Anderson: Field-dressing your deer for success

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2012 - 12:27 AM

This fall, whitetail hunters can enhance the taste of their venison by avoiding these five field-dressing mistakes.

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Kerry Swendsen shows the process of field dressing a deer. Here, Swendsen pulls the deer to a small slope with head facing down hill.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Kerry Swendsen believes bad-tasting venison is more the fault of the deer hunter than the deer.

A lifelong hunter who has been cutting and processing meat since he was a kid, Swendsen is -- in a word -- fastidious about his wild game.

Venison, in particular.

"Clean, clean, clean,'' he says, repeating the mantra that guides his method of field dressing and meat processing.

Swendsen's introduction to meat handling began decades ago when he helped his dad dress, skin and butcher beef cattle. The experience was invaluable, he says, in developing the way he handles deer and venison.

"I've been meat cutting all my life,'' he said. "But not all meat cutters know how to field dress a deer. They're two different processes.''

Recently, Swendsen and a partner, Wendell Ball, launched a smartphone app that instructs hunters with words and text, as well as video, the proper way to field dress a deer.

The app is available for iPhones and Androids (download from an app store or go to www.deerdummy.com).

Working under their DeerDummy.com business name (Swendsen and Ball also sell cutting boards, knives, seasoning and other products), the pair have conducted seminars throughout the greater metro showing hunters how to handle deer come Saturday morning, when the state's 2012 whitetail season opens.

"You really need to get a deer spick and-span when you field dress it and prepare it for butchering,'' Swendsen said. "It's pathetic, really, the way many hunters treat their deer. And it affects the taste of venison. Leaves and dirt and blood -- they all can permeate the meat and make it taste bad.''

Hunters routinely make five mistakes when they field dress deer, Swendsen says. Avoid them, he says, to ensure having great-tasting venison in the freezer for the long winter ahead. Here they are:

Mistake No. 1: Field dressing too quickly

"In most deer hunting situations in Minnesota, it's cool enough so you can take some time after you kill a deer before field dressing it,'' Swendsen said.

Instead of dressing a deer where it falls, he advises, "leave it fully enclosed as long as you can.''

"In fact, if you can leave it closed up until you get it back to your camp, that's best,'' he said.

Not only will water be available to clean a carcass at a camp or other secondary location, an animal can more easily be hung up there to be field dressed, allowing for a cleaner and more thorough job.

Mistake No 2: Not cutting from back to front

Most hunters while field dressing make their initial incision at or near the sternum, then work back toward the anus.

Properly done, Swendsen said, the cut that begins at the sternum should continue forward to the windpipe.

"A lot of hunters leave the windpipe in the animal, or else remove it incompletely,'' he said. "That sets you up for the possibility of bacteria building up in the deer.

"Far better to dress an animal from the sternum forward, through the chest cavity, to the throat.''

Then an incision can be continued, he said, from the breast bone back through the belly to the pelvic bone.

"A big advantage of getting a deer back to a camp is that you can position the animal so its cavity stays clean while you're dressing it,'' Swendsen said.

Ideally, this means a deer would be suspended from its hind legs, allowing gravity to carry the innards down and out of the animal as the hunter cuts along the belly and around the penis or milk sack.

Mistake No. 3: Not cleaning a dressed deer

Once a deer has been field dressed, it should be hung from its hind legs and its cavity thoroughly cleaned with water.

"Some people say you don't want to clean the cavity of a carcass with water because it's not good to have water sitting in it, which can be unhealthy over time,'' Swendsen said. "If you hang the deer, after it's dressed, from its rear legs, like professional beef cutters do, you can wash and wash and wash until the cavity of the animal is clean. All of the water will run to the tip of the neck and out.''

Mistake No. 4: Not cleaning a skinned deer

Once a deer has been skinned, more cleaning is necessary to prepare the animal for butchering.

"Get yourself a copper scrubber,'' Swendsen said, "like the kind people use to clean dishes or pots and pans. You can buy the scrubbers alone, or with plastic handles on them, which probably work a little better.''

Said Swendsen:

"Before you do any butchering, the carcass should be completely cleaned, especially of hair. You don't want to put a lot of pressure on the scrubber while you run it over the carcass, just firm enough to pick up excess hair and other debris. Dip the brush into a bucket of water as needed to clean it.''

Mistake No. 5: Not being prepared

Many Minnesota hunters kill a deer only every third or fourth season. In the meantime, especially if they haven't field dressed many deer in their lives, they can grow unfamiliar with the process.

Preparing to field dress and, for some hunters, to butcher a deer should be as important a part of the hunt as sighting in a shotgun or rifle, Swendsen said.

"Have a good knife with you, and sharpen it ahead of time,'' he said. "You've got plenty of time before the hunt to take control of the situation. Have a block and tackle and other equipment on hand. Study up. Know what you want to do. Make a plan.''

After all, you might get a deer.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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