How to Process a Deer
The first thing you do, before you skin it, before you even let them unload it in your
garage, is have them write down their name, number, and hunting license number. They’ll come in, reeking of booze, wanting to look at the other deer (rack size and all that), but you got to keep a log for the DNR so they can check up on who shot what, where, how many. If they’re tribal, you still want their name and number, but for the license part, just have them write “tribal.”
They’ll say something like, “I want a roast for the smoker, either the rump or shoulder.
Boneless. Butterfly the backstraps. Cut steaks out of the hind. Burger the rest.” You’ll have to ask about the tenders. They come from the underside of the spine, one on each side. Chops are like NY strips, but tenders are like filet mignon. When you package the cuts, put the tenders right on top. First thing they want to see when they open the bag is that little pack of tenders smiling back at them. Big bucks can have neck tenders from the muscle that covers the windpipe. If they get old enough, big enough. If they’ve had some winters. All deer have them, but on the big bucks they really stick out. The meat isn’t as tender though. And neck tenders isn’t a real term. It’s just something I made up. This is all stuff I learned over the years. I watched a few people, like you’re doing now, but you learn best by doing, so I think by now I know my shit. Peak firearm season, I’ll do ten a day.
I don’t hunt, myself. Don’t even own a gun. I already know what you’re thinking: I’m
some leftist liberal tree-hugging piece of shit. The truth is, I don’t need one. I got my knife. All you need is a good knife. This one’s got a bone handle and she’s old, but her edge is so sharp it sings. And every year when deer season rolls around, people seem pretty happy I take a knife over a gun.
Next, is horns. You have to ask what they want done with them: do they want a
European mount (top jaw only); do they want it caped (whole head on the wall) – I charge fifty bucks extra for that because skinning it is such a pain in the ass; or do they just want a skull cap (horns only)? If the skull cap is all they want, you can saw it off for them right there. Flick out that tiny bit of brain. Sometimes, if it’s a spike, they want to keep the horns for their dogs.
Once you’ve asked all that – and only then – can they put the deer in the garage. And if
they want to prepay, that’s not a bad thing either.
I guess I did have a gun once. When I was a kid. An old .22 from my brother. He gave it
to me before he run off. I shot at clouds and fenceposts. I shot at tree trunks and the swing set. I missed everything but that didn’t stop me from trying. I used to think about that tiny nugget of metal flying through the air, landing God knows where in the field, and how maybe years on, as a man, I would be walking back there and see a glint in the weeds, or lodged in a tree, and recognize my own bullet. What would be the odds of that? Zero probably.
More than likely, the deer is frozen. It’ll come in with snow packed in the cavity.
Nature’s freezer. You have to let it thaw before you can do anything with it. When it’s soft, cut the front legs off. I want to tighten the leg up and put some steady pressure on it so all I got to do is cut through the tendons and then the knuckle just breaks apart. You hear that? It just pops apart in your hands. The back legs are different. I have to press them to the side over my knee, find that knuckle, and cut. Then I just break it over my knee. From there, you make a slit to the inside thigh and cut the tail off. Go ahead and toss it in the corner by the chicken plucker.
The only time I managed to shoot something was a blue jay hogging the feeder on the
porch. The old man liked to put out suet. The bird was fat and half tame so I could take my time aiming. There was a pop and a puff. Tiny blue feathers floating down. It landed flat on its back, wings out, like it had done a back flip or something. I remember it was hunting season. Firearm to be exact. There’d been gunfire in the air all week and all the sudden I was part of it. I’d taken something. I picked up the jay by the foot and it barely weighed a thing – and it was a good-sized bird, not like some chickadee or sparrow. I thought, alright, I got something. My first kill, right? There was power in that. It made me feel – big. But the bigness didn’t sit right on me. It should’ve been hard. You shouldn’t be able to just stand there and move your finger. You should sweat. Your body should be in it. It should be messy. And I was standing there dangling that pretty blue bird by the foot. Near weightless. The old man pulled up the driveway, and maybe he would’ve been proud, but I tossed it into the unmowed grass at the edge of the yard.
