By Tim E. Hovey
Field dressing an animal, opening up the gut cavity and removing all the entrails is done primarily for one reason; to cool down the animal as quickly as possible. The internal organs of a big game animal are a tremendous source of heat and that heat will spoil the meat quickly once the animal is no longer alive.
This method is extremely messy and often difficult for new hunters to perform correctly without guidance. It is also often the source of meat contamination when internal fluids are inadvertently exposed to cuts of meat during butchering.
Several years ago I was on an out-of-state deer hunt where we were allowed to take does. I was hunting with the land owner and after I dropped my deer, I dropped my pack and got ready to field dress or gut the deer. Before my blade touched hair, the land owner leaned in and asked if he could show me something.
Back in the early 2000’s, a new method of field dressing big game animals had been spreading through the outdoor community. I had read about what was being called the gutless method for a few years but hadn’t had a chance to see it done.
I watched as the property owner spent about thirty minutes parting out the downed deer without ever opening the body cavity. After he made the last cut, he smiled and held up his nearly clean hands. Not opening the gut cavity had kept his hands practically blood free. I was stunned and impressed. From that day on, when it came to field dressing big game, I started using the gutless method.
As the name suggests, the gutless method is simply parting out a downed animal without opening up the gut cavity. The idea is to carefully skin the animal, using the skinned hide to keep the meat clean and avoiding any exposure to the gut fluids. When done correctly, much of the harvestable meat is quickly removed in a clean manner.
Starting at the back of the neck, make a shallow cut just under the skin down the center of the spine to the rump. To keep the meat as clean as possible, it’s important to always make cuts in the direction of hair growth. Following this simple rule will reduce the amount of cut animal hair on your harvested meat.
Using this center cut, skin the animal down one side, including both legs. Once the front and back leg is skinned, you can remove both from the body relatively quickly. Lifting the front leg and exposing the armpit, start cutting where the front leg meets the body, lifting the leg at the same time. You’ll start to feel the front of the rib cage and where the front shoulder blade meets the body. Continue lifting and cutting until the leg is completely cut from the front of the animal.
Unlike the front leg, the back leg is connected to the body in a ball and socket joint. Just like with the front leg, lift the back leg exposing the crotch. Again, start cutting where the back leg meets the body. Your goal for the back leg removal is to locate that ball and socket joint, scoring where those bones meet to help break that connection. Care should be taken here to avoid cutting into the body cavity.
Once you feel the ball break free from the socket, continue spreading the leg as you cut through the rump meat until you separate the leg. With both legs removed, I’ll either lay the meat out on a plastic tarp in the shade or hang them to cool.
With the spine skinned and exposed, I’ll remove the back straps next. Starting at the back of the neck, I’ll cut parallel to the spine all the way down to the top of the hip. The depth of this cut will go down to the top of the ribcage all the way down the length of the spine. Carefully working the blade perpendicular to the spine, you can fillet the slender piece of meat off the back. This boneless piece of meat is considered the best tasting cut of meat on the animal.
With the animal on its side, I’ll make a small, four-inch cut just below the spine into the gut cavity behind the last rib to access the tenderloins. These small pieces of meat are located at the top of the ribcage inside the body cavity, and are considered a delicacy. Reaching in with your fingers, you can essentially pull this small piece of meat through the cut without fully opening up the gut cavity.
After you harvest one side of the animal, you can flip the carcass over and repeat the steps on the other side.
Over the years, I’ve slightly modified the order of the cuts for using the gutless method. Instead of making the initial cut along the spine, I’ll start by completely skinning and removing the legs on one side of the animal first and moving up towards the top of the back. Despite this subtle difference, overall the end result is the same.
I believe parting out an animal using this method enables the meat to cool down faster, especially in situations where you’re hunting in warmer weather. Skinning each appendage quickly and removing it from the animal allows choice pieces of meat to cool quickly and that’s the key to preventing spoilage.
If you’ve never field dressed big game before, learning the specifics of how animals are put together will help considerably. Or better yet, if you are familiar with this method, show a new hunter how to move through this technique. I guarantee, once you figure it out, you’ll never open up a gut cavity again if you don’t have to.