How to Skin a Turkey for Thanksgiving

Damascus Skinner Hunting KnifeThere’s a lot of preparation involved in turkey hunting. You need to know how to properly locate a bird, use decoys, call the bird, sight it, shoot it and bag it. If done well, you should be left with an impressive turkey that is sure to please your whole family. There’s one aspect of turkey hunting, however, that many hunters fail to prepare for: dressing and skinning.

Properly dressing and skinning a turkey can be just as important as pre-hunt preparations. Poor field dressing and skinning can mean wasted meat, injury and attracting unwanted camping or hiking visitors—namely, bears and cougars. The following are basic instructions for correctly dressing and skinning a wild turkey, as well as tips you may find useful along the way.

Field Dressing

Field dressing a bird is an important part of the hunting process, especially if you are hunting in hot conditions or have a long way to travel after the hunt. First, make sure your hunting knife is sharp and ready for use. A high-quality Bowie or skinning knife is preferred.

Insert your knife into the bottom of the breastplate and cut all the way to the anal vent. Next, remove all entrails through the incision. This will involve reaching into the bird to sever the heart, lungs and windpipe. If it’s noticeably warm out, you may want to consider cooling the bird by stuffing the newly emptied cavity with ice. Make sure to clean your hunting knife after field dressing.


A number of turkey hunters today prefer skinning a bird to plucking it. Why? For starters, it is a much faster method of preparing a turkey. Plucking a bird can take time and can make quite a mess. If done correctly, skinning a turkey can take as little as three minutes.

Another reason hunters often prefer skinning to plucking is because a skinned turkey is much healthier to eat than a plucked one. Plucking leaves the skin on the bird, and while cooked turkey skin is tasty, it contains high levels of fat and cholesterol. A skinned bird allows you to cook just the meat, making for a much healthier meal.

Skinning a turkey, however, can be a bit tricky. One of the keys to mastering the process is to use the proper cutlery—namely, a skinning knife. A high-quality skinning knife will average about 8 to 9 inches in length and feature a stainless steel blade and solid handle. Skinning with a dull knife can be messy and dangerous, so make sure your blade is sharp enough to get the job done.

First, hang the turkey by its head and cut the wings off at the first joint. This will allow you to remove the beard by pulling off the loose skin and cutting it at the base. Next, remove the legs by cutting at the first joint, usually located about the spot the feathers meet the legs.

After you’ve removed the wings and legs, turn the turkey over and insert the skinning knife into the neck. Continue the incision down the length of the back, following the natural division between back and breast feathers. This incision will go all the way to the base of the bird, to the tail feathers. Once you reach the tail feathers, the fan can be easily removed by cutting the base of the tail.

At this point, the bird is nearly skinned. All that needs to be done is to remove the skin you missed when removing the wings, legs and cape. Simply pull and cut with the skinning knife as needed. An easy way of removing the leg skin is by rolling it down the leg as far as it will go, then cutting it off at the end of the leg.

Once the bird is skinned it is ready for cooking. Many hunters fillet their birds before grilling, frying or baking. Filleting a bird is fairly easy—simply remove the skin from the breast, loosen the breasts from the bone with a filleting or skinning knife, and carefully remove. If you plan on filleting the breast, remember to still use the rest of the bird. In many states it’s actually illegal to remove the breast and throw the rest of the turkey away.

Now that you’ve properly dressed and skinned your bird, the only thing left to do is cook! There are many great recipes available online for fresh wild turkey, but whether the cooked bird tastes good? That’s entirely up to you!

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