing and butchering. I watched several of those prior to deer season, but watching you gut and skin my pig in CA was the best lesson I’ve yet had. But it was the only lesson I’ve had, and it was three years ago, so I’m basically relying on college biology to get by.

  2. Phillip on December 11th, 2012 16:14

    Print away! No extra charge, and if you’d like, I can give you folding instructions to make your own, basic, tri-fold, 8.5″x11″ pamphlet!

    Seriously! Three years? Brother, spring time is coming and the Hill Country is loaded with game (except my place, unfortunately). Time to break that long hiatus and get your hands nice and bloody.

  3. JAC on December 11th, 2012 23:05

    Three years and two months since that extraordinarily gladiatory day of beast verus beast.

    Tell me what day and what airport. Seriously.

  4. Phillip on December 12th, 2012 23:48

    Shoot me an email, John. I’m honestly challenged to schedule long-term right now, because work travel has been insane, but I bet we can put something together.