November 14, 2022
By Jay Anglin
Few wing-shooting moments are more rewarding than admiring a regal game bird in hand after making a clean shot on it. Beautiful birds like a cock pheasant or a ruffed grouse are easy to appreciate before, during and after the hunt. And—if all goes well—you get to enjoy some of the best game to ever grace a plate. Unfortunately, this last part is where things sometimes go awry. On warmer days, especially, gamebirds tend to stay warm or even bake a bit in our game pouches. Bacteria can quickly form, and while the meat may not completely spoil, flavor can be compromised.
In these instances, it's very sensible to field-dress birds, which helps the meat cool quickly and hopefully preserves its delicate flavor. While many hunters tend to use a pocket knife's "bird hook" to remove a freshly bagged bird’s entrails, there is a way to rapidly remove the breast from large gamebirds such as pheasants and grouse without having to mess with the innards. I don’t exactly recall the first time I saw another hunter use this technique. Perhaps it was during a pheasant hunt on the windy plains of western Kansas. Or maybe it was in a shady grouse covert in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Regardless, it was a revelation.
STEP 1: Assume the Position
- Assuming your bird has relatively intact legs and the wings aren't too messed up, set the bird on the ground with its breast facing upward and the tail pointed toward you. Stretch the wings out on either side of the bird and step on them at the base where they attach to the body, as close to the breast as possible. Place your weight on the instep and big toes of your feet to ensure constant pressure.
STEP 2: Start Pulling
- Grasp the bird by the legs just above the feet and very slowly pull upward with an increasing amount of force until the bird separates into two segments. This should leave the breast skinless and clean with the wings and head still attached, while the legs, tail, entrails and back remain with the other half. When pulling upward, initially you should feel very little give on the bird, so adjust your feet as needed to keep the bird tight to the ground while performing the procedure. Another thing to watch for is meat tearing or limbs separating as you pull. If this occurs, revert to normal dressing techniques, as it’s very likely you'll damage the breast if you continue.
STEP 3: Trim and Clean
- After the two segments are separated, finish by removing the head and attached neck feathers. Depending on the situation, you can also remove the wings. However, be sure to leave at least one attached if the law requires it for bird identification in the field or during transport.
STOW AND GO
I love to admire these beautiful birds as much as the next hunter. However, there are times when it makes sense to quickly remove the part you plan to eat and stow it in your vest in a zip-top bag—and eventually on ice in a cooler. You can cool the breast down quickly this way, and it reduces the amount of weight you must lug around for the rest of the hunt.
It often takes a few birds to get the hang of this process. Initially, you might have to do some extra surgery to finish the job. However, once you learn this trick, breasting gamebirds becomes much easier and a lot cleaner.
In my experience, the longer you wait to do this procedure in the field, the less likely it is to work. But in the right temperature, and depending on the length of the hunt, it can also work once you return to camp or get back home.
Obviously, if you want to leave the skin on your bird or make use of the leg meat, you are better served with more traditional cleaning methods. However, in those cases where speed is preferred and you’re only interested in breast meat, few methods are faster—or cleaner—than this one.