I have always loved the challenge of heading out into the woods and attempting to come home with dinner. When I first started hunting as a child, one of my biggest hesitations was the fact that I didn’t know how to clean the game I was hunting.
I had seen my father and my uncle do it a few times, but I really didn’t feel comfortable doing it myself. I was always taught that we only hunt for animals that we plan to eat, so this needed to be resolved.
I took the time to ask questions and learn how to properly clean wild game. In addition to the basic process, I also learned some handy tricks to make the process easier.
Once I had cleaned a few critters, I felt much more comfortable. In this article we will take you step by step through the process of cleaning wild game so you can be more comfortable as well.
Understand that the process I am covering is primarily geared towards mammals. Dealing with reptiles, birds, and fish is a bit different. However, they all involve the same general steps.
With all animals you want to remove the unwanted outer layer. This is skin, scales, or feathers. You want to gut the animal removing the innards and saving the organs you want to keep. You want to inspect the animal for any signs of disease.
Finally, you want to quarter the animal for easier cooking or freezing. Whether you are working with a moose or a dove, these basics are the same.
In addition, the size of the animal does not matter as much as you would think. For this example, I am using a grey squirrel that I bagged this morning.
However, the process that I will cover for mammals will work for big game as well. Once you are comfortable with this process, you can apply it to any mammal. Let’s get started!
When you are skinning a small animal like a squirrel, you can simply pull off the hide.
While this is not so easy with a deer, once you get the hide started you can pull it away from the meat much like you do with a squirrel.
The principle is the same. The mechanics are just a bit different.
Step 1 – With a sharp knife, make a small cut at the base of the tail. When you get started, it should be no wider than one inch, but you should be able to see the tail bone.
Step 2 – Break the tail bone. Usually, I can twist it to break it, or you can carefully cut through it with your knife.
Step 3 – Extend the cut further up the back running your knife between the skin and the meat. To be clear, you are leaving the tail attached to the hide you are removing and cutting underneath.
You also want to extend the cut to the sides so that you are carefully separating the skin from the leg meat. You want the flap of hide created to be a few inches wide and a few inches long so you can get your boot on the flap.
Step 4 – Lay the squirrel on its back, put your boot firmly on the skin flap, and grab the back legs with both hands. Pull straight up and the hide should come off like a sock off of a foot. Do not step only on the tail as it will pull off.
Step 5 – Find the flap of skin left on the belly running to the back legs. Grab the squirrel with one hand and the flap with the other and pull.
The other half of the hide should pull off the same way.
Gutting The Animal
While gutting most animals is a similar process, there are some differences with varying animal species.
I like to keep and eat the internal organs that I can, but I must be safe as well. Some organs in different animals are not safe to eat. Be sure you know this before you start cooking.
1 – Make a cut on either side of the genitalia to remove it with the guts. Just cut along the leg meat between the legs.
2 – Make a small incision at the base of the belly near the rear legs. Be careful to not puncture the internal organs as this would potentially taint the meat. As you cut, there should be a few layers of tissue to penetrate before you get to the internal organs.
3 – Carefully open up the cavity. If you have a gut hook on your knife, insert it into the incision and cut straight up through the sternum. If you do not have a gut hook, flip over your knife so the edge of the blade faces up. Insert the point at the incision and run it up towards the sternum being careful to only cut the belly tissue and not the organs.
4 – Remove the organs. With small game like squirrels, you can often reach your hand in and rip everything out. If something gets stuck, you can get your blade in there and cut it loose as close to the meat as possible. This happens often with big game.
Inspecting The Animal
This is an often overlooked step to properly cleaning your wild game. If you want to be sure you do not get sick from the meat, take the time to check it out.
Step 1 – Rinse everything with water inside and out including the organs.
Step 2 – Check for any spots, puss, or injuries on the meat. You may need to cut and throw away portions of the meat that are not safe to eat, or you may need to discard the whole animal. If there is anything out of the ordinary, please ask an expert before consuming the meat.
Step 3 – Set out the organs and do the same inspection. Decide which organs you intend to keep and eat if any.
“Quartering” The Animal
This is the process of further breaking down the animal so it is easier to transport, butcher, cook, or freeze.
With big game like deer I remove the four quarters, but still remove lots of other meat from the carcass. With small game I sometimes leave them whole and sometimes make a few simple cuts so cooking is easier.
Step 1 – Remove the head and feet. You know you will not be eating these parts, so go ahead and cut these extremities off. You may need to break the bones first before you can cut through with your knife.
Step 2 – Remove the legs. Cut along where the legs meet the hip and shoulder joints. You should be able to easily remove these parts once you get to the joint.
Step 3 – This is optional, but you can remove the tenderloins from the back. This muscle is one of the most tender on the animal. You can also leave it attached to the midsection and cook it that way.
As you can see, it will take some practice. This is not something that will be perfect after the first try. Cleaning game is a skill just like all of our other wilderness skills. Try to practice as often as possible.
If you are hunting with other people, offer to clean their game for them to get extra practice. Go hunting or trapping more often so you have more game with which to practice.
With just a little time and effort, cleaning wild game will no longer intimidate you like it might have before.
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