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Know trophy prep, butchering before hunt

10/19/2006

Much to my children's embarrassment and wife's disgust, fall at my house always includes a big cauldron of heads simmering in the shed.

But before anyone calls the authorities, remember that proper care and handling of harvested game, including skulls, is an integral part of being a hunter, even when it is a tad stinky or gruesome.

The skulls in my cauldron (all right, big pot), are from the deer, elk, bear, coyote and moose I harvest most years.

And though the stink from a half-decayed, boiling bear skull would gag even a seasoned taxidermist, there is something that is even more disgusting.

I am referring to the loss of meat, cape, hide or skull of a game animal due to improper handling by the person who killed the game.

Immediately upon shooting any animal, the first consideration should be the salvageable meat.

Though I only remove quarters, back straps and neck meat from elk in remote locations, without ever touching the entrails, practically all other game requires the immediate removal of the guts first.

In deer country, this allows the meat to start cooling. In Alaska, it is required to comply with the state's wanton-waste rule.

On deer-size game, it is not advisable to skin the animal or cut it into pieces prior to starting the butchering process.

Remember that every cut or exposed bit of muscle tissue represents a spot that must be trimmed away if left to stand for any amount of time.

On very large game that must be packed out, it is necessary to cut the meat into manageable pieces at the kill site.

On elk, moose and bear, I cut pieces as large as I can carry, trying to expose as little meat as possible to the elements.

And I never bone out game in the field. Bones are very lightweight, and to cut them out exposes and ruins far too much meat.

Meat portions are always immediately transferred into canvas game bags to protect them from the things that can spoil them.

Moisture, dirt, heat and insects are the mortal enemies of edible game meat, and I go to great lengths to avoid all four.

Never wash out the inside or outside of a gutted animal, unless urine, bile or some other stinky fluid covered it in the gutting process. Even then, only rinse it once, and make sure it dries quickly. A hardened, dry blood glaze is the goal for any meat.

Saving the rest

Once the meat is taken care of, attention should turn to the salvage of trophy parts.

In order to mount an antlered animal, it is necessary to remove the cape (hide around the head and shoulders) prior to removing the antlers.

It is probably a good idea to let a taxidermist complete the caping around the head unless the hunter has some previous experience.

If, however, the entire cape is removed from the head, do not salt it! Fold the cape skin-to-skin and keep it refrigerated if it can be delivered in a day or so. Freeze it if it needs to sit for more than a day.

Even in Alaska, I do not salt hides and capes. It is consistently cold enough there to maintain a hide if kept free of the enemies I mentioned earlier, and salt starts the drying process.

The drying process should only be started after the hide or cape is completely and thoroughly fleshed. That means there should be no trace of red meat or fat on hide prior to salting.

Additionally, once the salting process is started, it needs to be repeated a couple of times, with a large amount of salt. Freeze your hide and cape, and leave the fleshing and salting to a taxidermist, if possible.

Skulls present a different type of problem.

Non-antlered skulls, such as those from wolves, coyotes and bears, are easily boiled in a large pot over a turkey fryer.

Boil them outside — away from the house — and place a couple of bricks in the bottom of the pot for the skulls to rest on. This keeps the bone from contacting the pot and scorching.

Do not boil skulls in anything other than regular water. Do not add detergent, and definitely do not add any bleach! Bleach eats the bone and will certainly ruin the final product.

Once the water is boiling, let it simmer for about six hours, then check it. If the meat has all fallen away, remove the skull and finish the process with a small knife and tweezers. Allowing the skull to boil too long will cause it to fall apart at the seams.

Antlered skulls also need to be boiled, but often cannot be immersed due to the configuration of the antlers. Even if a deer's antlers are small enough or the pot is big enough, the antlers should not touch the boiling water. Where they are boiled, they discolor or scorch.

Wrap the antlers with tinfoil and build a metal frame over the pot so the head is as submerged as possible, with the antlers hanging just above the water.

This often means part of the skull is not under water, so I make a tent of tinfoil over the rest of the skull to help it at least steam.

It is usually necessary, however, to turn the skull over and boil the other side to get stubborn meat off the bone.

For really tough jobs, like moose heads, with which the antlers fan out horizontally from the skull, boiling doesn't work very well. There simply is no way to get the skull down into the water without also submerging the antlers.

In this case, I steam them as thoroughly as possible, then immediately follow-up with a 3,000 psi pressure washer.

It takes a long time to remove the meat this way, but it is the only way I have found that works, short of exposing the entire skull to dermestid beetles. They are very efficient at cleaning skulls, but very few taxidermists keeps them.