Some of the best whitetail hunting happens far from any road or trail, in places where getting a whole deer carcass out of the woods would be a real challenge. But don’t let that stop you from hunting there.
The idea of shooting a whitetail far from a road, deep in a draw, far back in the brushy hinterlands, or anyplace else the drag would be long and difficult – or downright impossible – is precisely the kind of thinking that has saved many a whitetail’s hide over the years. But that shouldn’t stop you from hunting the best, most distant and most secluded whitetail coverts, where your chances for success are best. Armed with the following methods of getting your venison out, you’ll be able to hunt with confidence in all the places that whitetails roam.
To make the most of a whitetail’s prime cuts of meat, breaking the deer down into six easy-to-carry pieces is an efficient and effective plan. These six key parts consist of two front legs, two top-of-the-back loins and two back legs.
First, know all state regulations to make sure that taking the carcass apart in the field is legal before any registration requirements are met. And be sure to follow all tagging regulations before starting, including evidence of sex rules.
You don’t need many tools to break a whitetail down into carrying- sized pieces. In fact, everything you need can be transported in a small daypack: hunting knife, deep-bellied skinning knife (optional but good to have), a small boning knife or fish fillet knife, a bone saw, a small block and tackle with folding gambrel stick to hoist the deer up in a tree for skinning and some rope.
You also can skin a deer on the ground on a tarp or sheet of plastic if no trees are available. But the preferable method is to raise that carcass up and off the ground where working on it is both a cleaner and less back-breaking proposition.
Skin the Deer
To start the skinning process, use the block and tackle to hoist the deer by the hind legs. The portable, fold-out gambrel works best for this, because it spreads the back legs apart for skinning.
If you don’t have a fold-out gambrel, don’t worry. Just make cuts through the skin (between the leg and tendon) above the last joint on each of the deer’s back legs. Thread the rope through these slits and tie it off in a loop. After the deer is up off the ground, spread the back legs with a sturdy stick.
If you don’t have a block and tackle but do have a hunting partner along, hanging a deer takes a bit more effort. But with teamwork the two of you can usually get a deer up and off the ground by tossing the rope over a limb and having one hunter hug and hoist the carcass while the other gathers in the slack rope and ties it off when the deer’s head is just off the ground.
To start skinning the deer, make cuts around the top of each back leg and down the inside (white part). Roll the skin backward and pull downward, using the knife to work it off the legs as needed. But if the deer is still warm (and it should be), pulling the skin off is quite easy.
Next, cut through the tail and start peeling the skin off the back and main body of the deer. It’s like peeling a big banana at this point. Use your deep-bellied skinning knife when needed, to work through fat or any other tight spots and keep the skin coming off.
The front legs and chest pose some challenge. Cut a ring around the lower end (just above the last joint) of each leg, then slice along the inside of the leg (it’s facing up if the deer is hanging upside down) to the deer’s chest. Then extend those cuts along the chest to meet the skin you’ve peeled down to this point.
Now it’s time to pull the rest of the skin down the chest and shoulders to meet with the aforementioned front leg cuts, and peel down to the deer’s neck. Saw off the package of head and skin on the neck.
Break Down the Carcass
Now you’re ready to start breaking down the carcass into six parts that make it easier to get your meat out of the woods.
To start, you’ll remove the loins. Loins are the long, thick “ropes” of meat that run along either side of the deer’s backbone as you look at the top of its back.
Before you start on the loins though, take a few moments to remove the tenderloins. Tenderloins are the small strips of meat that run on either side of the deer’s backbone on the inside of the body cavity. Just slip your fingers underneath, slide and separate the meat from the pocket it sits in, and use your knife to slice off each tenderloin where it attaches at either end.
Removing the loins from the outside is easy, and all it takes is a small, thin-bladed boning knife or fillet knife. Use that knife to cut in next to the backbone. Work your fingers between the loin and back- bone, and under the loin, and carefully cut/lift it out. A little judicious and patient knife work will grab you some extra meat where the loin meets the back legs, and especially where the loin tucks under the front shoulder.
Remove the loin, place in a plastic bag, then repeat the process on the other side. Depending on the size of the deer, each loin might be anywhere from 4 to 8 or so pounds. This is some of the best meat on your deer! Later, you will turn the loins into gourmet chops for searing and grilling.
