Skinning Your Trophy

Sinning a DeerSkining a BearI am always amazed at the way hunters treat their hard won trophies. They buy the best rifles, spend hours studying bullet design and powder types, invest days checking out the best hunting areas, and many, many hours tracking their quarry. Then they take their Trophy, throw it in the back of their truck and a week later say "Hey, that's a great set of horns, let's mount it !" Then they are surprised when the hair falls out !

Once you have your trophy down, you will need to skin it as soon as possible. This is so the hide can cool off. Heat is the enemy. With heat bacteria grow and grow quickly. Bacteria causes the hair to slip. Now we want to be quick but within reason. The object is to accurately skin the animal and cool off the skin as quick as possible. Think of the skin as a big bowel of Potato Salad. You should be willing to eat from that bowel when you bring it in to the taxidermist. ALL hair loss and slippage is caused by improper care of the hide in the field. Perhaps we should start at the top.

You will want to save the meat. This begins with gutting the animal. This is pretty basic and others have addressed it better then I. Just remember NOT to cut the throat and to only bring your gutting cut up to the brisket. Here is a good online primer on gutting a Deer and Here is one for Elk.

Skinning Deer neckOK, we've got the animal gutted, now what ? Everyone seems to be able to gut their deer but then they get scared about cutting a hole and end up working way too hard. Take a good look at the dotted lines in the drawings. This is where you should cut. Notice, on the Deer, Antelope and Elk, that you can cut up the back bone to within three or four inches of the antlers. This allows you to get to all the neck meat easily. You can also cut the head from the body by cutting through the top neck vertebra at the rear of the skull. If you tube the cape you are just doing a lot of extra work for nothing. The cape must be cut at least twelve to fifteen inches from the horns down the back bone to get the cape on the Deer or Elk form for mounting, so tubing the cape doesn't do you any good. If anything, it may hurt because it makes it harder for the skin to cool. You can't open the cape out so it will cool and Deer, Elk, and especially Antelope hair really holds in the heat. Just make sure you leave plenty of cape at the bottom (Brisket) and DO NOT make any cut on the front of the cape. A very small nick or cut is not a problem. It can be sewn up with one or two stitches. A big cut across the throat IS a problem. Deer hair is multi colored and, while we can sew up a big cut, it is hard to get the hair to lay right. This problem is even worse with an Antelope. Elk and Bear are not a problem because they have such thick hair.

SkinningToo much fat !As you start skinning you will notice that, if you pull the skin away from the meat, a white line will appear where the skin attaches to the meat. That line is where you cut. After you do it awhile you will find that this is a much easier and cleaner way of skinning. Just hacking away, and leaving big chunks of meat and fat on the hide marks you as a rank amateur.

It never ceases to amaze me. People will bring in a hide with slabs of meat and fat over two inches thick on it and proudly announce "I didn't cut a single hole !" Well duh. The fat is thicker then the length your knife blade. You couldn't cut a hole if you tried ! This is not good. The hide should be clean and white.

Bad skin job.
A BAD skinning job.
Good Skin job.
A GOOD skinning job !

Now don't get carried away and cut too deep. On Deer, Elk, and Antelope you do not want to cut into the hair root because that can loosen the hair. On bear, you can cut right to the root and it does not seem to hurt. The big thing is to get ALL the fat and meat off the hide. The hide should look white unless it is bloodshot, then it would look red. but you still have to get all the fat and meat off. You can leave the head unskinned on Deer, Elk, and Antelope. On Bear you can also leave the feet unskinned. The taxidermist will do the fine, detailed, skinning of those parts. Just remember to end your skinning cut on the feet in the middle of the pads and not on the sides of the foot.

Now you want to cool off the skin as quickly as possible. If it is cool out you can open the skin and put it in the shade till it cools. Put hair side to hair side, bunch it up and put it into a plastic bag. Now take your trophy to the Taxidermist or put it into a freezer. DO NOT wrap the head up in the skin nice and neat. Neatness does not count here. If you wrap up the head in the skin with the fur out it will take a long time to freeze and a long time to unfreeze. This can lead to hair slippage. Never put a skin in the freezer in a breathable bag, like a game or meat sack. If you do, in a few days, it will slowly dry out and be almost impossible to skin out when you unfreeze it.

A salted HideNow we come to salting. There is a time to salt and a time NOT to salt. For some reason people think you can salt a hide with rock salt, without skinning out the head or feet, and that you are doing a good thing. If you do, there is a good chance you will ruin the hide. Any skin MUST be prepared properly BEFORE you salt it. Salt pulls moisture out of the hide, setting the hair. However, if there is a big slab of meat on the skin, the salt only hardens up the meat and never reaches the hide. Now, the hard meat is almost impossible to cut off the skin and no salt is reaching the skin itself so the hair slips. Rock salt will not penetrate properly so it just works in spots. Now you have a real gooey mess. So what do people do with this mess ? Why, they bring it to me, of course. Then they get mad 'cuse the hair slips.

Seriously, if you can't get the hide to a freezer or a taxidermist you must salt it BUT, you MUST do it right. All the cape (Hide) and head and feet MUST be skinned out (feet to the last knuckle of each toe and don't forget to do the tail . On Moose, remember to split the Dewlap too !) with ALL the meat and ALL the fat removed. The lips MUST be split and the ear skin separated from the ear cartilage and the ears turned inside out. Now, and only now, do you put the salt on. You will want to use fine mixing salt and a lot of it. You can't really use too much. You can get this salt from a farm feed store. It comes in 50 Lb. bags and costs under five dollars. A deer cape would take 10-15 Lbs or more. An elk, 20-25 Lbs or more and a bear skin would take 20 Lbs or more. It all depends on the size of the animal. It's cheap, so use a lot ! I like to salt things up and then let it sit for a few hours. Rub it in real good and pile it on high. I then fold it skin side to skin side and roll it up and stick it in a plastic bag. Yes, I know I told you not to do that but NOW it's OK because the hide is properly prepared. I know some people will tell you not to use a plastic bag, but I have done this with maybe 7-800 hides with no problems. I've had properly salted hides sit for four and five years in their plastic bags and then tan up with no problems.

Bottom line ? Skin it out right, leave the head and feet in and get it in to the taxidermist or freezer immediately. If it's 70 degrees out you only have an hour or two to get that hide processed. If it's 30 degrees out you have a day or two. Only salt it as a last resort and then only if it is prepared right.

Add to all this a really funny thing about hides. Some really like to slip hair and some don't. A buddy of mine wanted me to tan his badger hide. Only trouble was his wife cleaned out the freezer, thought it was old hamburger and through it out in the trash. It was summer and it set there for over two days in 100 degree heat. I couldn't believe the stink. It made CS tear gas smell good ! (and yes, I do know what CS tastes, smells and feels like. Nothing like good old Army training !) We didn't loose one hair. The big problem was getting the stink out. Which I did, after trying every deodorizer I could find !

Another guy brings in an Elk. WOW, another stinker. The hide was actually turning green as I skinned it. Again, lots of odor, but almost no hair slippage. Flip side of the coin... a Bear shot in the morning and brought in at 4:00 in the afternoon on the same day. Customer folded it hair side to hair side and left lots of warm fat on it. I skinned and salted the hide by 7:00 that evening. Smelled and looked good. Lost hair, about an inch wide strip all the way down the back where it was folded.

The point is this. Hides are like people. Some are good, some are not so good. Some hides are more prone to slip then others and you don't know if yours is prone to slip or not. Therefore, Take care of your hide. If it slips you have only yourself to blame.

Hey, if this sounds like too much work for a Bear rug you can always buy one from me !