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There are many different ways of processing a big game animal, and each method has its positive and negative aspects. Regardless of what method is used, the goal is always to keep the meat cool, clean, and dry. Two or more people can make this process go faster. If you want to have the animal mounted by a taxidermist, consult references on how to skin the animal for this purpose.
Keep the following ideas in mind when you are deciding on what method to use:
- Removing the organs of the animal as soon as possible is the best way to start the cooling process. If not done carefully however, you can spill gut contents, feces, or urine onto your meat.
- The more cuts you make into the meat, the more you expose it to dirt, egg-laying insects, and other sources of contamination. Cutting the animal into the largest manageable pieces possible and leaving meat on the bone is the best way to avoid this.
- With larger animals, or if you need to carry the meat a long distance, deboning some or all of the animal may be your best option.
Methods and resources
- The Conventional Field Dressing Method
This method involves removing the guts from a harvested animal before the majority of the meat is removed. Removing the guts as soon as possible helps cool the meat quicker.
Step 1: Confirm the Animal is Dead
Approach the animal from the spine side, and confirm that there is no movement of the chest or limbs. Once you believe the animal is dead, use the muzzle of your firearm or a long stick to touch the eyeball. If the animal blinks, it is still alive. You can use a single shot to the head to kill it quickly at this close range.
Step 2: Attach the Seal
The first four cuts you make when dealing with a harvested animal are on the seal. After confirming the animal is dead, cut out and remove the four portions of the seal that are required, and attach it to the carcass. To find out where to attach the seal, check the part of this booklet that provides information on your species (pages 42–60).
Step 3: Initial Cuts
- Move the animal onto its back if possible, and tie the legs out and/or have your hunting partner hold them while you work. You can do the following procedure with the animal on its side, but it makes it more awkward. A hooked blade utility knife makes the initial cuts described below easy to do. If using a knife, cut from the underside of the hide as much as possible (blade pointing up).
- Starting at the chin of the animal, cut straight down the mid-line of the belly towards the hind end, moving your cut to one side of the genitals before stopping just short of the anus. Be careful to cut through the hide only, and be cautious around the abdomen, as you do not want to puncture the gut cavity.
- Next, cut through the hide on the inside of each leg several inches below the knee joint. Continue these cuts downward to join the main cut you made along the mid-line of the belly. Make a circular cut through the hide around each lower leg below the knee joint.
- Skin back the hide from either side of your mid-line belly cut to completely expose the brisket and about 15 cm (6 in) of the abdomen.
Step 4: Genitals and Evidence of Sex
One way of leaving evidence of sex on the animal is to leave the skin from the scrotum attached to one of the hind quarters. So don’t cut this piece off if you choose this way of proving the sex. Antlers or horns attached to the skull are also acceptable for proof of sex (except in the case of caribou). After you’ve made your decision about how to retain evidence of sex, skin out the penis and scrotum, and direct it towards the back of the animal in case of urine spillage.
Step 5: Opening the Body Cavity
Make a cut to open the body cavity. This should be done extremely carefully as you do not want to puncture the gut, which will already be starting to bloat. Follow your mid-line cut with your blade pointed up or use a special tool designed for this purpose. You can use your other hand and arm to push down on the gut and guide your knife. See pg. XXX (FN Perspectives) for another way to make this cut. Salvage the flank portions (belly flap) – many hunters grind this piece for burger.
Step 6: Opening the Chest Cavity
- Use a saw to split the brisket down the center, or use a knife or saw to cut through the cartilage joints on either side and remove it whole.
- Following the mid line of the throat, cut through the tissue to expose the esophagus and trachea (windpipe). Tie off the esophagus with strong cord or plastic cable ties close to the head in two places about 5 cm (2 in) apart, and cut through both it and the trachea in between your tie off locations.
Step 7: Splitting the Pelvis
- Spread the hind legs and cut through the muscle on the mid-line of the pelvis. Using a saw, carefully cut through the pelvis bone. Be careful not to puncture the colon or bladder.
