Friday, October 16, 2009

Cleaning Game In The Field

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It's almost deer season, and that means it's time to brush up on field dressing skills. It's sad, but many hunters I know have never field dressed their own kill. Instead they pay a guide to do all the dirty work. And I have to say, those guides earn every penny.

One of the truest adages about hunting that I have ever heard is that once that successful shot hits home, the fun is over. I have found this to be a fact with every kill I have ever made. Once that tag is clipped, the real work of the hunt begins, whether you are hunting for meat or for sport. The animal needs to be cleaned, cooled, and packed out, and having some of the right tools along is a great to make a tough job a little bit easier.

The most important tools when it comes to cleaning are your knives. A lot of people think that the bigger the knife, the better, but this is not always the case when dressing out game. The knife used will have to be easy to wield, because the last thing that you want to do while making that first cut is to pierce the stomach or intestines, because that is the surest way (next to touching the scent glands on deer) of spoiling the meat and ruining the hide. Big bowie knives are great for show and tell, but for the real hunter a smaller fixed blade will always be best. It goes without saying that the knife should be very sharp. Dull knives not only are more difficult to use, but they are sloppier due to the extra force needed to cut with one. Often knives can be purchased in sets, look for ones like the Triple Combo. These sets include a stout gutting knife as well as a good hide knife and a reliable skinning knife. All of these knives are essential when it comes to field dressing, and you will also want to make sure that the grip is a comfortable fit (Suregrip, etc.)

Next, make sure that you have a good saw packed along. This kit from Outdoor Edge (54628) is a set that includes both a knife and a small saw that will be helpful with smaller game and small bones on bigger animals, but nothing beats a good hacksaw that can be used as a meat saw on larger game. This will help get larger animals quartered into more packable pieces in the event that you have to carry it a long way.

A lot of kills are made around dusk, so many hunters will want to be sure that they have some kind of illumination that they can work with when night falls. D-battery Maglites are great illuminators but can be unwieldy when it comes to positioning them for dressing in the dark. Bulkier flashlights are better, and cordless spotlights with rechargeable batteries will work better still. I have found that nothing beats a headlamp such as the Enduro (59395) however, as the beam will follow your line of sight and make night dressing a snap.

When cleaning game, especially deer, you should always wear sterile gloves. This helps prevent the transmission of disease (chronic wasting disease in deer for example) or contaminants to you or the carcass. We carry Allen's Game Cleaning Kit that includes shoulder length gloves and an apron to help protect your hands and protect your clothes from getting stained by blood or entrails. Begin by using a scalpel or similar small sharp knife to make an incision from around the genitals, up the bally and across the chest past the sternum. Take care not to cut through to the body cavity. Peel the skin back from this incision about 4 to 6 inches to avoid getting any hair in the body cavity. Carefully slice around the rectum, taking care not to puncture the intestines any scent glands. Next, from your circumcision around the rectum, slice up to meet your initial incision and continue to slice open the body cavity. Use of a gut hook here is a great help in avoiding intestines, but you can use any sharp knife if you use care and pull tissue away from the body cavity while you cut. When you reach the sternum, a larger knife or bone saw is useful, especially on older bucks as the sternum can be very hard.

At this point you can open up the body cavity and begin to cut out the various organs. I prefer to start by carefully cutting and pulling out the entire alimentary canal (intestines and stomach) as a unit from our circumcision that we made earlier around the rectum. This way, the organs most likely to contaminate the kill are out of the way. You will need to reach up into the neck as high as possible to cut the esophagus. The alimentary canal should be discarded, but other organs such as the heart and can be kept at eaten. Continue removing all of the internal organs until the body cavity is empty, then irrigate (rinse out) the cavity to clean out any hair, dirt, debris, or organ remains that might be in there still.

Once you have dressed the animal, it is time to pack it out to camp or to your vehicle. You will need a lot of good rope, standard stuff such as this strong tow strap will always do. A stripped down backpack frame can make an ideal carrying case for quarters of meat when attached securely, and shorter bungees will help adjust the pack accordingly.

If the temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you can safely transport or hang the deer outside. Cooling the deer and hanging it over night can help make it easier to skin later. If it is warmer than 40 degrees, the carcass should be immediately put on ice or in a refrigerator as soon as possible. Obviously, if you are far out afield, you will simply need to transport the kill to a location where it can be cooled as quickly as possible. Cooling the carcass quickly reduces that "gamey" meat taste, and reduces the amount of bacterial contamination in the meat.

Dressing and packing out a kill is definitely one of the tougher aspect of the hunt, but once it is accomplished easily with the right equipment, all that is left is to spin tales of the adventure to your friends and family.

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