Taking a hunting road trip? There’s not always a processor or gambrel nearby. Here’s how to care for your venison at the truck
(Ed Anderson illustration)
When a hunt takes you away from home, your usual butchering routine probably gets derailed. Sure, it’s nice to have a block and tackle in the shed and butcher paper on the counter. But these are luxuries, and you can easily break down a buck without them. If you’re truck camping or staying in motels, the tailgate of your pickup is probably the best place to get the job done. Let’s talk about how to load and process a whitetail on your own, and the tools you’ll need to pull it off.
Learn to Load a Deer Solo
(Tyler Ridenour photo)
Getting a deer out of the field without help is hard work, but manageable for one person with a game cart or deer drag. Lifting a deer from the ground into a truck bed alone, however, can be a real back breaker. All you need is a little planning and ingenuity. The perfect method? Using a piece of plywood as a ramp to load the deer. You can also back up to a small incline to make the task simpler.
Bring the Right Tools
(Tyler Ridenour photo)
Plan for success and pack accordingly. Don’t forget the essentials, and bring the additional items if you have the space. They’ll make the processing easier and the meat taste better.
Knife Set: A basic knife suffices for field dressing, but a few specialized blades will speed up the process. Gut-hooks are handy for unzipping the vitals, but don’t let the name fool you — these work well for removing the hide, too. A sturdy, fixed-blade knife is great for separating joints and primary cuts. A small filet knife is useful for turning large pieces of deboned meat into separate muscles. Don’t forget to add a small sharpener to your kit.
Game Bags: Most hunters only pack these if they’re headed into the backcountry, but game bags should be standard on any big-game hunt. Avoid the temptation to stash quarters and deboned meat in unscented garbage bags. They will keep your cuts clean, but plastic traps heat and moisture. Game bags allow air circulation and will keep venison clean and cool until you can get it on ice. They’re more expensive upfront, but with proper care a set of tightly-woven synthetic bags will last several seasons.
Paper Towel and Field Wipes: Even the tidiest processing job requires some clean up. Pack a roll of paper towel and a box of wipes for easy clean up, and use them to prep your truck as a processing table, too. Wipe down the entire tailgate and whatever you’re using for a cutting board before getting started.
Cooler: Unless you’re hunting the late season, a cooler is a must. Cooling your game as quickly as possible will significantly improve the quality of that meat. There are plenty of outstanding coolers on the market these days, but anything that will keep ice for the drive home should do the trick.
Cutting Board: Your tailgate is a pretty good spot for butchering, but a cutting board will significantly improve the situation. Pack a large plastic cutting board or piece of plexiglass to keep your tailgate (relatively) clean and your knife sharp. In a pinch, use a piece of cardboard or plywood.
Bone Saw: When separating leg joints or removing the skull, a bone saw will save you time and a dull knife blade. If you kill a buck out of state, you’ll likely need a saw to remove the skull cap before transporting to comply with CWD regulations. A folding limb saw will usually do the trick, too, but the results aren’t as neat.
Plywood: This is also used for loading a deer solo, but can double as a cutting board. Pre-cut a sturdy, 3/4-inch, 4 x 8 sheet to the length of your truck bed and stash it there. It won’t take up much room, but you will be glad to have it.
Gloves: If you don’t want your truck to smell like a butcher shop on the drive home, add a pair of disposable latex gloves to your packing list.
Cooler Rack: If it’s warm, if you have more tags to fill or if you’ve got a long haul home, add a rack to the bottom of your cooler. As ice melts and blood drains from the meat, it will pool in the cooler and you don’t want your meat sitting in that. Solve the problem with a couple baking racks or old oven or grill grates. Set a few chunks of lumber on the bottom of the cooler, and then place the grates on the wood before adding meat or ice. This will create drainage and keep the meat dry.
Gut Your Buck – Or Not
(Tyler Ridenour photo)
Once your deer is loaded into the pickup, the process of breaking it down is straightforward. In mild temperatures or with lengthy tracking jobs, it’s best to remove the guts as soon as you recover the animal so the meat can begin to cool. But the gutless method is what we recommend for processing an undressed deer on a tailgate. The only variations from normal gutting is how the inner loins are removed, and obviously all internals remain inside the body cavity. You simply quarter the deer and break down the meat.
Break Down a Deer, Step-by-Step
(Tyler Ridenour photo)
Step 1: Make a cut through the hide along the spine. Start from the base of the tail and cut all the way to the base of the skull. This will make it possible to work on one side of the animal at a time. Using a gut hook for this cut prevents damage to the backstraps and reduces the amount of hair on the meat.
Step 2: Make a cut perpendicular to the spine, circling the deer’s belly to divide the hide into front and rear sections. Be careful not to puncture the guts. If you want a shoulder mount, this cut must fall at or behind the middle of the stomach (i.e. halfway between the animal’s front and rear legs) to ensure your taxidermist has enough cape to work with. Any knife will do for this cut, but a hook-style blade is still the best tool.
Step 3: Peel back the hide on the rear quarter to expose the flesh below, slicing it away from the meat. When you reach the joint, cut through the hide around the circumference of the joint. From that joint, slice the hide along the front of the leg and along the lower belly to connect the cut around the deer’s middle. Continue to peel back the hide until the rear quarter is completely exposed.
