In the field, garage, and assembly line
Even though processing a deer may seem a touch different than separating wheat from chaff, the idea is similar. Remove what is of value and put it to good use.
However, there is more than one way to butcher a deer, and the method itself depends upon a hunter’s inclination.
Marion hunter Alex “Casey” Case prefers to hunt in the morning.
“Once you make a shot you can hear the deer crash and thrash around, busting through the branches on what I call the death run,” Case said. “I have seen an animal die very few times.”
If he makes what he thinks is a kill shot, he doesn’t press the animal by tracking it too fast.
Instead, Case usually marks the last place he saw his deer with orange tape and locates its blood trail. He said most deer lie down after fleeing about 50 feet.
“I will usually go home, have breakfast, and maybe go into the office for a few hours to get my things in order for the day before I go back out and recover the deer,” he said.
Case prefers to skin and field-dress deer. He said a good-sized buck usually pushes 300 pounds, and does typically weigh about half that much, so he uses a wench with a deer gambrel on his truck to hoist animals up over a tree branch for processing.
He takes great pride in trimming out the fat when he cuts meat for steaks, tenderloin, jerky, summer sausage, and deer sticks.
“Deer meat is high in protein,” he said. “It’s some of the leanest, healthiest meat you can get.
“I take home everything that is useful. If it’s a buck, I take its head. I usually put the heart, the liver in Ziploc bags, and the rest I bone out and put in a cooler of ice.”
Once he has finished, Case generally leaves an animal’s gut pile, hooves, and hide on the forest floor. In his experience, feral carnivores have proven reliable as a cleanup crew.
“It creates a huge mess,” he said. “If you process it at home then you have to dispose of it, which isn’t a big deal, but if you do it out in the field, coyotes come clean it up.”
Cory Foth, a taxidermist in Peabody who calls himself a “hack” when it comes to processing deer, also guts deer in the field. He also skins them on a skinning cradle before he takes animals back to his garage for processing.
As a taxidermist, he said his garage is the best place to process deer because it already is set up to handle hunter’s trophies.
Once a deer cools, he hoists it using a gambrel, separates the hind legs, and then carves out what meat he wants using a hunter’s standard boning knife. He also uses a meat-grinder.
“I cut out the back strap and debone the rest,” Foth said. “I know enough to keep some of the better chunks for roasts, have some sliced thin for jerky, and grind some for chili and such.”
When he gets to the abdomen, his expertise dissipates.
“I believe the tenderloin is inside of the abdominal cavity, below the spine toward the rear of a deer,” Foth said. “That’s where I become a hack. I don’t know all the technical terms, and I don’t know how to get normal steak cuts. Most of those cuts require fat to be left in the meat.”
Other hunters have left marks on deer he has processed.
“I’ve found broadhead arrows and bullets trapped between the skin and the meat,” Foth said.
Foth said he learned most cuts from watching Mike Berger, owner of Peabody Sausage House, when he worked there.
“I have zero formal training,” he said. “I just kind of watched Mike, but he never gave me an official tutorial.”
Berger’s business processes deer only between Dec. 2 and 13, during rifle season, for hunters who don’t want to process their own deer.
“In a slow year we do about 50 or 60 deer,” Berger said. “In a good year, it’s up to 150.”
Employees skin deer similar to a hog by utilizing a skinning cradle to lay the deer belly-up.
Legs are cut off before employees make a centerline cut from the neck to belly, making sure not to penetrate the meat.
Next, most of the hide is skinned off the sides of the deer by folding it away from the meat up to an area on the neck to avoid contamination. The back leg hide is pulled down while in the half-cradle position and the entirety of the animal’s digestive system it removed or “de-bunged.”
A careful cut through the belly meat is made before the deer is hoisted to a vertical, back-leg-up position, Berger said.
“The guts are then removed and the remaining portion of the hide along the neck is pulled off along with the head,” he said. “The deer is then thoroughly washed down and hung on a rail to cool down in a chill cooler. The carcass will cool down for at least a day and up to a week, depending upon scheduling.”
A butcher saw, grinder, and stuffer also are used during processing.
Depending upon customers’ specifications, Berger said it typically takes up to four people working together to process a deer.