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Lesson 8
Lesson 8

​​​After the Harvest

​By Keith Prince, President Front Range Chapter NWTF

Congratulations! After all the hard work put into preseason scouting, fine-tuning your calling skills, and preparing your shotgun/bow, you’ve got a successful spring harvest of a mature tom. Now the final decision has to be made. Do you want to serve this bird up for a Sunday dinner? Or do you have enough room in the house to display this beautiful turkey in a full strut mount? These two questions come across every hunter’s mind shortly after the excitement of a successful harvest wears off.

This article will give you some tips on field dressing and preserving your trophy for the taxidermist. Unlike most big game animals, upland birds and waterfowl have different approaches in preserving the bird for consumption. But if the bird is going to be mounted and on display in your trophy room, you're in for a whole different ball game. With Big Game animals such as elk, deer, and antelope, the hunter needs to field dress the animal and “cape the head out”, only we’re saving the hide and antlers/horns for the taxidermist. All the meat can be processed off the carcass and easily prepared for consumption. Upland birds (Turkeys) and waterfowl have a more difficult process to think about: breast meat under the feathers. These tips will provide you with the correct steps that will be needed in the field.

Field Dressing the Wild Turkey

Before cleaning your harvested turkey, always make sure to: Tag your bird in the field once you have successfully made your harvest. If you’re hunting with a partner, take the time to talk about the hunt. There is nothing more exciting than the moment all your hard work has paid off. Don’t forget the photos! Make sure the area is well-lit and safe to work in. Now to get back to business. 

To clean the bird, lay the turkey on its back with its wings folded up in their natural placement along the backside of the bird. Start by finding the end of the breast bone. Think back to all the store bought turkeys that you've carved for Thanksgiving dinners. If you plan on consuming the bird, pluck enough feathers away to expose the skin of the belly, from the end of the breast bone down to between the thighs. Make an incision connecting the beast bone to the anal vent. Make sure you cut around the anal vent, clearing it from the skin. Cut enough belly skin to be able to fit your hand inside the cavity of the bird. Reach in as far into the chest cavity, feeling for the esophagus and wind pipe. The wind pipe will feel like a tiny rigid vacuum hose. Cut both as far up to the neck as possible. Take hold of both and pull outward. This will drag out the internal organs. You may have to break away some small connective tissues, but it’s pretty easy to remove all the entrails in one pull. Great job, your turkey has been field dressed. At this point you can decide if you want to finish the processing in the field or back at the truck. 

The next question to ask yourself is: Do I plan on plucking, skinning or just removing the breast, thighs and legs? FYI, there are over 5,000 feathers on a wild turkey. Plucking will take a lot of time and make a huge pile of feathers, but the bird will retain its skin. Plucking is the perfect way to prepare your bird to be roasted in the oven, smoked over some hickory wood chips, or to ready it to be dunked into a deep fryer. To easily pluck a bird: Boil water to 140 degrees, then submerge the bird in the pot and let it sit for a few minutes before removing. The hot water will help loosen the skin around the quills. Plucking can be done quicker if you can hang the bird by its head. Tie a string around the head and hang the bird from a low branch of a tree. Pluck away!

Skinning your turkey is the quickest way to get to the meat. Simply start cutting the skin away for the body of the turkey. Think back to a store-bought turkey during the holidays. Visualize how those turkeys look after they are removed from the packaging.  Remove all the skin, the head, neck and legs from the bird. You have your choice of methods to cook the skinned out bird, but be mindful to prepare and cook the bird in a way that will preserve the meat's moisture. A simple way to keep the meat moist is by wrapping the bird with bacon before cooking. Plus, it’s bacon!

“Breasting Out” the bird is the simplest process for saving the meat. Once you have completed field dressing the bird, continue to cut from the bottom of the breast bone up to the neck. The skin of upland birds and waterfowl is incredibly thin. You will be able to pull the skin back with your hands to expose the breast meat. Pull back enough skin to completely expose both breasts. Take your knife and make incision along each side of the breastbone and on the inside of each wing. Work your way from the rear of the breastbone forward. The process is similar to filleting a fish. Use your knife to slice away the breast meat from the carcass. Take the time to remove the meat from the wing bones as well in the same manner. To remove the thigh and legs, make a cut along the thigh muscle on the back of the turkey. Grab the leg and pull until you hear the joint pop. Keep trimming away at the thigh until it separates from the carcass.

Great job processing the bird! Now you have yourself the breast, wing, thigh and leg meat to cook an assortment of meals. The breast meat can be wrapped in bacon and baked or smoked whole. You can also slice or cube the breast meat for frying or chili. The legs of a wild turkey are unlike the store bought birds; there are more tendons in the legs of wild turkeys. Legs are best boiled to loosen the meat way from the bone. Leg meat is great for soups or Pot Pies!

Always make sure your turkey is properly tagged before you transport. Tags must stay attached while the carcass is in your possession. This includes during transport, while it's in your camp, or in storage. Turkeys harvested in the spring must also have its beard naturally attached during transportation.