- Using a thin, sharp knife (a fillet knife works well), cut a ring around the anus, keeping your knife against the pelvic bone all the way around. This helps to ensure that you don’t puncture the colon or bladder. You can use a plastic cable tie or strong cord to tie it off when it has been separated from the body to prevent any leakage.
- Alternatively, you can tie off and sever the lower intestine before it enters the pelvis, and then remove the bladder and colon later or leave it on site if you are deboning the animal.
Opening the body cavity of a harvested animal and removing the guts allows the meat to start cooling right away. Some hunters prefer to leave this step until later, but early removal of the guts gets rid of a lot of heat quickly.
Step 8: Removing the Guts
- The diaphragm separates the chest cavity from the gut cavity and is connected to the entire inner wall of the animal’s ribs. Start cutting this away to begin freeing the organs from the body.
- When you have separated the most easily accessible parts of the diaphragm, get your partner to grab hold of the trachea (a small hole cut into it can make it easier to hang on to) and start pulling it back toward the hind end of the animal. The organs are attached to the spinal column of the animal with thin tissue. You’ll need to cut through this as your partner pulls them away.
- Get your partner to keep pulling as you cut through the connective tissue and roll the paunch and intestines out the side of the animal.
- Salvage the Heart, Liver, and Kidneys to eat or give away.
- Remove any blood from inside the body cavity, and wipe it clean. Roll the rest of the gutpile out of the way.
Depending on the size of the animal, and the distance you need to carry it, you may want to keep the largest pieces possible intact. For a very small animal such as a young caribou or deer that you are not carrying very far, you may decide to transport it whole. In other situations, and with the right equipment, you may decide to split your harvest in half, or into “butcher’s quarters” (the animal split down the spine, and severed between the second and third ribs). The following will discuss how to break the animal down into nine pieces: The neck, two front quarters, the loin and rib sections of the spine, two sides of ribs, and two hind quarters. This allows you to debone the meat at home, or to leave the bones intact to cut bone-in steaks and roasts.
Step 9: Finish Skinning
With the animal laying on one side, skin out the top side all the way to the spine.
Step 10: Remove the Hind Leg
Raise the top side hind leg and keeping upward pressure on it, carefully cut along the pelvis toward the ball and socket joint at the hip. Using your knife, sever the joint and continue your cut through to the top of the pelvis, (leaving the sirloin portion intact) until the leg is completely severed. Set it aside.
It’s important to trim away meat that has been damaged by a shot, as it spoils quickly. Keep in mind though, that when carefully inspected and opened up, a bloodshot area of muscle is often not as bad as it first looks; make sure you trim away only that meat which is actually destroyed, remembering that the Wildlife Act requires all edible meat to be removed and used.
Step 11: Remove the Front Leg
Raise the topside front leg and cut it off by slicing through the meat from the armpit to the shoulder. There is no bone-to-bone connection in the shoulder. Just run your knife between the large flat shoulder blade and the ribs. Once the leg is severed, set it aside on a clean surface such as a tarp, game bag or the half-skinned hide.
Step 12: Remove one Side of Ribs
Using your saw, cut through the ribs in order to remove them in one large slab. Be careful not to cut into the “backstrap” portions that form a triangle between the ridge of the spine and the top of the ribcage.
Step 13: Do the Other Side
Taking care to protect the exposed meat from the ground by spreading out the hide and/or laying out a tarp, flip the animal over and skin the rest of it out. Remove both legs and the ribs as you did on the other side.
Step 14: Remove the Head and Neck
Cut off the head where the spine meets the skull. A knife should be all that is needed to sever this joint, but a saw can be used too – just make sure to get as close to the skull as possible. When you’ve removed the head, you can then use a saw to cut the neck off where it meets the ribs and debone it later, or remove the meat from the bone now.
Step 15: The final cut
Cut through the spine in between the second and third ribs (counting from the tail forward) in order to preserve the tenderloins along the underside of the backbone.
