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Old 02-04-2011, 08:38 AM
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Field Dressing: To split or not to split?

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Another thread I've been following, plus 3 decades of seeing the job of field dressing a deer accomplished in a variety of ways, has led me to wonder how most folks go about it.

My dad taught me to open the lower (gastric) cavity very carefully, starting just below the sternum and ending at the...well, other end. Then, he had me split the sternum, between the ribs, all the way up to the throat of the deer where we would put a stick inside to keep it open. He'd also have me cut down to the pelvic bone, splitting it so the legs would spread wide, allowing the meat to cool.

About 10 years later, the host at a hunting camp in Wisconsin suggested a different way of going about it that doesn't cool the meat as fast, but makes it a lot less likely to get fouled with dirt or debris. His method starts the same way, but then you don't split the pelvic bone or the sternum. He instructed me to reach up into the chest cavity with my knife (right) hand, all the way to the throat region. Then, with my left hand, reach most of the way up to where I can grab the larynx and esophagus, pulling down on them while I cut them loose with my knife. All of this is done "blind", but takes a lot longer to explain (or do the first time) than it does to get the job done. After you've done it once, you figure out how fast and easy it is. The rest of processing proceeds as normal and the whole job is done in less than half the time because you're not splitting any bones.

I'm curious if any other hunters use this method of cutting the heart/lung section loose or if everybody else is splitting the sternum open? I will say this much: This method is not great for small deer, as there just isn't a lot of room to have both hands in the chest cavity, but for mature northern deer it's a piece of cake and I have come to follow this method exclusively. I could also see it being a poor choice in areas of the country where temps are fairly warm, as it doesn't allow the carcass to cool AS quickly. The place I learned it was north-central Wisconsin where this is seldom a problem, during deer season!

Last edited by broom_jm; 02-04-2011 at 08:41 AM.
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Old 02-04-2011, 09:06 AM
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I never cut any higher than the bottom of the rib cage, when field dressing in the field. I simply reach up into the lower neck and blindly (carefully) cut the esophagus. I do split the pelvis, usually and carry a small saw to do so. I also always use a butt-out tool now as it saves a good amount of time over the old coring method. The ribs not being split normally do not affect the cooling of the meat as most of my deer are taken to the butcher's immediately and the cape removed, if needed and fully skinned pretty quickly before being put in the walk-in cooler.

As I was undecided about getting this year's Indiana buck mounted, we left the rib cage intact, hung him upside down and simply put a bag of ice in the chest cavity to help cool. Worked like a champ and the deer was delivered to the butcher in that case 3 days later.

