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How to Field Dress Whitetail Deer and How to Cape Deer

How to Field Dress Whitetail Deer and How to Cape Whitetail Deer

Knowing how to field dress whitetail deer as well as how to properly care for the animal you have harvested is important. The importance in knowing how to properly field dress whitetail deer is the key to preserving meat for the freezer that will be tastier for consumption. During this article we will also visit the subject of how to properly cape whitetail deer in preparation for taxidermy. Either duty is a great problem to have for this occurs after you have harvested your whitetail deer which obviously means your whitetail deer hunting outing has been a success. There are a variety of ways to complete either task thus we may present several options to consider in learning how to field dress whitetail deer and cape whitetail deer.

Over the years I have witnessed many different hunters implement many different ways of field dressing whitetail deer. Some acts I have seen performed quite sloppy while others seemed to be nothing short of precise and surgical in nature.

Here is an effective method for field dressing whitetail deer.
Before you leave to go whitetail deer hunting, make sure you have the following materials with you, in order to field dress your whitetail deer:
• Deer tag from the State you are hunting in.
• Flashlight
• Knife that has been recently sharpened
• Small rag (any color other than white) to wipe off hands
• Rope to tie legs and/or to drag the deer, or transportation of the carcass per some means after harvesting the animal.
• Blaze orange material to hang on a tree above the field-dressing site if required by State Law.
• Several small pieces of string or twine
• Large plastic bag (self-sealing) for heart and/or liver if your one that likes to consume such pieces of the whitetail deer.

Once you shoot a deer you may become very excited. You may forget important laws about the tagging of deer.

Remember that handling a sharp knife requires attention and patience. This is why I always celebrate prior to field dressing the whitetail deer.

Approaching a downed deer. Do not excitedly run up to a downed deer, especially with your weapon in your hand. The deer may not be dead and may injure you by thrashing about or it may get up and run away. Instead, cautiously approach a downed deer from the side away from its legs. Be ready to discharge a finishing shot with your bow or firearm.

However, do not do so unless absolutely necessary; some muscle contractions can be involuntary and may not be a sign that the deer is still alive. Look to see if there are any signs of chest movement from breathing, eye blinking, or quivering of muscles. If so, remain about ten feet away, ready to fire a finishing shot if the deer begins to get up, and wait for the deer to expire. If there is no sign of movement, and the eyes are “glazed,” you may still want to carefully touch the eyes softly with a three to four foot long stick to make sure the deer is dead. If the deer is not dead this will cause it to react (e.g., blinking, moving, etc…). You do NOT have to cut the throat of the deer to drain blood. Normal field dressing procedures of whitetail deer will “bleed out” the deer. Also, do not cut the scent glands from the legs of the deer; this may contaminate the meat.

B. Unload. When you are sure the downed deer is dead, unload your firearm, un-nock and put your arrow away, or take the cap off the nipple of your muzzleloader. It is not safe to have loaded firearms and sharp
broadheads in the vicinity of a field-dressing site.

C. Attach your kill tag securely on the deer per State Regulations.
In the Midwestern States normally the hunter is provided with an adhesive deer tag containing two parts. One sticker that goes around a does leg or bucks antler is called a transportation tag. After you have transported your deer to whatever location that is secure, you attach the harvest tag and phone the deer in for recording keeping purposes of your Department of Natural Resources.

D. Photograph your deer. The best photos are often taken before field dressing your deer. In most cases, you may want to reposition the deer to be in the best light, make it look more “natural,” and/or be on clean ground or snow. If the deer’s tongue is hanging outside its mouth, push it back in its mouth. Wipe any debris or excess blood that is visible to the camera off the deer. Remember when your taking photos of your whitetail deer you can never take too many. Normally about 20% of the photos you take will be great and the other 80% will have flaw. Thus remember to take a ton of photos so you have much to select from for scapbooking and showcasing.

E. Move the deer to a nearby spot where you will be able to field dress the animal comfortably. Whenever moving your deer, be sure to use care in preventing lower back or abdominal injuries. If the animal is heavy or difficult to move, enlist the assistance of a friend or hunting partner. When you are about to move your deer, try to find a nearby opening where you will be visible to other hunters. When field-dressing a deer in thick under-brush it may be difficult for other hunters to identify you while you are bending over the deer. Place the deer on its back with its head uphill, if possible so while field dressing the whitetail deer it can drain.