After you cut off the legs and tail, you skin it. Start by slicing the ears at the base to
loosen them but don’t cut them off yet. See how nice and pink the neck is underneath? Like the pit of some fruit. Run your knife up the brisket and veer up the left and right sides of the head to the ears. Put a chain around the head and hang it. I installed a winch special for that. Then just pull the ears down. You won’t have to help it along much. And there it is, like a pile of laundry. Like the body just kicked off all its clothes. Now, if you do pull off the head (which can happen if the neck is weak or still frozen), then you’ll have to skin it upside down.
This is what I call a milk sack. It’s like an udder. She probably had fawns. They’d be old
enough now to be on their own. But if they were still sucking – and maybe they were born late – they wouldn’t survive the winter anyhow. Trim it off and throw it over by the plucker. Set the hide aside to be salted. Lower the deer onto the cart and cut the head off. Here’s the hand saw.
It was the old man that compelled my brother to run. The house was a territory too
small. Like bucks in rut. You ever seen that? Rolling head over tail, horns tangled. They’ll keep at it till one’s dead or runs off. Well, my brother run off. He tore out into the yard, and the old man leaned over the porch screaming, I’m all you got in the world. You leave, you got nothing. Which wasn’t true, because there was me, but I was only 10 or 11. My brother puts that .22 in my hands and says, this is all I can do for you now. His face was messed up. And he was out of breath and needing to be gone. And the yard was so quiet. You could see the dust cloud from his truck hanging in the air, thinning. And then it was me, a critter cornered in the underbrush, alone with the old man.
A doe – skinned, no head, no legs – will weigh around 110 pounds, maybe a little more;
a buck can get up to 150. How do you get it on the cutting table? You put a meat hook in its shoulder and hoist the hinds in the crook of your elbow. There’s nothing to do but wrap your arms around it and heft it over. Real up close and personal. You can feel it soaking into your sleeves, cold on your skin. Not bloody, but damp, and somehow, more than 110 pounds. Dead weight is like that. You’ll be sore in the morning.
Don’t keep flanks for anybody. I’m serious. Cut them out and throw them away. I
guarantee, they are bloody and dirty, no matter how good a field dresser a hunter thinks they are. They cut out the guts and don’t wash it. No cavity is clean after being dragged out of the woods. See this? A leaf. I told you.
Break the carcass down by removing the hinds and shoulders. You do one side, flip the
carcass, and do the other. Take off the first hind by cutting the tendon between the ball and joint of the hip, then follow along the bone to separate it. Set that hind aside for now. You’ll trim it later. Taking out the tenders is the easiest thing to do: a quick slice down each side and then you glide your fingers behind it, breaking those clear membranes, and the tender just falls into your hand. Takes barely anything at all. The slightest touch. Almost seems wrong that the best, most tender piece is the easiest to remove.
Here’s a story: A guy brought me a deer a few years ago that had its tenders stolen. He
shot the deer and hung it overnight at camp. They were drinking and playing cards. Friends of friends stopped by. It turns into a party. Everyone’s wasted. In the morning, he throws the deer in the back of his truck and sees the tenders are missing. Someone cut them out in the night and took off. Moral of the story is, know who’s at your camp. Or else hang your deer higher.
Wouldn’t you know, the cat brought the blue jay up to the porch. I almost tripped
on it. There it was, all spread out like a paper fan. There was blood matted at the base of the wing. That's where I had gotten it. A good shot, but I didn't know that then. The wind was playing with the feathers, moving them around, and I tricked myself into thinking it was still alive. I scooped it up and folded the wings all up and held it right against my chest, like I was burping a baby. And wouldn’t you know that’s when dad comes out. What you got there? he says. I shot it, I says. With what? I’d kept the gun a secret from him. It was something from my brother to me. I’m not asking again, he says. You got secrets from me? I wouldn’t answer him, but he knew. He batted the bird out of my hands, and I could see then that it was dead, that my mind had been playing tricks on me. Hand the gun over, he says. So, I did.
Kids and hunting though – I have thoughts. Youth hunt starts in September and these
kids go out with their dads. Wee little kids. Sometimes, you got to wonder if the kid even does the shooting. Like, those dads at the kids-only fishpond. Does the kid really want to fish or is the dad taking advantage of a situation? I get it, you got to start them young, but you got to know your kid. One dad and his kid brought me a deer and the kid is all stunned and weepy, looking at the deer I’ve got lined up, and he asks me, all big-eyed, “Do you think they have souls?” Now, I’m no dad but I recognize this is delicate. So, I squat down to his level, knife in my hand, deer parts in piles all around, and I say, “I think deer are very special to God.” Because of course they are. Beyond that, what does anyone know.
