By Cassie Gasaway
All your practice paid off and you (finally) arrowed a wild turkey! Congratulations!
The “fun” now begins. It’s time to butcher your turkey for its 8- to 10-plus pounds of meat. That means salvaging the legs, thighs and breast meat, which are all incredibly delicious.
All deer hunters field dress their deer’s carcass, which means removing its organs and other entrails. That work helps preserve the meat, cool the carcass, slow bacterial growth, and drain blood and residue from the body cavity.
Wild turkeys — being a smaller, two-legged, two-winged creature with feathers — differ from whitetails, and offer other options. Many hunters prefer to pluck the entire bird, remove the entrails, and save its giblets: the heart, gizzard and liver. Other hunters, however, don’t remove the entrails. They simply remove the meat from the carcass, which is an easier and quicker task if you follow these seven steps:
The only tools you need are a sharp knife, latex gloves and gallon-size freezer-storage bags. Most people find a turkey’s innards less intimidating than a deer’s, so it’s a great learning opportunity for beginning butchers.
If you didn’t recover your arrow and broadhead, the broadhead might be inside the turkey. If you can’t remove or locate the broadhead, carefully watch for it as you make your cuts and debone the bird.
Lay the turkey on its back and locate its breastbone. The breastbone defines the center of the body, and is usually the highest protruding point on the bird when it’s on its back.
Make a shallow, inch-long cut just above the breastbone. Insert your fingers beneath the skin and pull it away to expose the meat. Peel the skin until you see the base of the wings, the base of the tail feathers, and the top of the drumsticks. Use your knife to help peel back the skin, if necessary. Push the bird’s legs backward and down to pop them from the hip socket and stabilize the carcass.
Note: The loose, flabby area between the beard and breastbone lies atop the entrails. Do not cut into that area while skinning the meat.
Insert your knife along the breastbone and fillet the meat from the bone until reaching the bottom of the breastplate. Pull the meat away as you go. Angle your knife slightly toward the breastplate to get as much meat as possible. At the top of the breast, carefully cut the meat away from the internal organs. Follow the muscle line and you’ll be fine.
The breast should fold open like a book as you cut. You’ll notice two pieces of connected meat. The smaller muscle is the inner tenderloin, and the bigger muscle is the breast. You can remove them together or individually. It’s also easier to trim away the fat while the meat is attached to the bird. Cut the connective tissue holding the meat to free the breast.
Repeat this process on the opposite side.
Finish cutting the skin and feathers along the leg until reaching the rough, textured surface on the bird’s ankles and feet. Cut the joint just below the meat, and bend the lower leg until the joint breaks. Cut the tendons to free the lower leg. Cut along the thigh muscle where it connects to the body. If you broke the ball-and-socket joint in Step 4, the leg should disconnect once you cut away all the meat. Repeat this process on the other leg.
Some hunters rinse the meat, but that’s not necessary unless it’s a mess of dirt, blood, feathers or internal residue. Use clean water. Do not rinse it in a pond or stream. Bag the meat and put it on ice or in the refrigerator. Cook the meat within seven days, or squeeze the air from the bag to prepare it for freezing. Label the bag and freeze it. A correctly sealed bag should keep several months.
That’s it! You’ve butchered your bird.
If you plan to cook the bird whole like a Thanksgiving turkey, you must field dress it. Place the turkey on its back, find the breastbone, and lightly insert your knife directly below it. Be careful not to penetrate the cavity while cutting to the anus. Reach up into the chest cavity to sever the windpipe, heart and lungs; pull out all the entrails, and bag the heart, liver and gizzard. Cool the cavity by placing ice inside the chest. Some hunters scald the bird in hot water before plucking it. Either way, hang the bird by its neck and get to work. You can also skin the turkey, which is faster and easier than plucking, but the meat won’t retain moisture as well when cooking.
Visit Bowhunting 360’s “Wild Meat” webpage to find turkey recipes and cooking methods.