F. Hang something blaze orange on one of the nearby trees or above your head. You may want to remove your hunting jacket to prevent getting blood on the sleeves (or to prevent overheating in warmer
temperatures). In this case place your jacket on a limb of a nearby tree so other hunters can easily identify
your location. However, remain wearing something that is blaze orange, such as a hat or a vest. If you are
bowhunting in camouflage, it is still wise to hang a piece of blaze orange fabric on a nearby branch. You don’t want to be mistaken for a deer yourself by another hunter.

G. Organize your equipment. Designate a specific area at the field-dressing site where you can monitor and easily locate your knife and other equipment. A surprising number of hunters lose or spend an unnecessary amount of time trying to relocate, knives, gloves and other equipment in the snow and leaves at their fielddressing site. I have been so exicted about the harvest of a particular buck before that after field dressing the whitetail deer I had lost my knife or a piece of equipment I needed.

H. RELAX! Safety should be your highest priority while field-dressing a deer. Many hunters cut themselves with their knives because they are hurrying or not paying attention to what they are doing. In addition, cold temperatures can cause wet hands and fingers to become numb. Such conditions require extra care when handling a knife. You should take breaks while field-dressing your deer to allow your self to warm-up or relax.


A. Locate the sternum (breastbone). Insert your knife at the bottom of the sternum. Keep the blade edge
pointing upward when making the first cut. (Although there are other methods to begin field-dressing, we
recommend the initial incision be made at the breastbone to reduce the possibility of cutting internal organs.) I like to use a gut hook knife so I can open the deer’s cavity easily and safely.

B. Cut through the abdominal wall (not just the skin and hide). Keep the edge of the knife blade positioned upwards toward the hide (from the inside), not down toward the organs. Cutting upwards through the hide helps to prevent cutting the internal organs and aids in maintaining blade sharpness. Cutting downward through the deer’s hair quickly dulls a knife’s edge. Insert your index (second) and middle finger of your non-cutting hand into your original incision. Forming the shape of a “V” with these two fingers, gently pull up on the hide. Insert the blade into the incision between the two fingers, using it simultaneously as a guide for your knife and a way to keep your knife blade away from internal organs while cutting. Continue cutting to the penis of a buck or to the udder of a doe.

C. Cut around both sides of the penis and testicles or udder.
Be careful not to cut the urinary bladder, which will be removed in a later step. For bucks, Reach inside the body cavity and cut the base of the penis and testicles so they can be removed. For does, cut around both sides of the udder and remove it from the carcass. Check the udder for signs of milk. This can be done by cutting through the fatty portion of the udder with your knife. If the doe has been
lactating, milk will seep from the cut. DNR at a check station may ask you whether or not the doe
was still lactating.

D. Cut deeply in a circular motion around the anus of a buck and the anus and vagina of a doe. The circle should be about two inches in diameter and your knife should be inserted about four inches deep, between the rectum and pelvis bone. DO NOT cut the rectum. Instead, pull it sideways in a circular motion, so you are cutting around the outside of it. If there are pellets or other fecal material present, you may want to tie the intestine in a knot above the rectum or use a piece of string to tie the rectum shut. The butt out field dressing whitetail deer tool from hunter specialties is wonderful for this part of the field dressing act.

E. We do not recommend splitting the pelvis in the field. Instead, push the tied-off rectal and
reproductive tracts through the hole in the pelvis and toward the abdomen. Be careful that you do
not puncture or burst the urinary bladder as this can taint the meat.


The bladder is a pear-shaped translucent sac in the lower abdomen that may or may not be filled with urine. Be especially careful in handling the bladder so that urine does not spill and taint the meat. Pinch off the bladder with one hand and slowly cut it free and remove it with the other hand. Another method is
to use a piece of string to tie and then cut the urinary duct about an inch beyond the base of the bladder. Once the bladder and urinary tract is free, place it some distance away from the carcass so that urine will not get on the meat.