Bone out the shoulder next. Follow along the leg bone to this white line, which is the
shoulder blade. A lot of the time, the shoulder is damaged because that’s where they usually get shot. They get shot there because of the lung. It’s a quick death. Where the shot went in, there is black jelly; black blood. Cut off anything that’s bloody or shattered or has hair on it. See how marbled the meat looks, all marbled cream and maroon? If the meat looks black, if there’s dried blood or hair, take that layer off. The meat is good underneath. Try to save as much meat as possible and cut away the wound. Bad shots cause a lot of waste. The worst place to shoot a deer is in the spine. It ruins the backstrap. And if they are gut shot, God, does it stink. That’s the blackest, deadest smell there is. You smell it once and you’ll never forget it.
Now you flip the carcass over and break down the other side. Hind and shoulder. Same
motions as before, only opposite direction. Then cut off the muscle covering the windpipe and pull it out, toss it. It’s a workout. Sometimes, at this point, my bicep seizes up. But after this, the deer’s pretty much broken down: horns, legs, hide, head, hinds, shoulders. The pieces are manageable, the cuts you make are small. Take a minute to run your blade over the steel. It’s important to keep it sharp.
You’ll probably have to toss those clothes, by the way. I should have warned you. I’ve
tried everything over the years. Bleach. Borax. Baking soda. Soaking in the tub overnight. The best you can hope for is the red to fade to this yellowish-brown color. I finally broke down and ordered a butcher’s coat and apron. It was gleaming white for about ten seconds. But it’s not just the stains, it’s the smell. This raw, cold smell. You can’t get it out. It gets in your clothes, your hair. You can feel it burrowing up in your nose, making itself at home. It makes you wonder what you’d smell like without your own skin. And then, you just don’t smell it anymore.
The last step to breaking down the deer is the ribs. You want to slice the meat off the
ribs in a single sheet. I call it deer bacon. Again, my term. Looks like it though, doesn’t it? Now, not everybody does this, but what I like to do is thread the knife between the ribs and cut out any little ribbons of meat. You want to strip the carcass down so that when the hunter sees it, they’ll know they’re not getting cheated. You’ve removed every last bit you could. Once it’s broken down, set the carcass – or what’s left of it – on the floor. Not much more than a spine and ribcage at this point. It’s a beautiful thing, really, when you think what we started with.
He gave me that .22 for protection. I know that. Things were ugly, but the gun made
them uglier. You ever have a gun pointed at you? You can’t move. It’s like everything is going fast and slow at the same time. The only thing that’s moving is your brain and even that is only fixated on one or two things. For me, it was the bird. How bright it was against the worn-out wood of the porch. Bright blue, bright white, bright red. Red, white, and blue. And the other thought was: he-wouldn’t-do-it-he-couldn’t-do-it-he-wouldn’t-do-it-he-couldn’t-do-it. Maybe that counts as a whole bunch of thoughts, but they all came in one, long rush. I had this feeling of wanting my brother. It was so cold that day, a late November day. There was that crust of snow on the ground that you weren’t sure would stay or go. I was frozen there, not moving an inch, just thinking about the colors of the jay and that he-wouldn’t-do-it-he-couldn’t-do-it. But then I had a third thought: I’d leveled that same gun at the jay a few hours before and all it took was for me to move one finger. One single finger.
Here I am, running my mouth, and you look like you need a break. First time through is
a lot to take in. There’s a lot to remember. A lot to think about. And then your body’s doing stuff it’s not used to, lifting and jerking and pulling and pushing. Deer are big animals. If every hunter had to do this, I bet there’d be a lot less hunters. We’re at a point where we could move on, trim the cuts, vacuum-pack them, grind and stuff the burger. Easy stuff. Or, we could start on a new one. We got ten more waiting. This time of year, there’s always more. You remember where to start? A little pressure on the front leg, a quick cut through the tendons, and then the knuckle breaks apart.