You should be left with the nine portions of meat as described under "Removing the Meat".
As stated earlier, removing the guts as soon as possible starts the cooling process quickly. Some hunters choose to leave the guts intact until much of the meat has been removed, but this certainly increases the risk of spoilage from retained heat inside the animal. You should only use this method if you are confident in your skills and know that you can get to the guts in a short amount of time. It is not recommended in warmer temperatures. Never leave the guts in overnight.
Deboning an animal can be extremely useful if you want to reduce the weight of the load you need to carry (e.g. on a backpacking hunt), and are not interested in bone-in steaks and roasts. Keep in mind though, that deboning an animal can expose much more meat to the air than leaving the bones in, leading to increased risk of contamination.
We’ll describe here the deboning of an animal using the “gutless” method, but you can also debone your harvest using the conventional field dressing method described above.
Step 1: “The First Cuts” – Cancel and Attach the Seal
Step 2: With the Animal on its Side, Skin Out the Top Side of the Animal
Step 3: Remove the Top Side Legs
Step 4: Remove the Top Side Backstrap and Neck Slab
Remove the top side backstrap by making two long, deep cuts lengthwise on the backof the carcass. The cuts will join at the backbone to form a “V” shape. The first cut runs from where the neck meets the ribs to the pelvis. Cut down along the mid-line of the back to the point where each rib meets the spine. Make the second cut along the side of the ribs and run it upward to join the first cut along the top of the rib cage. This cut should also
run from the neck to the pelvis. When it’s finished, the backstrap should come off in one long strip. Next, fillet the slabs of muscle off the topside of the neck.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 2, 3 and 4 on the Other Side
Step 6: Remove the Guts as Described in the Conventional Method
Removing or splitting the brisket makes this task much easier.
Step 7: Remove the Tenderloins
Fillet off the two strips of meat that run on the underside of the spine from the pelvis to the 3rd rib. You can place these in a game bag with the backstraps.
Step 8: Remove the Ribs
To bone out the brisket and ribs in place, fillet the slabs of meat off the outside of the rib cage and then cut out the strips of meat from between the ribs.
Step 9: Remove the Remaining Meat
Next, check the carcass over carefully and remove any remaining pieces of edible meat.
You can further debone the animal by removing the meat from the legs you set aside earlier. A fillet knife works well for this. After you’ve removed all the edible meat you should be left with a gut pile, hide and a clean skeleton.
The meat should be hung in a cool (just above 0°C), dry, well-ventilated place that is protected from flies. The meat can hang for 7 to 10 days to age and tenderize before cutting it up into meal-size portions for the freezer. Be aware that meat will spoil if not hung properly, especially if temperatures are not cool enough or if ventilation is poor. A fan can help with air circulation. If you can’t maintain a cool temperature, you may be better off aging meal sized portions in your refrigerator.
Keep It Cool, Keep It Clean, Keep It Dry and Keep Scavengers Away
Keep it cool: The faster the meat cools, the better it will be. Start dressing out the animal shortly after it’s killed.
Keep it clean: Spilled urine, faeces or stomach contents can taint the meat. So can bloodclots or shot-up meat. Be careful not to puncture the bladder, intestines or stomach, and trim away any shot-up meat.The field-butchered pieces of meat should be wrapped in game bags or cheese cloth. This will protect the meat while allowing air to circulate around it. Do not wrap the meat in plastic garbage bags or it will spoil quickly.
Keep it dry: A dry protective crust will protect the meat from egg-laying insects and prevent spoiling. This crust will form only if the meat is wiped dry and exposed to the air.
Keep scavengers away: If you must leave your meat pile for short periods as you make a series of packing trips, urinate around the pile or leave a jacket or other piece of clothing on the pile. Although they aren’t fool-proof, these techniques will often keep scavengers away from the meat.