Step 4: Move to the front leg on the same side. At the lower leg joint, cut through the hide to circle the joint, just as you did on the rear leg. From there, slice the hide along the back of the leg and upper belly to connect the cut around the deer’s midsection. If you plan to mount your buck, this cut must be clean and straight. Slice the hide along the back of the leg until you reach the armpit. Then turn your cut (so it’s parallel to the spine) and slice straight back until you reach the main cut at the deer’s midsection. Again, a hooked blade works well for this. Once these cuts are complete, peel back the hide to expose the front quarter and some of the neck meat. The hide won’t fully detach from the neck until the front leg on the opposite side is skinned (Step 9).
Step 5: It’s time to start cutting away the meat, starting with the backstrap. Insert your blade between the front shoulders and run it alongside the spine, all the way to the crease where the back hip starts. You should feel the tip of your blade carving along the ribs. There’s a natural shelf where the spine and ribs meet, and the backstrap sits on that. To remove it, return to the shoulders and cut through the end of the backstrap (perpendicular to the spine) to locate the top of the ribs. Pull the backstrap gently up and away from the ribs, slicing along the shelf as you lift to avoid tearing the meat. If done correctly, the result is a long, round piece of meat, with virtually no waste left behind. Place this prime cut in a small game bag designated for both backstraps and inner loins.
Step 6: Return to the skinned hindquarter on the same side. To free this huge piece of meat, start cutting along the seam where the stomach and the leg meet, lifting the leg as you work. You’ll find the pelvic bone; follow this bone closely with your blade until you reach the ball and socket where the pelvis and femur join. Use a knife with a sturdy blade to cut around the ball and free it from the socket. Once this joint is popped loose, you’ll be able to move the leg more easily. Continue to cut close to the pelvic bone until the entire leg is free. If done correctly, you should have a skinned, whole hindquarter. Place it in a large game bag and tie the bag tightly just above the lower leg joint. Keeping the lower leg attached will make the quarters easier to move and hang until you can get them in the cooler. It’s important to allow air to circulate around the meat, so find a cool place to hang the bag while you finish processing.
Step 7: Removing the front quarter is one of the easiest steps. Working on the same side, lift the front leg so the shoulder pulls away from the body. Start cutting along the armpit. There is only thin connective tissue holding the front leg to the body — there is no ball and socket joint to pop free. Simply slicing the seam where the shoulder meets the ribs will do the trick. Once free, place the quarter in a game bag and hang.
Step 8: If you’ve already gutted the deer, the two inner loins, or tenderloins, will be easy to see and remove. They are located inside the body cavity, along the spine. Run your fingers along the edges and underneath each loin, and you can typically free them without a knife. At most, you’ll need to cut a small section of connective tissue at each end of the loin. If you’re using the gutless method, extracting the inner loins takes more effort and will have to be done one side at a time. Start by locating the point where the long and short ribs meet, and make a shallow cut, through the flank muscle, parallel with the spine, to the hip. The inner loins sit directly below the short ribs and, by pushing the guts down a bit, you can see and feel the loin. Holding the guts back with one hand, run your blade along the underside of the short ribs, then reach in and work the loin loose. Place it in the small game bag that holds the backstrap.
Step 9: Flip the deer over and repeat Steps 3 to 8.
Step 10: Now that you have the majority of the meat off the deer and hanging to cool (four quarters, two backstraps, and two tenderloins), it’s time to remove the cape, the head, and the neck meat. Pull the cape toward the deer’s head and peel the hide away from the neck meat. If you’re mounting your buck, be sure to take your time on this step. The hide in this area is thin, and an accidental puncture will require your taxidermist to repair it. Once the cape is free to the base of the skull, you have to remove the head. If you have one, use a bone saw to cut through the joint where the skull and spine meet. If not, bend the deer’s head down to expose the joint where the skull and spinal cord meet. Use a sturdy knife to carefully cut the tendons in this joint, and twist the skull free.
Step 11: With the head completely removed (and the hide attached to it), the only meat remaining should be around the neck. To cut this section free, run your knife along the spine and carve the large chunk of meat away from the bone on both sides. Cut out the esophagus before placing the neck meat into a game bag.
Step 12: The last cuts are to remove the lower leg sections, which should still have the hide and hoof attached. Use a bone saw or a knife to cut the tendons at the joint that connects the upper and lower leg bones.
Deboning vs. Bone-In Quarters
(Tyler Ridenour photo)
The weather and amount of cooler space you have will determine your next step. If temperatures are high or the animal wasn’t recovered quickly, there’s a risk of meat loss in the larger pieces. The hindquarters in particular hold a lot of heat, and spoilage can start to set in around the bones and joints. If you’re short on cooler space, debone the front quarters. They have the highest bone-to-meat ratio of any part of the deer. Start by cutting into the backside of the quarter and locating the bone. Follow the center of this bone along the length of the quarter with the tip of your blade. Once you’ve made a cut along the full length of the quarter, widen that cut with your hands and begin cutting the meat away from the bone. Stay as close to the bone as you can and take your time. Try not to leave any meat on the bone, and use a fillet knife for more precision and less waste.
Put It on Ice
(Tyler Ridenour photo)
It’s time to get your meat into a cooler and on ice. Again, use a rack to help with draining if you can. If you’re hunting within a day’s drive of home or the weather is cool, use regular cubed ice. But if you’ve got a long drive, especially in warm weather, or you have several days of hunting ahead of you, dry ice, if you can find it, is the way to go.
Once your cooler is packed, wipe down the bed, close the tailgate, and hit the road.
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