The carcass can now be rolled onto its side so the entrails will roll out onto the ground. Some cutting will be necessary to free the organs from the back of the deer and to cut the esophagus and blood vessels near the diaphragm. The esophagus should be pinched or tied off prior to cutting to prevent spilling stomach contents into the abdominal cavity. (Although there are other methods to remove internal organs, the DNR recommends that hunters first empty the abdominal cavity and then work to empty the chest cavity.)


A.Cut the diaphragm away from the ribs on both sides of the deer. The diaphragm is a tough membranous muscle that separates the chest cavity (containing the heart and lungs) from the abdominal cavity (containing the intestines, four-chambered stomach, liver and other organs).

B. Reach into the chest with your hands. With your fingers forward, follow the esophagus as far as you can. Cut through the windpipe and esophagus as far up as you can reach. Be sure to use care with your knife in this position. Without being able to see exact location of your hands and your knife, it can be very easy for you to accidentally cut yourself during this step. If you have no plans doing a taxidermy mount of your deer, you can first use your knife to cut the cartilage and hide along the breast bone before cutting the esophagus and windpipe.

C. Pull the windpipe downward, while cutting any attachments to the back of the carcass. Roll the deer on its side to empty the heart and lungs from the chest cavity.


Roll the deer carcass all the way over so that he opening to the body cavity can drain. However, don’t contaminate the meat with dirt and debris. After a few minutes, roll the deer over on its back and
remove any debris. The use of snow or water for cleaning the inside of the cavity is not recommended in most cases. Rinse out the body cavity with water or snow ONLY if the carcass has been tainted by
contents of the digestive or urinary tracts. If this is done, dry the excess water in the cavity as quickly as possible.


A. Dragging a buck by pulling the antlers or a doe by pulling the front legs is acceptable for only short drags. For moderate drags a rope may be used to tie the forelegs together and through the base of both antlers. Do not place the rope around the neck of the deer, especially if plan to have a taxidermy mount prepared. For long drags, deer should be placed on a plastic sled or taken out of the field on stretchers, poles, wheelbarrows, deer carts, ATVs, or other devices. Some hunters have suffered heart attacks while dragging deer. In some cases, those could have been avoided by concealing the tagged carcass in heavy cover and coming back to the site with a partner or vehicle to help drag the deer out of the field.

B. Don’t forget the heart and liver. These are excellent cuts of meat that many hunters leave in the field. If you do not have a plastic bag to carry these organs, place them inside the chest cavity for transport while carcass is being removed from the field.

C.Hang the deer in a shady area to drain the carcass and cool down the meat. If temperatures are cool outside you can hang the deer for a time but if you’ve made an early season or warm temperature harvest you will want to break the animal down asap to avoid the meat from becoming tainted or gamey tasting. Never hand a buck with his head up and the tail down as to do so you are having to affix to antler or his neck and run the chance of ruining the cape of the deer. Hang the deer high enough to be out of reach of animals and pets. Make sure that air is capable of circulating through the chest cavity to facilitate cooling. Some hunters use one or two sticks placed sideways in the chest cavity. It is not necessary to hang deer for much time other than to drain the blood. Bacterial growth increases when carcass temperatures reach above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and venison spoils quickly when ambient temperatures reach above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Aging and curing the meat is not necessary. The deer must be processed as soon as possible after field dressing the whitetail deer.

In all our camps we hang whitetail deer by game gambrels to cape and break them down for caping and butchering whitetail deer. It is in the woods that we field dress whitetail deer, but once that process occurs the deer is transported back to the lodge for two more processes dependent upon whether or not the hunter wants to mount the deer he or she has harvested.

The process of caping whitetail deer must occur for all animals going to the taxidermist. Let’s talk about how to properly cape a whitetail deer.

1. Step 1
Sharpen your skinning knife. A dull knife will be difficult to use, and the edges of your cape will be ragged instead of smooth. Remember that during this step gone are the days of using grand dad’s ole knife. Todays hunt industry offer affordable skinning knives and every whitetail enthusiast should have one.

2. Step 2
Put on a pair of surgical gloves. Although there won't be a great deal of blood, there will be some. The gloves will keep your hands clean. Surgical gloves will give you a full range of motion while you are slicing the deer's skin. Wear old clothing.

3. Step 3
Hang your deer. The best way to do this is to tie a rope just above each of your deer's hocks. Toss the loose ends of the rope over a tree branch. Pull on the rope until the deer's entire body is suspended. Tie off the ropes.

