Field dressing is a necessary skill to have if you hunt regularly. The method for dressing and storing your catch after a confirmed kill depends on the type of game you bag. However, some rules are fairly universal.
In this guide, we’ll address some of the typical rules to follow while field dressing, go over how to field dress game, and present the best steps for preservation.
The Universal Field Dressing Rules
Keep It Clean
First on the list of universal rules is: “Keep it clean.” That goes for both you and your catch. You need to pack more than your hunting rifle if you want to eat your catch.
Prepare to field dress your game the right way by bringing plenty of equipment for a sanitary process. Latex gloves protect your hands and clothes from bacteria and ensure the meat doesn’t become contaminated.
Do It Fast
Next, an important rule to keep in mind is “Do it fast.” Field dressing should begin immediately after the kill has been confirmed. Meat spoils very quickly, and the longer you wait, the less time you have to eat the meat, and it won’t last as long without proper preservation.
As you’re examining the carcass, be sure to be on the lookout for any loose dirt you can brush off, not to mention any loose bullets or pellets from a shotgun that can be easily removed.
Bugs can also be an issue, so an easy solution, especially for larger game, is to bring pepper to rub on the meat. The pepper’s chemical properties help kill harmful bacteria and small insects that transport disease.
After the gutting process, it’s usually wise to drain the carcass of blood. For smaller game, it’s good to bring items that will help you dry out the carcass, like towels. Just be aware that you probably won’t be using these towels again and they’ll have to be thrown out. You drain the carcass of blood for bigger animals by flipping it over or hanging it.
Rinsing with clean water can be an essential part of the cleaning process, depending on your game. Fish need to be rinsed off before being transported or gutted, and it’s smart to rinse before and after handling any game birds.
Small game can be lightly rinsed in the same way, and so can large game, but be more careful with mammals because over-rinsing could reintroduce more bacteria and ruin the meat. This means that any catch could use a clean wash, but the amount of water used should vary depending on the catch.
Keep It Cool
Finally, the most important rule to keep in mind is: “Keep it cool.” In older times, meat would be stored and preserved by dry rubbing with large quantities of salt. Today this method still works if you’re looking to go old school, but it doesn’t work as well as refrigerating or freezing the meat. It also takes months for the meat to be ready for consumption compared to chilled meat, which only takes days to weeks to be processed and cooked.
Any time you hunt, you should bring a cooler with you to store smaller game. For larger game, you’ll need a way to transport multiple bags of ice because you’ll fill the carcass with bags of ice to preserve it. You can also use nearby snow if it’s available.
By removing all of the organs and intestines, you’ve already helped cool the carcass down. Filling the carcass with bagged ice is just an extra step you can take; but remember that too much water can end badly, so it’s best to keep the ice in the bags.
You should aim for a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature higher than that allows bacteria to grow and spread. So, remember to keep the carcass as cold as possible, ideally even lower than 40 degrees.
Cook It Hot
The next step to killing all the bacteria is cooking the meat, whether it’s roasting, boiling, frying, or baking. Your meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 140 degrees or higher. Bacteria thrive between 40 and 140 degrees. This temperature range is called the “danger zone.” So the typical rule is to keep it nice and cold and cook it nice and hot.
For large game like deer, you must be vigilant about keeping the body as cool as possible. Because it’s a bigger animal, the organs weigh even more and heat the body faster than most small game. Field dressing immediately is imperative.
To field dress a deer, elk, or other large game, make sure you’ve positioned them in a way that allows you easy and stable access to their underside. From there, you will start by coring a hole around the anus which will free up the colon.
You definitely want to keep the colon intact, so its contents don’t contaminate any meat. The same goes for most other organs, so even though it may take a firm hand to cut through some of the muscles or tendons, always be careful not to puncture the organs.
After freeing the colon, you can move to the chest by cutting from the pelvis to the sternum or vice versa. Use your knife to make the cuts. With your other hand, guide the walls of the carcass apart and protect the organs from being punctured by your blade. Once this is done, you will have revealed the diaphragm, a membrane connecting the heart and lungs with the rest of the intestines.
The Diaphragm and Esophagus
Carefully cut this membrane which will allow access to the esophagus. Sever the esophagus, and you will be able to pull all the rest of the organs out with some effort. Now your large game is ready to be prepped for transportation, ideally after being left a bit longer in the grass to drain.
Key Safety and Sanitary Measures
As mentioned, you can fill the carcass with bags of ice or snow to keep it cool during transportation. But, if it’s cold enough outside, you can also chill the body with the cold air itself. This would entail stretching the carcass open to accept the chill air rather than tying it closed against all the ice.
It’s important to be on the lookout for any off-smelling organs or irregularly colored blood. This could mean the game was diseased in some way and should not be eaten. It should be presented to the hunting ground’s local authorities, which may allow you to hunt again to replace the spoiled game. Or, they could decide that it’s best to leave most of the game alone in case of a wider spread disease.
Small game includes rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, beavers, and other small animals. With small game, the trick is to cut from breast to belly and remove all the guts. To do this, suspend or stretch the carcass, which may break a number of bones and legs.
When it comes to small animals, they frequently have some level of germs or easily-spread bacteria, so it’s vital to wear protection and gloves while handling this kind of game. Storing it should be safe and easy with a cooler to ensure the carcass stays as cool as possible.
Game birds can be huge, like wild turkey and some pheasants. Or sometimes they’re smaller like quail. The procedure is the same for all birds: Cut from the breast down to the anus, and remove everything inside. Then you can remove the head and dry the bird of its blood.
Birds, in particular, need to be rinsed out in the field and rinsed again once plucked or skinned. It’s easy for birds to collect bugs or bacteria while flying through the air or bathing. Using clean water to combat germs and bacteria is always wise to do right after the kill.
Dressing fish can either be very easy or very difficult, depending on the size of the fish. To gut a smaller one, slit its belly and remove all internal organs. For medium or larger fish, you can cut under the fish’s head along the gills to pull back the organs towards the tail, which will clear it out.
In both cases, you should rinse all of the blood out afterward, which can be done in the water that you caught the fish in. Cleaner water should be used before preparing the fish for consumption.
Bacteria spreads very quickly on fish for several reasons. The water they live in means that the fish soaks up bacteria very easily. The oxygen in the air also pushes fish to spoil very quickly, giving us that iconic smell to tell us something is wrong.