Intro: Cleaning Your Wild Turkey
You have finally achieved a successful turkey hunt and the most difficult part is over. But, there is still a lot of work to do cleaning the bird to get it ready to be put in the freezer. One of the most common questions and concerns of new turkey hunters is how to clean a turkey after they have shot it. This article will hopefully answer most of the questions about cleaning a turkey with some of the techniques I and many other hunters utilize.
Step 1: Make a Decision
Make a decision immediately about whether you will have the turkey mounted. This will determine how you will proceed with the cleaning process and how much care you should take transporting your turkey. If you are planning on having the bird mounted, do not field dress the bird.
You might also consider how you plan on cooking the turkey. Roasting, smoking or whole deep frying are cooking processes that work best with the skin still on the turkey, although there are techniques for a skinless turkey as well. Frying or grilling pieces of turkey will work well with a bird that has been skinned.
At this point , you have basically three options for continuing cleaning your wild turkey.
- Prepare bird for the taxidermist.
- Field dress the bird if it’s hot or you’re a long way from home.
- Wait until you get home before proceeding with cleaning the bird. If it’s cool enough and you have a relatively short trip home, you can wait before taking on the task of cleaning the turkey.
Preparing Your Wild Turkey for the Taxidermist
If you are thinking about having a turkey mounted by a taxidermist, by all means, shop around by visiting professional taxidermists in your area before you go hunting and get a feeling for the quality of their work and the prices they will charge. If you don’t have a good taxidermist in your area do not get discouraged. There are many excellent taxidermists all across the country and by asking friends and fellow hunters or doing your own research, you can find a quality taxidermist. Spending a little extra money to ship your bird is well worth it to get an excellent reminder of your trophy hunt. Mounting a wild turkey is not easy and if you let an amateur mount if for you, don’t expect excellent results.
The secret to getting good taxidermy mounts of any animal is 1) Keeping the animal in as good as condition as possible before it reaches the taxidermist, and 2) Choosing a qualified taxidermist.
Before the Hunt
Finding a good taxidermist is up to you but there are some tips that will help you get your bird to the taxidermist in as good of condition as possible. These are some general ideas and your taxidermist may have specific instructions on the way he likes to receive birds.
First, make sure and take on your hunt a large plastic bag and a cooler large enough to lay the bird in without scrunching up the tail feathers. Take with you some paper towels, cotton balls, and either a large plastic bag, a section of used panty hose, or both. Many taxidermists recommend using a section of used panty hose cut from the thigh area as a covering for the bird to keep the feathers in place. Cut out a section of the hose from the thigh area and tie up one end. Then after you shoot a bird, carefully slip the bird into the bag head first, pulling the stocking over its entire body. This will help keep all of the feathers in place. You can also just use a large plastic bag and slip the bird inside it and carefully carry it out of the woods.
Shooting the Bird
When you harvest a bird, always try for a clean head and neck shot. If you want the tail feathers to look good, do not shoot the bird head-on while it is strutting. The shotgun pattern will shred through the tail feathers and that will not look good at all. In fact, it’s best not to shoot a strutting bird period. Tthe best shot to take is a side shot with the bird’s neck stretched up. This should keep all of the shotgun pellets well away from the tail and wing feathers. It is much easier for a taxidermist to replace or repair a shot-up head than to try and repair or replace tail and wing feathers.The distance should be around 25 to 30 yards which is a good distance to aim for any time you are hunting turkeys. This yardage allows for a clean kill without too dense of a shot pattern which may cause extreme damage to the head and neck. If for some reason you do need a second shot to kill the bird, try and take it at the head only and from a sufficient distance to limit more damage to the bird.
After any turkey is shot, they often thrash around on the ground before dying. There really is not a lot you can do about this since picking up a thrashing turkey is not very smart. Your best hope is that he will drop dead and lay stone still after the shot which does occasionally happen. If he does flop around, pick up all of the loose feathers you can find and send them along with the bird to your taxidermist.
After the Shot
- Keep the plumage dry and clean. Stuff paper towels or cotton balls into the bird’s mouth and anus to keep any blood or body fluids from soiling the feathers. Also, if there are any large or bloody wounds, stuff them also to keep as much blood off of the feathers as possible. It may be necessary to wrap the head in paper towels if it is really bloody.
- Limit feather loss and damage by slipping the bird into either the pantyhose section or a large plastic bag or both. Be very conscious of the tail feathers and do not scrunch or bend them. If the bird flopped around a lot, be sure and pick up any of the loose feathers.
- Keep the bird cool – As soon as possible, start cooling the bird by placing it in a large cooler. If you have to wait more than several hours to get it to a taxidermist, you will probably need to freeze the bird.
Also, do not field dress the bird. Most taxidermists would much rather field dress and skin the bird themselves.
Storing and Shipping
If you do not have a taxidermist picked out or you have to store the bird for a long period of time you will have to freeze the bird. Just make sure the bird has plenty of room and do not pile other items onto the bird. If you need to ship the bird to a taxidermist, contact them and ask about the best way to do this. They will be up to date on any airline regulations and can give you the best methods for safely shipping your bird.
In conclusion, try and choose a bird in great condition to be mounted and find a good, quality taxidermist. It’s worth paying a little more up front to have a long-lasting, beautiful memory of a trophy hunt.
