You did it! After all the days, weeks and months of preparation, practice, scouting and hunting you finally killed your first whitetail. You marvel at the curve of its antlers and the warmth of its thick brown fur. You take in the moment in your mind and on your camera. As you imagine how delicious those fresh backstraps will taste, it suddenly hits you: “What now?”
The concept of field dressing a deer can be quite intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before. Fortunately, it’s not all that difficult. The steps involved are fairly simple and mostly common sense and as I like to say, after the first 100 or so, it becomes second nature. Take your time and do it right because what you do next will significantly influence the quality of the final product.
The overall goal is to take the insides out. There are some general guidelines, and some variation depending on personal preference and whether you gut your deer in the field or in the skinning shed. We’ll focus on the former.
The First Cut
You have a couple choices here but I usually start by ringing the vent, cutting all the connective tissue around tail pipe (anus) until it is free. By cutting roughly 6 inches into the body cavity, around the anus, you’ll usually get most or all of it. You can always go back later and finish the job when it comes time to remove it.
Hold Your Breath
Next comes the most important, and often challenging part. You have to cut the hide and underlying muscle of the belly, from crotch to breast bone, without puncturing the paunch. Roll the deer so it’s lying on its back. You position the deer this way so gravity pulls the innards down and away from the belly flesh. If you have help, have them grab and hold a hind leg. If not, you can hook a leg outside yours to keep the body properly positioned and the legs spread apart.
Start by making a small incision just below the breast bone, at the base of the ribs, using just the tip of your knife. The cut should be just big enough that you can insert two fingers, pointing down and toward the rear. Using those fingers, pull up on the skin and muscle while you slip the knife blade, edge up, between your fingers and under the belly muscle. Slowly begin cutting rearward, pulling up on the skin as you do. Keep your knife blade more or less parallel to the belly so you don’t puncture any of the internal organs - this is key. It’s not a lost cause if you do, but it makes the process a whole lot more unpleasant. Continue this cut all the way down the belly to the external sex organs if it’s a buck, or the udder if a doe. Cut around both, back to the anus, remembering to cut just the skin and not into the meat. Now cut away and discard the aforementioned junk.
If you did it right, you should now be able to roll the deer on its side, letting the entrails spill out of the body cavity. Reach in and down, grabbing the lower intestine, and pull if slowly forward. If your first anal cut was done properly, you should be able to pull out the vent entirely. If not, go back and cut a little more.
A little caution is advised here as the bladder will be attached to the intestines and you don’t want to puncture it and spill its contents, possibly tainting the meat. You can discard the contents, or save the free pee in a container for later use as an attractant.
Next, cut the diaphragm, a wall of muscle separating the stomach and chest cavities, again being careful not to cut the paunch. Now reach as far up inside the chest cavity as you can, grasp the esophagus (throat) and windpipe with one hand and carefully cut through both with the knife in your other hand. Pull and the innards from windpipe to anus should come out in one mass. Roll the deer over on its belly to drain any excess blood and you're done. If you so choose, you can save the heart and liver, so it’s always a good idea to carry a couple sealable bags.
See; that wasn't so hard. It becomes easier with practice but until you become more proficient just go slowly, being careful not to cut the guts or yourself. There are some finer points, like how to deal with sex organs and udders, but you'll figure that out as you go. The most important thing is to get the internal organs and blood out quickly to prevent spoilage and cool the carcass. Then prop the body cavity open with a stick for better air circulation. Be careful dragging too so you don't get dirt on the meat. Then it's time for processing, which we'll save for another day.