4. Step 4
Place the tip of your skinning knife against the deer's sternum, just behind its heart girth. Puncture the skin.

5. Step 5
Slide the tip of your skinning knife in a continuous line around your deer's body.

6. Step 6
Slice a circle in the skin around both of your deer's knees.

7. Step 7
Grasp the deer's left leg. Run the tip of your skinning knife in a straight line from the back of the deer's knee to your previous cut. Repeat the process with the right leg.

8. Step 8
Grasp the skin and gradually start pulling downward. Use your knife as little as possible. Continue pulling the skin from the deer's body until you are about 1 inch from the deer's ears.

9. Step 9
Mark a spot on the neck about 3 inches away from the head.

10. Step 10
Cut through all of the neck muscle.

11. Step 11
Grasp the head in both hands and give a quick twist. This will remove the head from the body.

12. Step 12
Place the head and flapping skin in a cooler and take it to the taxidermist. Take the rest of the deer's body to the local slaughterhouse, where it will be processed and turned into venison for your freezer.

How to Butcher a Whitetail Deer

There is a basic butchering process that most outfitters or even a private hunter can perform to avoid butchering fees. Let’s visit the subject of how to butcher a deer.

Like other jobs, quality equipment and tools are needed to carry out a quality job. Equipment needed for deer butchering at this point includes a sharp knife, a hatchet or saw, a gambrel, and a cooler or place to put the meat cuts.

The first step in butchering deer is to hang the deer up by the back legs. This is usually done with a gambrel which holds the deer up and spreads it’s legs. The gambrel is best suspended by a winch of sorts that will allow the hunter to raise or lower the animal as needed. To attach the deer to the gambrel, some hunters/butchers use a cable noose that simply slides over the rear legs of the game and the weight of the animal will hold the carcass up.

Alternately, hunters may elect to slice open a furrow under the achilles tendon at the heel or rear knee of the deer, or, under the tendon which is lower on the legs behind the dew claws. Then, a hook attached to the gambrel is inserted and the game lifted.

Skinning Deer

The next step is to remove the skin. This is done by pulling the skin around the heel of the back leg and then cutting it. Next, opening the skin from that first cut to the anus is necessary. I like to use a Gerber Gator II knife because it has a “gut hook” that makes cuts like this easy. The skin is then peeled down toward the head by pulling the edges and cutting tissue between the skin and the carcass as needed.

Once the skin is all the way down the neck, the head and fore legs need to be removed. The key to making this easy is to cut the connective tissue across the leg joint and simply popping it loose with your hands. For the neck, cut into the vertebrae and twist the head until it falls free.

Next, all the entrails should be removed, if the animal was not field dressed. Again, a gut hook makes this easy. Cut from the anus, through the hip bones to free the anus, all the way through the rib cage to the base of the neck. Pull the anus free and then cut any connective tissue away until all of the digestive and cardio-vascular system are out, all the way to the windpipe.

Next, remove the shoulders by pulling and cutting the shoulder away from the ribs. Then, cut away the loin, or backstrap, from the carcass by following the spine with the tip of the knife and do the same along the ribs. If ribs are desired, cut them away from the spine with a hatchet or saw. Next, remove the tenderloins from the inside of the cavity, much like the was done with the backstrap. Last are the hams. The ball joint must be severed, much like the forelegs were done. Also the heel joint must be severed to completely free the ham.

Place all the meat in a cooler. I like to soak the meat in ice water for about 5 days. I will change the water frequently. This helps improve the meat quality greatly. This is especially true if the deer has yellow fat. Yellow fat means the deer has eaten a very poor diet of low quality foods. However, white fat means high quality foods and that means the deer will taste much better.

If the meat smells extremely gamey, it may be necessary to put a cup of vinegar or lemon juice in the water. This will help remove much of the smell. It is very important to not over do this especially with the vinegar, if it begins to true the meat a blue color, drain the water and rinse immediately. The meat is now ready for further processing.

Normally this is the time an outfitter will simply debone the meat and freeze it so that the hunter can take the butchered whitetail deer back for proper steaking out, grinding sausage, or whatever meats cuts that the whitetail deer hunter prefers for consumption.

Darrin Bradley

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