Field Dressing Your Wild Turkey
Field dressing is essentially gutting the bird in the field while leaving the feathers on. Removing the guts or entrails is important to help allow the bird to cool faster and to keep the “juices” inside the bird from spoiling any meat. If it is a cool day and you aren’t far from home, you can skip the field dressing step and wait until you are home before cleaning the bird.
Here are the steps for gutting or field dressing a wild turkey:
- Lay the turkey on its back.
- Follow the breast down to the rear of the bird until it narrows to a point between the legs.
- Pull up on the tip and cut the bird open by making a shallow horizontal incision (through the skin only) between the tip of the breast and the vent (anus). It helps to pull out a few of the feathers in this spot so you can cut more easily.
- Make the incision large enough to insert your hand and pull out the entrails, making sure to pull out the heart and lungs.
- Cut around the vent (anus) by carefully following the intestine back and then cutting around its exterior. This is where you need to be careful since you don’t want any of the intestine’s contents getting on the turkey.
- Remove the crop (sac-like thing filled with what the turkey’s been eating) by making a cut on the neck of the turkey and reaching down and removing the crop located at the top of the breast.
- Rinse out with water and wipe with paper towels if you have these available.
Plucking Your Wild Turkey
The traditional way to clean a wild turkey is to pluck the feathers off and then gut the bird. This will keep the skin on the turkey which will give it more moisture and flavor after you cook it. You can also save the “giblets” (heart, liver, gizzard) from the bird and make a traditional turkey gravy later when you cook it.
It is preferable to pluck the turkey before removing the entrails. This keeps feathers from getting inside the bird cavity and in general keeps things cleaner. If you’ve already field-dressed the bird, don’t worry about it but be sure and rinse out the cavity good to remove any feathers when you are done plucking.
Turkeys have over 5,000 feathers on them and it is easier to remove them if the bird is dipped in hot water. Some people use boiling water but many people swear that water at 140 degrees is the optimal temperature for plucking a bird. Once a bird has been dipped in hot water, the feathers will come off much easier and they also are easier to handle since they are damp and they won’t fly around the room. A large washtub is best for dipping the bird but you may have to improvise if one’s not available. The large primary wing feathers can also be a problem and it’s easier to just remove the wing at the first joint past the shoulder so those very large primary feathers don’t have to be pulled out.
If you have left the legs on to help you dip the bird, you now need to cut them off. Then it is time to go ahead and remove the entrails by gutting the bird. This process is basically the same as Field Dressing with the exception of needing to remove the head with a large knife, cleaver or hatchet. Some people also like to use the neck to toss in the stock pot. That is your choice. You can also save the turkey giblets (heart, liver, gizzard) and use them to make a traditional turkey gravy. The gizzard is what allows the bird to grind up its food. Be sure and cut the gizzard open and to thoroughly clean it.
You should now have a cleaned bird that is ready to be cooked or frozen.
Skinning and Fileting Your Wild Turkey
Another option to the plucking and gutting method is to skin and then filet the bird’s breast meat off and remove the legs and thighs. This method is quick and easy and allows you to remove the meat from the bird without even opening up the body cavity. If you plan on roasting, smoking or whole deep frying your turkey, you might stick with plucking and gutting the bird since this method does not save the skin. I generally cook my turkey by frying or grilling pieces of turkey; using methods that make up for not having the skin on.
Generally, the areas I hunt are only about a half hour or less from my home so I never worry about field dressing the turkey. I just take it home and clean it immediately. I also hunt in Kansas and the weather is typically very cool during most of the spring and fall turkey seasons. On one hunt during the spring, the weather changed from sunny, to rain. to hail, to sleet and finally snow. If it is warm where you are hunting and it takes you awhile to get to a place to finish dressing the turkey, by all means field dress it first.
- If you are saving the tail fan or cape from the turkey, remove them first. I also always remove the beard before starting to clean the bird. If you are not saving the bird’s cape or tail you can leave them on and start by laying the turkey on it’s back.
- To begin removing the breast filets, pluck some feathers from the middle of the breast and make a small cut through the skin. Then work your fingers underneath the skin and pull the skin back from the breast down to the sides of the turkey.
- Find the breast bone and start by cutting down one side of the breast bone to loosen the breast filet from the bone. This cut will run from the lower tip of the breast all of the way along the breast bone and eventually up along the wishbone and to the shoulder / wing joint..
- Start at the bottom tip of the breast and work your way from the rear of the breast forward, fileting off the breast by pulling the filet and using the knife to help separate the breast where needed. Be careful of the crop when you get to the top of the breast. (The crop is the balloon-like sac up between the two halves of the breast by the neck). It is full of some nasty stuff and you don’t want to puncture it.
- Repeat this for the other side of the breast.
- Remove the thigh/leg by flipping the turkey over on it’s breastbone and skinning the thigh and leg.
- After they are skinned, cut through the thigh muscle where it attaches to the back. To help this process, grab the leg/thigh and bend them up towards the backbone until the joint pops loose. Keep working and cutting through the thigh until you can free the thigh/leg from the turkey’s body. Repeat for the other side. I usually then cut through the leg joint and separate the drumstick from the thigh. Wild turkey drumsticks are notoriously tough when you cook them. They also have tons of tiny, tough, bone-like tendons running through them. The only way I’ve found to make them edible is to cook them for a long time in a crockpot and sometimes on an old gobbler this doesn’t even work.
I hope these methods will help you enjoy your turkey.