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If you get to the deer before the heart stops beating it is a good idea to cut the throat, both out of mercy and to allow the heart to expel blood from the body. I think most hunters feel gratitude at this moment, and I think it is appropriate to thank the deer as well. If you are in an area where it will not pose a nuisance to field dress the animal there, go ahead and grasp the furry lumps at the inside of the bend in the back legs, and cut them away. They are scent glands and will make your meat smelly.
Note 12/26/2012: Really, even a doe. A young man gave me a doe which had been hanging for a day and a half without the scent glands removed. I have never butchered a gamier deer. It was actually nasty, and I am not the squeamish type.
Put the point of your knife through the skin of the belly at the edge of the breast bone (really just cartilage) and run it shallowly up to the anus. Do NOT pierce deeply. Go back to your breastbone and grab the edge of the ribcage with one hand while sawing down through the sternum. Be careful not to cut into any guts or you will contaminate the meat with smelly stuff. Actually you can make that cut later if you want, but if you do it now you can sort of let everything slide out at once, and blood will drain out and not coagulate in the throat area when hanging.
Go up around the genitalia and look for a tube running to the anus. Grab it and cut the skin around it. You should be able to pull out the entrails easily. Heart, lungs, and liver is great dog food as long as the deer is healthy. I remember seeing what looked like parasitic lesions on a liver my mother cooked once. Cooked it was fine for the dogs, but I didn’t want it.
Once your deer carcass is empty it is a lot easier to move. But it is also easy to gut a deer hanging up. I am a woman so I have less upper body strength and I always ask the guys to get the deer hanging for me. What you want is an overhanging limb or a cross-member in a shed. Tie a decent rope over it and get a piece of wood about as thick as a sturdy broomstick to put through the deer’s back legs. Tie the rope to the middle of the stick and make slits big enough through the thin area between the back legs and the Achilles tendon, where you removed the scent glands. This would be like if you feel above your heel, only the deer’s heel is above his back elbow; bottom of the hock, if that makes sense. You can do this on the ground and have someone tie off the rope when they heave the deer up, or tie the rope where you want it and hold the deer up while you push the ends of the stick through the holes in the legs. Needless to say don’t cut through the tendon.
Usually we let the deer hang overnight to cool and stiffen, It is helpful to put a stick or something inside the body cavity to hold it open a little. Note somebody stuck a hammer in there. Whatever.
Note 12/26/2012: My neighbor has a pulley system hanging from the crossmember in his barn so a little kid can raise or lower a carcass. A mental leap too great for this Neanderthal.
More notes on gutting: Now you have your deer hanging and ready to skin. If you haven’t gutted it in the field out of consideration that someones dogs will find it and have a heyday rolling in it, now’s the time. Put a big sack under it to catch the guts. An old dog food bag, etc. If you haven’t removed the scent glands, do it right away. Gutting in this position I always start near the top but I don’t cut around the anus until I have the genitalia removed and the cavity open so that I can grab the sphincter and lower the guts into a bag. Just easier to control the fall. Be careful not to damage the bladder which is pretty obvious; that’s the transparent bag full of yellow fluid that you don’t want on the meat. Also be careful when removing the liver, which is also obvious; the big lobed dark brownish red organ with a smaller greenish yellow organ attached to it. Be very careful of this little sucker- if you cut the gall bladder you will have horrible green bile all over the place that stains and ruins the taste of whatever it touches. Remove this by cutting into the liver around the bile duct, pinching the bile duct closed if you can. As I said previously, heart, liver, and lungs are good dog food, as far as I’m concerned. Liver is wonderfully nutritious, and there is nothing wrong with eating heart and lungs, so you could use them in sausage or something, but I never have. Unless you are really hard core and are going to try to use the intestines for sausage casings or something, leave them alone. They come out together if you can catch them in a bag. I have had a deer given to me that had a messy wound in the belly. The only thing to do then is empty the body cavity and hose it out until it smells ok.
Now that we have the carcass hanging empty and clean, if the weather is cool it is fine to let it hang overnight for the meat to stiffen. This makes it a little easier to handle. Some people even let them hang for a few days because that tenderizes the meat. I haven’t done this.