“When you kill something, the animal gives its life for you. So you’ve got to give thanks to the Great Spirit. Something had to die for you to continue with your life. That’s the way I look at it.” – Art Johns, Carcross/Tagish First Nation Elder
The hunting traditions of Yukon First Nation peoples have grown out of their intimate relationship with the natural world. Through wise use of local resources, the first people of the Yukon were able to feed, clothe and shelter themselves while developing rich communities and cultures. Moose and caribou in particular provided a bountiful source of food and raw material such as bone, hide and sinew.
While the equipment used by First Nation hunters has changed over the last 200 years, the way in which moose and caribou are used has remained essentially the same for countless generations. Art Johns of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation knows all about traditional uses of moose and caribou. In his desire to communicate respect for wildlife, and help reduce the waste of wild meat, he has graciously provided the information you
can read below.
When Art Johns dresses out a moose or caribou, he does a few things differently from the conventional field dressing method. Before gutting the animal he cuts off the head, skins the carcass, and removes the shoulders and hams. Then he guts the animal in a unique way. Instead of cutting down the centre of the abdomen, he cuts around the edges of the flank or “belly flap”. This flap of muscle, about 2 cm (1 in.) thick, covers the belly
from the ribs to the pelvis and up to the back on each side. Art removes the belly flap in one large piece, emptying the belly cavity as he goes.
Eat Everything — Waste Nothing
First Nation peoples traditionally eat all edible parts of a moose, right down to the hooves. This practice avoids waste and shows proper respect for the animal that gave up its life. It also provides vitamins and nutrients, which are concentrated in selected body parts.
Here’s how Art Johns makes use of the whole animal:
Shoulders, hams, loin and back – Cut these large pieces of meat into roasts or steaks.
Neck and shanks – Cut a slab of meat off each side of the neck and use it in a stew or soup. The shank meat can be used the same way, or it can be left on the bone and roasted.
Brisket, ribs and flank – Ribs can be roasted in racks or cut up in smaller pieces and boiled. The brisket can be cooked the same way. The flank can be cut into small pieces and boiled or rolled into roasts if it has enough fat on it.
Head – Cut off the antlers, skin out the head and roast it over an open fire. Pick off the tender meat. The eyeballs are especially nutritious.
Moose nose – Singe the hair off the moose nose over an open fire, Cut the nose off thehead just in front of the bone, then cut it in strips about 5 cm (2 in.) wide and boil them.
Bones – Leave some meat on the bones. Cut them in pieces about 10 cm (4 in.) long. Boil the bones, eat the meat off them and suck the rich marrow out of the centre.
Bone joints – The bone sections at the joints can be cut into smaller pieces and boiled in water. A fine “bone grease” will rise to the top of the pot. Let it cool until it gels and then skim it off. It makes excellent “butter” for eating with dry meat or other snacks.
Hooves – Leave the hooves attached to the lower legs. Burn the hair off and then boil the hoof and bone. Eat the meat off the bone right down to the hooves.
Organs – The tongue can be boiled or roasted. The heart, kidneys and liver are usually fried. If the animal was rutting its liver may be swollen and inedible. If that’s the case, leave it in the bush for the whisky jacks and ravens that keep you company.
Diaphragm – The diaphragm can be cut in strips and fried right at the kill site.
Guts – Only certain parts of the stomach and intestines should be eaten. It’s best to learn directly from someone who knows the right parts. The large intestines are split lengthwise, washed out and boiled.
You can eat the organs, diaphragm, guts and flank right away. The remaining meat should be hung in a cool (just above 0°C), dry, well-ventilated place that is protected from flies. Let the meat hang for 7 to 10 days to age and tenderize before cutting it up in meal-size portions for the freezer. Meat will spoil if not hung properly, especially if temperatures are not cold enough or if ventilation is poor.
“If you show respect for the animal and treat it right, it will come back to you the next time you are hungry. If you don’t show respect, it will not return. That’s what we tell the children so they will learn how important it is to respect the animal. “
— Art Johns Carcross/Tagish First Nation
To watch videos on how to field dress big game and butcher your harvest, check Environment Yukon’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/environmentyukon.
Contact the Hunter Education Coordinator