Last edited by Tnhunter; 02-04-2011 at 09:09 AM.
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Old 02-04-2011, 09:09 AM
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I've always dressed deer in the manner you describe, reach in and pull the larynx as far as it'll stretch, then cut. I also dont split the pelvis until the deer is dragged out.....keeps it a lot cleaner if your dragging it through woods. Once Im back to the truck I split it with a hatchet, a lot easier than trying to get through with your hunting knife. Works for me.
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Old 02-04-2011, 09:26 AM
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I cut the rib cartilages next to the sternum so I do not have to split the sternum, but it does open the chest cavity quickly and easily with even a pocket knife. I go back and forth on dealing with the pelvis. Some I saw through with a pocket sized folding knife/saw combo and others I just cut around the anus and pull it out the other way. Did 2 each way this last season and I can not really tell any difference in time saved either way. you do need an adequate length knife to ream around the anal canal to get it out easily if you choose not to split the pubic bones.
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Old 02-04-2011, 09:55 AM
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I do it both ways depending on how far I need to drag the deer to the truck.I also have started using a battery powered sawzall.It makes splitting the pubic bone,ribs and cutting the legs off easy.The area I hunt here in california is hot during deer season.As soon as the deer is moved to the road or driven back to camp it gets skinned,ribs split and pubic bone split to facilitate better cooling.With some shade and a nice breeze they cool out pretty well.I have kept them hanging with a deer bag over them in that manner for a couple days with no ill effect.In South Dakota with cooler temps we have been skinning the day after its killed.Just a little tip,they don't skin very easily if they freeze over night.I had a whitetail doe freeze.We hung it in the loader bucket and covered it with a tarp and put 2 lights under the tarp.After about 4 hours it was thawed enough to skin easily.Next year I will pay a bit more attention to the weather report.Some of the locals will hang the deer with hide on for several days before they process the deer.There is no right way or wrong way with either method
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Old 02-04-2011, 10:41 AM
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That's what I do.
I like to put on plastic gloves so I don't get stinky tallow under my finger nails too. It's really bothersome sitting in a stand picking your nose when all you can smell is that ishy deer fat.
Reach up there, cut, get 2 fingers in the esophagus and tear it out. When I get to the pelvis I cut around the anus from the outside and push it out a little. Then I tie a string around the last inch of the intestine and pull the anus back up through the pelvis and toward the body cavity. This keeps droppings and urine from spilling inside on the meat. I never split the pelvis, but I do cut along side the sternum for cooling purposes. This can be done at the truck to cut down on sticks and leaves and other bad stuff.
As for cooling; I hang and pull the hide as quick as I can. Sometimes I quarter out my September bow kills and set them in the "beer fridge" overnight. The meat is much easier to slice through when it is firm.
Hope I helped ya,
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Old 02-04-2011, 12:23 PM
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Huh...seems like it's pretty common to do it either way.

Thanks for all the replies.
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Old 02-04-2011, 12:51 PM
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Our local game warden suggested using a pair of loppers to tackle the pelvis - works like a charm - very fast and clean.
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Old 02-04-2011, 02:24 PM
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I'm not sure what problem this is a solution to. I split the chest and pelvis and don't have trouble with debris. I prefer this method (I've done both) because it keeps ME cleaner.
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Old 02-04-2011, 02:48 PM
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Down here due to the heat, I like to open up the chest cavity and let it cool as fast as possible to protect the meat. For this and cutting through the pelvic area, I use a good pair of loppers with a 14" handle. That way the piss bag, and all of the rectal area comes out clean.
I have always had a tough time sticking both hands up inside a deer, one with a sharp knife, the other holding whatever the knife is cutting, so I think it's much safer to open up the chest cavity so you can see what you are doing.
We can usually get a truck or 4-wheeler close enough to throw the carcass into so as not to get dirt in the animal.
But that works best for me.
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Old 02-04-2011, 03:52 PM
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I have never split a deer or elk. I make my initial cut right above the penis, and go up to the ribcage, then work on pulling the guts out, after i get the guts out i take out all the vital organs, blindly, never learned a different way till now. The hottest i have ever seen it while there was a deer down during general rifle season was 70 degrees, its usually around 40-50. I could see where if you were in a hotter climate where you would wanna cook them down quick. Usually with deer i have them dressed and hanging and skinned well within 3 hours. I am certain it would take more time to split a deer rather than just pull it all out, when im dressing an elk out ill be in PAST my shoulders, sometimes i have to partially almost crawl into it lol.

On another note, i think that while taking out the organs blindly, a person will be far better suited with a shorter blade, somethin 2 inches or under.
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Old 02-04-2011, 04:14 PM
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I leave the ribs uncut, and cut the windpipe externally about a third of the way up the throat. Then reach inside an grab where it divides into the two airways and pull it all out. That keeps you from cutting "blind" and isolates the germ-laden airway from the main carcass.
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Old 02-04-2011, 05:08 PM
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Originally Posted by unclepaddy View Post
I leave the ribs uncut, and cut the windpipe externally about a third of the way up the throat. Then reach inside an grab where it divides into the two airways and pull it all out. That keeps you from cutting "blind" and isolates the germ-laden airway from the main carcass.
I hate to ruin a perfectly good cape
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Old 02-04-2011, 05:22 PM
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I mostly split the rib cage. Two exceptions were the one deer I have hanging on the wall that I did not want to ruin the cape on, and a mule deer that I did up in the mountains of Colorado where I did not have anything to split the rib cage with.