Now it’s time to cut off the front legs. No saw is needed for this task, because there is no socket or joint here: Only ligaments and tendons join the front legs to the shoulder.
You can remove the front leg with any knife. Just cut along the seam between the shoulder and chest cavity and the leg will come right off. Hold on to the hoof end of the leg with one hand and use the other hand to do the cutting and the leg will drop right off. Repeat on the other side.
Once the front leg is off, you can cut around the knee joint, break the joint and pop off the lower part of the leg. That’s if you have a pack in which to carry out the meat. Otherwise, the lower leg makes a good carrying handle.
The size of the front leg will vary widely with the deer you shoot. On a fawn or yearling, a front leg might weigh 5 to 8 pounds, does between 8 and 10. Bucks, which are bigger in the front quarters, might have front legs weighing from 10 to 15 pounds each. Later, you will turn front leg meat into bone-in roasts, stew meat or chunks for grinding into burger or for sausage products.
Now it’s time to remove the back legs. First, use your saw to cut off the rest of the carcass. All you’ll have left hanging there is one piece consisting of both back legs, connected by what remains of the backbone. To separate the back legs into two pieces, saw along one side of the backbone. The gambrel or your rope loop will hold up these two remaining pieces.
As with the front legs, you can remove the lower portion of the back legs now, or use the lower legs as convenient carrying handles. Back legs are much larger than front legs, at least double or more in weight and meat yield. Later, you will turn the back legs into boneless roasts and steaks, as well as chunks for stew or grinding.
Carry the Pieces Out
When you’re done with this chunking process, you will have six relatively manageable pieces of whitetail to carry out of a tough spot. Two hunters can usually get one average-sized deer out of the field in one trip. One hunter takes both back legs, while the other hunter carries the front legs, plus the loins in a pack or sack. If you’re alone, it will take you two trips to get all the meat out.
Either way, you might have to add one more person-trip for the head-antlers-cape of a buck, though the shoulder and neck skin can be rolled up with the antlered head of a buck and then lashed to a pack.
Even if you take a couple of trips to pack out the deer, this plan will produce much less wear and tear on your body than dragging out a whole deer from a tough spot. What’s even more important is this: It’s highly efficient work, since most of what you’re carrying out, save for a few leg bones, is edible meat.
The Boneless Plan
When it’s time to break down a deer in the field, you have another option. Sometimes – such as when you’re alone and so far back in that one trip out is all that’s in the cards – you need to chunk that deer into its elemental pieces: pure meat. Now it’s time to bone out your deer on the spot and carry it out.
The process is not as hard as you might think, if you consider the challenge in this way: The job is not to produce perfect cuts of meat, but rather to bring back the larger muscles that will later become chops, steaks, roasts, stew meat, and/or chunks that become ground meat or sausage products.
The tool kit you’ll want to carry, along with the hanging and skinning process, is the same as with the six-piece chunk plan. But once the carcass is hanging there skin-free, the goal is to remove all the pure meat from the carcass.
Start with the loins as described above. Place them in their own plastic bag, although in truth it’s hard to mistake these long pieces of meat for anything else. Next, work on the front legs. There’s no need to remove the legs to do this work. In fact, having them up off the ground makes a convenient and clean place to work. Slice off this meat in large pieces that you can process further, later. You will get an especially large couple of chunks of meat off the upper shoulders; these could become roasts. Store all of the front leg meat in separate plastic bags.
Lastly, it’s time for the back legs. To start, work off the large chunks of meat on top of the hips; these make great sirloin-style steaks later. The big chunks at the back/top of the hind legs are perfect as rump roasts.
The muscle groups below are good as steaks, or as chunks for stew or grinding. The lower back leg trim is quite sinewy and stringy (as with that of the lower front legs), and best used for grinding. Place each set of back leg meat in its own plastic bag. This way it’s easier to discern the different cuts later and do the right things with them.
You’ll need a good pack, preferably with a pack frame, to carry boned meat out to a road, trail, vehicle or camp. Most deer end up at some- where between 30 to 50 pounds of boneless meat – not too much to carry out in one trip.
There are many methods for getting a whole deer out of the woods – grabbing an antler and pull- ing, using a deer dragging harness, sledding it out, floating it out in a canoe or boat, or using a wheeled cart to roll it out.
But when the terrain offers only ATV or foot access, it might be time to break that deer down into parts or chunks right there in the field to get your meat out of that tough spot.