Taxidermy Tips

“I would love to mount this bird for my trophy room!... Do I have the extra space, the extra funds for taxidermy?... But this is my first Merriam’s wild turkey!”Slow down and take a couple of deep breaths. If you want a fully mounted turkey, you’ll be looking into spending in the $500-$700 price range. I recommend that you do some research and find a respectable taxidermist. Ask to see photos of their work. Talk about additional cost for the base and scenery. You should be given the option to purchase a freeze dried head or a plastic head. Ask about their business hours. There are several different positions that a taxidermist can mount your bird. If you have the wall space, maybe a flying mount is what you would like, or, your tom mounted in full strut. The strut position can be displayed in a fairly small space. Believe me, price is not everything when it comes to a mount. The old saying of “you get what you pay for” always comes into play. Always take the time to discuss your options with the taxidermist.

If you decide that you’re going to mount the bird, here are some simple steps to help protect the bird. Most taxidermists will tell you to treat the bird like a piece of art. Always grab the turkey by the legs in a place below the spurs and above the feet. You cannot damage the scales on the legs. Move your bird into position for the photo shoot. Always take a few photos of the birds head. You want to show the taxidermist the colors, so he can replicate your bird during the painting phase. Once you’re done, prepare the bird for transport. Always remember to tag the bird first, before removing it from the field. First off, try and wipe away any blood that has dropped onto the feathers. If you have water with you, simply wash away the blood. Also, stick a paper towel or towel paper into the bird’s mouth and wrap it around the head. This will help to keep the blood from dripping out of the bird. Do your very best to keep from bending feathers over and getting them dirty.

Here is a tip for protecting the bird. I carry a small, single deer game bag in my vest. They do not cost much and weigh next to nothing. Next, lay the bird on its back. Tuck the head under one of the wings. Open a game bag, unroll the bag and place the front of the turkey into the bag. As the bird slides in, the feathers will naturally lay downward. Do your very best to keep the tail feathers bunched up together. This will make better sense once the bird is all the way at the bottom of the game bag. Position the legs to be bent under the belly of the bird. If you wear a turkey hunting vest, place the bird in the back pouch and fasten it in. Most vests have “hunter orange” stripes that can be pulled out so you will be visible to other hunters while leaving the field. I would highly recommend you doing this while walking out of turkey woods, for your safety.

Once the bird is back to the truck, get him ready to transport. If you have a cooler with you, you’ll need to get some ice. Lay the bird on the ice; either on his sides or its belly. Be extremely careful not to bend any tail feathers while doing this. You may have to rework the legs in order for the bird to fit. Do not cut the legs off the turkey. Keep in mind that these are big birds and will require a large cooler. Be prepared!

After you return home from the hunt, place the bird into the freezer. This will give you some time to contact a taxidermist and discuss your mounting options. If you are planning on shipping the bird, allow 36 to 48 hours for the bird to freeze solid. A good shipping tip; always ship on Monday’s and never during end of the week. There is a chance the package could get misdirected or sit over the weekend, allowing the bird to thaw.

If you’re planning on mounting the bird, you may or may not choose to field dress the bird. When the Taxidermist starts to skin out the bird, they will usually start at the legs. Where the feathers start and the leg scales stop, cut up the inside of the legs to the groin. Do this to both legs. To visualize this, look at your own arm as it rest beside your body. You want to think of what part of the leg is exposed the most, the outside. So if you think of the inside of your arm, between the elbow and armpit, this is where you would cut the turkey leg. Ok, now both legs incisions are done. With your hand, peel back enough belly skin to access the organs. Think back to our field dressing discussion. We made our cut from the end of the breast bone to the thighs in a straight line. We are now going to do a similar cut, but in a U shape. Starting from one leg and cutting across the belly to the opposite leg. 

If you are away on an overnight trip or several hours away from the house, a good tip to help cool the bird once it has been field dressed is to place a frozen water bottle up inside the bird’s chest cavity. The frozen bottle will help cool down the bird, from the inside. Do your best to get the bird into a freezer or ice chest as soon as possible. Talk to your taxidermist about preserving the meat from the bird. A good Taxidermist will process the meat from the bird once they have skinned it. If you make arrangements, and the bird is presented cooled and not frozen, the Taxidermist should be willing to skin the bird while you wait. If the bird is frozen, you may have to return in a few days to pick up the meat.

Tail Feather Mounts

Mounted turkeys take up a good amount of room. Another option is to simply do a tail feather mount. These will only take up as much space as a tail in full strut. This mount can be done at the house and is inexpensive. You will need a few materials and tools: borax, Coleman fuel, some cardboard, a knife, finish nails, a small wire brush and a turkey tail feather plaque. There are several videos on the web that will take you step by step in this process. You may also look at for written instructions with great photos.

The basic procedure is to remove as much fatty tissue from around the tail feather quills. Start by cutting away all the meat with a knife. Take the small wire brush and scrape away the fatty tissue from the quills. Use the Coleman fuel as a degreaser, only submerging the ends of the quills. Once all the meat and fatty tissue is removed, fan out the tail feathers by pulling the 2 outermost feathers away from each other. Pin them with the finish nails into a piece of cardboard. Once the spread out fan has been pinned in place, apply the borax around the quills. The borax will remove all the moisture left in the skin and quills and you don’t worry about using too much.  Let this set for about 2 weeks to thoroughly dry. And don’t forget about the beard. Same rules apply. Cut away as much skin as possible, and submerge the skin end of the beard in borax to dry. Most major sporting goods retailers will sell different wooden tail feather plaques. Pick the one you like and follow the mounting directions included with the plaque. 

Congratulations again on harvesting your first bird. Enjoy the photos, meat and the memories.