Little animals I split the ribcage with a fixed blade knife. Big ones, I use a pair of tinsnips.

I almost never split the pelvis. That's the way I was taught and it works for me. "Core" around the inside of the pelvis from the back, then pull the "stuff" through. That works better on does than bucks, admittedly.

Generally skin and quarter them ASAP, as weather here rarely permits hanging. If it's cold enough to hang, they hang with no hide.

Lotsa ways to do it.....

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Old 02-04-2011, 06:46 PM
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We have tried many ways. Always revert back to MikeG description.
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Old 02-04-2011, 07:58 PM
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I do mine the way you & hillestadj describe. I do the same with elk as long as I don't have to quater the elk and carry it out piece by piece or pack the animal out. Like he said it's alot easier to keep the dirt and crud out of the cavity while dragging it out.
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Old 02-04-2011, 10:16 PM
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Idaho style

I do both and more depending on the situation. Cutting the diaphragm, to me, is even tougher, in the blind, than the windpipe. As I basically core the windpipe out starting at the end of the neck going as far as I can into the body cavity from the outside and then just pull it out from the inside with two hands and grunts. Seldom is much inside cutting required. Of course when saving the cape, one just cuts the windpipe at the point that you can reach and then remove the rest after capping. This is seldom done in my area as we generally just save the horns, it takes dollars and a special room to display an elk head mount. I have heard that you must skin it out immediately but we need to keep the hide on till it to camp or home to keep it cleaner. Yes, temperatures nearing 50 require it to be skinned and in a cooler ASAP. I have placed ice in an elk, but do not pack an uncooled animal with snow unless you need to slow cooling in really cold weather. Snow can act as insulation holding the heat in, however; some snow can be rubbed in and then discarded. Elk do require special consideration in temps approaching or above 50 degrees one needs to cut the sternum and spread it as in open heart surgery as stated. Plus some "wing" them, that is nearly or actually cutting off the front shoulders at the arm pits to aid in cooling. If it is two heavy to drag one must at least half it by either cutting it into front and back sections at the second rib from the back. We leave the legs on to hold it over your shoulder covered with orange. Others half it by splitting it down the back bone and sternum loading it across a pack animal skin side down, one half per load. Some use a clean chain saw with vegetable oil to cut down the back bone. Some quarter it and place on quarter in each side of the animal in bag panniers. Others pack it out on their back one quarter at a time or debone it and place it in a large back packs. So field dressing is highly varied. Some as mentioned use the battery operated saw instead of an axe or a hatchet. A hatchet on elk is a lot of work.
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Old 02-05-2011, 05:49 AM
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I use the second method in the OP; never cut ribs or pelvis, even through the butchering process.

1) The pictures are much better. I hate pics of cut ribcage.

2) Quick and can be done wioth a very small knife.

3) As for the cooling, here in Tennessee the deer don't cool much either way until you get them to a cooler or pack them in ice.

4) Speaking of Tennessee, we have some pretty small deer down here. I've done a few that dressed at 75 lbs, so I know that it gets cramped cutting around the diaphram, but it can be done.
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Old 02-05-2011, 06:55 AM
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Originally Posted by unclepaddy View Post
I leave the ribs uncut, and cut the windpipe externally about a third of the way up the throat. Then reach inside an grab where it divides into the two airways and pull it all out. That keeps you from cutting "blind" and isolates the germ-laden airway from the main carcass.
I too use the external cut method. If I am going to mount the deer I will reach in but I hunt for meat 99% of the time.
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Old 02-11-2011, 12:31 PM
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I once had a neat saw-Knapp Game saw kit, till I left it and a stool set next to the truck, and I drove off. The saw would saw any bone or christmas tree.

I should check on a replacement.
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