How to Field Dress a Deer

By Cody AltizerOctober 14, 2012

UPDATED ON: May 1st, 2015

Three more steps.  Should I draw back now while he’s looking the other way, or wait until he’s behind the tree?  Is he old enough, wait, yes, he’s definitely a 4 year old buck.  Look at those G2s! Focus.  Better.  This is the buck of a lifetime.  I’m unbelievably calm.  This buck is mine.  He’s taking his last couple steps.  Perfect.  My 20 yard pin is on his heart.  Just a touch of the trigger.  Zzziiiipp.  Behind the shoulder!  Pass through?  Yes!  Ah, success!
What a rush!  Harvesting any deer with archery equipment is indescribably exciting.  There are so many thoughts and emotions running through my mind and body when I draw back on a deer that has no idea I’m there. It is something I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of.  However, one thing I rarely think about is what I’m going to do once I recover the deer.  Ah yes, the least glamorous, messy, obligatory part of hunting…..field dressing your deer.
I’ll admit it right from the get-go, I hate field dressing deer.  I don’t mind the excess of blood and entrails, but when I shoot a deer, I like to celebrate and enjoy the kill.  Cutting open a deer and taking out its insides is the last thing I want to do at the time.  That being said, as responsible hunters and sportsmen, it’s our responsibility to properly care for the deer once we’ve recovered it.  Whether you’ve yet to field dress your first downed deer, or would like a little refresher course with the season well underway, read on.

Why Field Dress a Deer?
The fact of the matter is, everyone field dresses deer a little differently.  I’ve seen some guys dive right in, bare handed, yet don’t get blood past their wrists.  I’ve seen others prepare themselves as if they were going into surgery, yet manage to soak themselves in blood all the way up to their shoulders.  It takes some guys close to a half hour to dress a deer, and I’ve seen Bowhunting.com president Todd Graf cleanly field dress a deer in less than 2 minutes (yes, I timed it). 
While everyone does it differently, the end result is the same….to clean the deer of blood and entrails.  This eliminates heat buildup inside the deer (blood and organs are pretty warm) and thus helps to cool the meat quickly.  Conversely, by removing heated blood and organs, you are in return letting air circulate inside the deer during the process. 
Additionally, field dressing removes the digestive tract bacteria that deer use to break down and digest their food; just like we do. Without field dressing your deer, this bacterium would stay inside the deer and thus spoil the meat.

How to Field Dress a Deer
Now that we know the reasoning behind sticking our hands and arms inside a deceased animal and pulling out its organs, entrails and draining it of most of its blood, it’s time to learn how to actually go about doing that.
To begin with, I’m one of those weird guys who likes wearing latex gloves when field dressing a deer.  You can argue for hours about disease transmission from the deer to the hunter, but latex gloves will help prevent that.  Furthermore, they make clean up a heck of a lot easier.

Opening It Up
I always start from back, centered at the bottom of the deer’s abdomen.  Equipment varies from hunter to hunter, but a sharp knife goes a long way when trying to cleanly and efficiently field dress a whitetail.  From there, just guide your knife up the crease in the middle of the deer’s abdomen.  With a sharp knife, this likely won’t take much pressure at all. Be careful not to penetrate too deep inside the deer with making this cut, you don’t want to be surprised by accidentally cutting open the deer’s stomach.  That’s when things get messy.  If you’re field dressing a buck you’ll need to remove himself, from himself, if that makes sense. 
While making the vertical cut up through the deer’s abdomen you’ll actually open the deer’s abdomen in the process.  Again, when, making this cut, simply glide your knife forward, sharp edge up, while avoiding cutting in an upward motion.  Continue this cut all the way up to the deer’s sternum.  If you’ve shot a buck that you’re planning on having mounted, I would stop just a little shy of the sternum or breast bone to ensure your taxidermist has plenty of “cape” to work with.

Out With the Inside
Once you have cut open the deer’s abdomen it’s time to remove the deer of its organs and entrails.  The first step is to cut out the diaphragm, the thin wall of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal organs.  By cutting the diaphragm you’ve essentially opened the gate to the heart and lungs.  Reach up in the cavity and grab the heart and lungs, pull on them to give them some tension and use your knife to sever the blood vessels and the windpipe.  After you’ve removed the lungs and heart give them a look over to further examine your shot placement.  It can prove to be a great teaching tool. 
Once you’ve removed the heart and lungs work your way back by cutting out and removing the stomach, bladder, urinary tract, and intestines.  I usually like to cut open the stomach to further examine what the deer has been eating.  A lot of times there can be some frustrating surprises, like finding corn in your deer’s stomach when there are no corn fields within 10 miles of where the deer was shot and baiting is illegal in your state.  I’m speaking from personal experience if you didn’t catch on to my passive aggressiveness there.  However, you can learn a lot about where your deer are spending a lot time by examining their stomach contents.  You may learn a specific food plot they prefer, whether they’re still eating acorns or moving on to other browse, etc.  Learning about one dead deer can point you in the right direction of shooting your next. 
Finally, once all of the entrails have been removed from your deer flip it over, spread its legs and allow the remainder of the blood to drain out.  I usually drag it a couple feet, uphill if possible, to make sure all possible blood drains out.

Conclusion
And, just like that, you’re finished!  That wasn’t so bad was it?  Field dressing deer is a necessary part of the kill whether we like to do it or not.  However, with practice and patience it can actually prove to be a very educational experience. By following the steps above, however, you should be well on your way to field dressing your deer in no time!  

Cody Altizer
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