To paraphrase an old idiom, there’s more than one way to skin a deer. Similar to field dressing and butchering, if you take a minimalist approach, the only thing you need is a sharp knife. Also similar to field dressing and butchering, the job will go a lot smoother if you have more tools available than just a sharp knife.
There are a ton of tricks out there to speed up the process, from using your truck, a winch, or lately I’ve seen a number of videos on using compressed air to “inflate” the skin off. I’m not going to go into any of those here. If you are a commercial processor, or maybe a successful hunting camp where you need to skin a lot of deer, then I’m sure those speed methods come in handy. I only ever have one to two deer to skin at a time – so I do it the old fashioned way, with a knife and elbow grease.
Even though I do it the hard way, here are a few tips to make your deer skinning job easier.
Tip 1: Never, EVER, let the deer freeze before you skin it.
Deer hair has amazing insulating properties. But there’s this weird paradox:
- If you hang your deer overnight, and the temperature drops below freezing, the deer freezes (so much for insulating properties).
- Once it freezes, it can take DAYS of above freezing temperatures to thaw back out (WTH – magic one way insulating?!).
DON’T let it freeze. If the temperature is supposed to drop, protect the deer somehow. If you can’t hang it in your garage, then wrap it in blankets or whatever you have handy. If it does freeze, the job will take ten times longer – the worst part: plan on not feeling your fingers while you are doing the work.
Tip 2: The sooner you skin it, the easier it is.
Personally, I very seldom ever age my deer before processing it. There are a number of reasons why I don’t, which I’ll go into more detail elsewhere – but the tie in here is that the sooner you skin the deer after you kill it, the easier it is to skin. You can find some YouTube videos of a guy skinning a deer in less than two minutes. If you look closely at the deer, you can tell it was very freshly killed. If you do age your deer, waiting a few days to skin it won’t make it impossible, just understand that it will be more difficult than if you had skinned it the same day the deer died.
Tip 3: Three tools is the magic number.
The first thing I do, is cut the forelegs off. A knife will do, but a set of loppers is even quicker – They work just as well on bone and cartilage as they do branches. You want to cut it right in the joint, that will cut much easier than going through just solid bone.
Then you need some knives. Sure you only need one knife. But have two and the job will be a breeze. You want a rounded skinning blade, and a thin blade such as a caping knife or a fillet knife. Use the thin blade to cut the hide. Use the skinning knife to separate the skin from the body – the exaggerated rounded blade makes it easy to just run back and forth as you move down the body.
Tip 4: Keep the hair out of the meat!
It is much easier to keep hair off the meat than it is to try to clean it off if you make a mess. There are two main ways you are getting hair on the meat:
- When you cut the hide: If you just slice along the top of the skin, the blade will contact hair first. As you make your cuts, you are basically cutting hair the whole way you go, and all those hair trimmings are most likely falling all over freshly exposed meat. The solution: using your caping or fillet knife, make your first incision small. Once you have an incision made, stick the tip of the knife in, and turn it around so the blade is facing up. Think of it like using a pry bar – you get underneath it and “pry” the skin up. By slicing “up” through the skin this way, you will NOT be cutting the hair – no hair, no hairy meat.
- You touch the hair, then you touch the meat: Ok, maybe you cut a few hairs making your first cuts. Plus there will always be a few loose hairs on the hide. So the easy solution: pick a hand to touch the deer, and pick a hand to use the knife. And don’t let them switch. If you do need to switch hands, change gloves or wash your hands first.
If you do still get some hair on the meat, a damp paper towel can scrub most of it off easily enough. Or run a torch over the meat to singe any strays off – just a quick burst will clean it up nicely. If you follow the steps above though, odds are you won’t need any clean up.
Tip 5: Have an extra set of hands.
Having a partner just makes it go faster and smoother. Have your buddy do the pulling while you do the cutting (or vice versa) to help avoid hair contamination. Your hands are going to get dirty – having someone else around to run errands, get more water for cleaning utensils, raising or lowering the deer, changing the radio station, getting another round of beers – hey it just helps to keep a cleaner work site, meaning less cleanup when the job is finished!
Sure, you can do one of the gimmick skinning methods, and I’m sure they work well. But learn how to do the job right first, with minimal tools. And once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to skin a deer, and doesn’t take much time. Unless you let it freeze. Then good luck, because the gimmick methods won’t even save you then!