We’re going to go over a topic that may seem redundant if you are a seasoned hunter. However, for those new to hunting, field dressing can be a fairly complex and difficult process to understand. While there is no substitute for watching and helping an experienced hunter field dress a deer, not everyone has access to mentors. So let’s talk about the basic process.
To field dress a deer you only need one tool: a good knife. Hundreds of products exist that purport to make field dressing easier, but at the end of the day, most of them are unnecessary. When choosing a knife for gutting a deer you will want to focus on a good fixed blade knife. Folding knives have lots of nooks and crannies that blood and germs can get in, making them hard to clean properly. Also, fixed blade knives are stronger. Make sure the knife is stainless steel, and has a blade between 3 and 4 inches. 3 and 1/2 inches is my favorite length. A full tang knife (the steel of the blade goes all the way to the bottom of the grip) is ideal and jimping (ridges in the steel) on the back of the blade helps you control the knife. Above all else, the knife must be razor-sharp. Get a sharpener—either a guided one or a sharpening stone, and learn to use it. Field dressing a deer with a dull knife is incredibly dangerous.
First of all, you should know that the field dressing needs to happen as soon as is safely possible. Your number one goal after killing a deer is to get the body opened up so the meat starts cooling down. Even if it is cold outside, the body cavity will remain warm for hours unless it is cleaned out.
Step 1: Make sure the animal is dead. The easiest way to do this is to inspect the deer for any signs of breathing or movement. If you are not noticing movement, use your rifle or a long stick to poke the deer right below the eye. Animals can seem dead but still have life left, however, no animal that is still alive will sit completely still if an object is headed towards their eye.
Step 2: Prep the animal for field dressing. Drag it to somewhere that is relatively clean. Roll it on its back. If possible, tie the legs to two nearby trees. Wear gloves if possible. In the winter I will throw an XL pair of nitrile gloves on over my winter gloves. With CWD and TB you want to keep the body fluids of a deer off of your skin. I know it’s “badass” to roll your sleeves up and get your bare hands inside the deer, but it’s not worth the risk of disease or infection.
Step 3: Cut a ring around the anus of the animal. There is nothing glamorous about this part of field dressing, but it is necessary to get the animal properly cleaned out. Next, with the blade face down you need to cut between the thighs down to the pelvic bone. You will have to press pretty hard with the knife to get through the muscle here. Once this is done, you will insert the knife blade up into the body cavity. You want the blade facing up to avoid cutting into the intestines. Using your non-knife hand to lift the skin while you cut can help avoid puncturing the stomach. You will want to cut up to the rib cage.
Step 4: Reach inside the body cavity and start pulling everything out. You will probably want to roll your sleeves up first and may want to remove that $500 Sitka GoreTex coat. After getting the organs partially out, you will need to reach inside the cavity and use your knife to sever the esophagus. Reach as high up as you can through the rib cage and find it, then a quick slice will sever it. You will also need to sever the connecting tissue that surrounds the body and helps keep the organs in. Be Very Careful when severing the esophagus and connective tissue. This step involves reaching up into a slippery body cavity (where you can’t see) with a razor-sharp blade. You will also need to pull the heart and lungs out with your gloved hand. Just a little tug and they will come out.
Step 5: With most of the organs pulled out by now, flip the animal right side up and let the blood and everything else fall out. Make sure that the anus and intestines pull completely out as well. That’s it, you are done and your animal is now properly field dressed!
Field dressing a large animal can be very intimidating to a new hunter. It’s kind of gross and can occasionally make even the most rugged hunter a little queasy. There’s no easy or clean way to do it, you’ve got to get kinda dirty and covered in blood and clean the animal out. However, once you’ve done a couple of deers it will become like second nature. Don’t be afraid to screw up. Even if the worst case happens and you sever the stomach covering the insides in waste matter, a good rinse with a hose will make the meat safe to eat. Good luck!