Matt Zeek of Soldotna prepares to skin a large bear. Wildlife officials encourage hunters to know proper skinning techniques before they pull the trigger or even enter the woods.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Hiking up rugged hills to reach the berry fields above timberline where black bears often feast in fall can be difficult, but many hunters would agree the hardest chore begins after the bruin is bagged.
What is done with a bear in the first few hours after it is shot can radically determine what the quality of the hide will be.
Knowing proper skinning techniques is particularly important for those interested in ending up with a high-quality skin rug or trophy mount.
“Hands on is the best way to learn, but I tell people all the time to come by and watch how to do it,” said Kenny Jones, who skinned, fleshed and tanned more than 80 bears this spring alone at his Skulls and Bones taxidermy business in Soldotna.
Jones recommends hunters start out with a knife three to five inches in length.
“It should be something small and easy to handle, like a small pocket knife or paring knife. These are easy to use and guide with your finger,” he said.
This knife should be sharp, and since slicing through the skin and fat of a bear can dull a blade quickly, having a sharpener on hand is a good idea.
According to Jones, preliminary cuts should begin at the vent, under the tail. From this location a straight line is made up the middle of the belly and chest toward to the head, stopping a few inches before the chin, approximately in line with the corners of the mouth.
“Cuts should be made at the part, where the hair grows in two different directions,” Jones said.
The same goes for the cuts made next, on the legs. From the cut down the belly, cuts are made toward the armpits, to the elbow, then down to the wrist.
“Remain consistent with every leg. Keep cuts straight, square and symmetric,” Jones advised.
Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, advises hunters not to get too carried away when skinning their bears.
“They need to leave evidence of the sex attached for when they bring it in to be sealed within 30 days after they’ve killed it,” Lewis said.
Per state regulations, the penis sheath of males or the vaginal orifice of females should be left on during the skinning process.
Claws must also be attached as part of the sealing requirements which is why “Most people just cut to the wrist when skinning and bring the hide to me with the paws on, ” Jones said.
The bear’s skull must also be brought in to Fish and Game and this is where the skinning process gets tricky, according to Jones.
“You want to get that skull out right away, because the head and brain can give off a lot of heat and cause slippage,” he said.
Rolling the skull out of the hide is where the most intricate cuts particularly around the eyes, ears and mouth must be made. Jones explained the process.
Starting at the backside of the head, the hide should be skinned toward the nose. At the ears, cuts should be made as carefully and as close to the skin as possible.
Inserting a finger can help guide cuts. That same is true for the eyes, which, along with the cheeks, come next. Cuts should be through the membranes around the eyes.
The next cuts expose the teeth by separating the lip tissue from the gums close to the jaw. Some of these cuts can also be made from the front of the skull.
Pulling the nose back toward the eyes will help in cutting through nose cartilage.
Once the hide is off, the ears should be turned inside out and the lips and nose should be split. This will prevent slippage and ensure a better finished product.
If this process sounds complex, you’re not alone. Jones said many people bring their hides to him with the skull still inside, and for these folks he has different advice.
“Just get as much flesh and fat as you can off the neck and head, roll the hide skin to skin, keep it cool and bring it in right away,” he said.
Experienced hunters will have noticed that Jones didn’t mention salting the hide. This was done deliberately, because while salting the hide can set the hair, it shouldn’t be done before the hide is finished being fleshed unless extreme circumstances call for it, such as being several days away from civilization with the hide as is common on fly-in hunts.
“It’s not good to salt the head and paws before the hide is done. It just turns the flesh to leather and makes it more difficult,” Jones said.
If the hide is done being fleshed, salt can be applied. Typically 10-20 pounds of salt is enough for a black bear hide.
“Never ever salt a hide and then freeze it, though,” Jones said.
While it is important to keep the hide cool after salting, water in a salted hide is drawn out but can’t freeze and the combination of the two can actually ruin a hide, rather than preserve it, Jones said.
Jones also recommended taking good care of the hide while it is being carried out of the field or being transported to him or another taxidermist.
“Get it in a game bag right away before the flies can get on it and legs eggs. If maggots get in there, it’ll cause hair slippage,” he said.
Plastic bags should be avoided since it intensifies heat and moisture. Instead, game bags should be burlap or some other material that will allow air to circulate, but is of thick enough material to prevent flies laying eggs through it.
Sprinkling black pepper on the bags is said to dissuade flies as well.
For more information on skinning bears, Fish and Game has several step-by-step brochures available for free.
“We have a lot of information we can give out,” Lewis said.
In obtaining the bear skinning brochures, Lewis said hunters should also pick up and read the 2006-07 hunting regulations because, like skinning,
“People should know what they’re doing before they go into the field,” he said.
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