The work of hunting does not end with a kill. In some respects, it’s only just begun. You owe it to the animal, and to yourself, to make sure that the carcass is handled as carefully as possible to ensure quality meat. Regardless of whether the animal will be skinned and processed in the field or at home, it needs to be gutted immediately.
Big game should be gutted as soon as possible, preferably within an hour of the animal’s death. All big game animals are gutted in essentially the same way, though there are obvious differences in the matter of scale. The sequence of the following steps is not entirely rigid, and there are many shortcuts that can speed the process along.
The following step-by-step procedure is meant to give you a full understanding of the work involved. Once you gain some proficiency, you will develop your own favorite way of going about it.
Start by positioning the animal on its back, with the spine as straight as possible and the legs pointing toward the sky.
Cut through the skin around the animal’s anus, leaving the anus connected only to the colon. Use the tip of your knife to free the connective tissues that hold the animal’s colon in place. Get in there as far as possible. The colon should be lying inside the pelvis like the end of a hose, totally freed up.
Starting at the top of the anus incision, slice upward through the hide to a point just past the animal’s pelvis – DO NOT cut through the abdominal wall. Slice down through the muscle until you hit the pelvis bone. On males, cut down on each side of the pelvic ridge. On females, you can make just one slice down to the bone. Note: if you’re going to be dragging the animal any appreciable distance, you can omit this step. By leaving this area intact, it’s easier to keep the meat clean during transportation. The downside is that the animal does not cool as quickly, and this is a part of the carcass that’s vulnerable to spoilage in warm weather.
Go up to the point of the animal’s brisket and start an incision through the hide. Run this incision all the way down the animal’s underside until it meets the opening you created in order to expose the pelvis bone. Be careful not to knick the muscle beneath the hide, as you might puncture the internal organs as well.
At this point you’re ready to cut through the abdominal wall. The safest place to enter the abdomen is at the very bottom of the rib cage. Make a very shallow and careful cut through the abdominal muscles, just enough to insert your middle and index fingers. With your fingers facing up, lift the abdominal muscles up and away from the stomach and slice through the lining along the same incision that you made through the hide. End the cut at the lower end of the abdomen, where the belly terminates at the pelvis area between the two rear legs.
Reach one hand inside the animal’s pelvis and press the bladder and intestines away from the pelvis bone as you use your other hand to split the pelvis bone with a saw or small hatchet. On males, cut through the bone on each side of the ridge. On females, cut down the middle. Once the bone is cut, forcibly push the rear legs apart. You should now have a clear gateway through which the colon and lower intestine will pass when you pull the guts away from the animal.
Go back to the point of the sternum where you began your incision through the abdominal wall. From there, use a bone saw, hatchet, or heavy knife to split the sternum all the way to the base of the neck. Then forcibly separate the two halves of the rib cage.
Reach into the front of the chest cavity and sever the windpipe. Also slice through the diaphragm, freeing it from the walls of the ribcage on both sides of the animal all the way down to the spine.
Using two hands, reach up to where you severed the windpipe and get a good grip on the package of organs at the top end of the animal. Pulling slowly and firmly, you should be able to walk backward and drag the entire load of guts out of the animal. Keep a knife handy, as you might need to reach in and slice free the diaphragm or connective tissues around the pelvis if things gets hung up.
Go through the gut pile and remove the heart, kidneys, and liver.
A Tip for Handling Large Animals
When handling large animals or working on uneven terrain, you can use lengths of cord to hold rig the animal into whatever position you want. Here, an elk hunter in Kentucky uses a piece of paracord to keep a bull’s back leg out of the way during the skinning job.
Evidence of Sex
Many states require hunters to leave the evidence of sex naturally attached to big game carcasses until the animal reaches its final point of processing. The animal’s head counts as evidence of sex only as long as it’s naturally attached to the carcass.
Once the animal’s head is removed in the process of quartering or butchering in the field, legal evidence of sex in the form of reproductive organs/features must be left naturally attached to the meat. Acceptable evidence of sex usually includes the vulva or mammary glands on females and the testicles on males.
To leave the evidence of sex on a bull or buck:
To leave the evidence of sex attached to a cow or doe: