January 7th, 2017 by Sam Morstan

Before heading out on a trek, hunters need to ask themselves a simple question: How many knives do I really need?

STORY AND PHOTOS BY SCOTT HAUGEN

When it comes to hunting knives, what do you really need? The question is straightforward, but the answer can become complicated by thoughts of what you want, rather than what you actually need. Personally, I own dozens of knives. They are great tools, and serve a range of purposes. But when I go afield, I keep it simple.

On all the hunts I’ve been fortunate to embark upon around the world, I almost always take only one knife afield. This knife has to be able to withstand punishment and perform to my liking, and it’s also got to be lightweight. When scaling granite peaks for mountain goats and sheep, ounces can feel like pounds after a few days.

When you get an animal down, the field dressing, skinning and quartering begins. Each of these tasks can be completed with one knife, and once you know the connective tissues and how to work a knife around them, you can even leave the saw behind.

When you get an animal down, the field dressing, skinning and quartering begins. Each of these tasks can be completed with one knife, and once you know the connective tissues and how to work a knife around them, you can even leave the saw behind.

MANY KNIVES ARE DESIGNED for specific purposes, but for hunting, I don’t feel as if I need multiple knives. On a recent hunt, I met up with a buddy in Alaska. It was his first trip to the Last Frontier, so he wasn’t sure what to fully expect. He cracked open his gun case and inside were six knives, including one with a heavy, 12-inch-long blade and a ball compass on top. I laughed. He didn’t. “What are you doing?” I quizzed. “I didn’t know what knife to bring, so I brought a bunch,” he smirked.

We were going on a grizzly and black bear hunt across open tundra. About the only thing we needed a knife for was carrying out routine tasks, and to skin and butcher any bear we killed. In my opinion, a person needs only one knife for those tasks.

As with all fly-in hunts to remote drop camps, weight is a concern with bush plane pilots. With strict weight limitations, and given the fact we were going to be gone for over a week, I wanted to take all the weight we could in food, clothes and essential gear, not knives we’d never use. When my buddy asked what knives I was taking, I held up one, a 3-inch-bladed Kershaw knife, specifically their Skyline model. “No, really, what knives are you bringing?” he asked again.

“Oh, I forgot this,” I smiled, holding up a compact sharpening steel. I explained how all skinning, field dressing, caping and deboning can be done with one knife, and that it doesn’t have to be big. I’ve broken down numerous deer, elk, bear and African game with a 2-inch blade, and many with a 3-inch blade. Using bigger blades than that is fine, if that’s what you’re comfortable with, but if you’re just embarking upon the world of hunting, big, bulky knives aren’t necessary.

This year marks my 40th year of big game hunting, and I’ve always kept things simple with my knife choices. You look for a knife that fits your hand, keeps an edge, and is constructed with a handle that won’t slip when covered in blood, fat or water.

You don’t need big, long blades when it comes to handling game in the field. Knives with 2-, 2.5- and 3-inch blades are enough to handle breaking down deer and elk-sized game. The author has used the orange-handled Kershaw Skyline knife to skin and quarter everything from brown bear to deer, elk to Cape buffalo in Africa.

You don’t need big, long blades when it comes to handling game in the field. Knives with 2-, 2.5- and 3-inch blades are enough to handle breaking down deer and elk-sized game. The author has used the orange-handled Kershaw Skyline knife to skin and quarter everything from brown bear to deer, elk to Cape buffalo in Africa.

I know many hunters who take their personal-carry knives afield, and that’s great if that’s what they like. Some folks prefer fixed blades over folding knives, and vice versa. Personally, I like a fixed-blade knife with a handle that’s easy to clean of dried blood and gut content.

A VERY IMPORTANT FACTOR when choosing a hunting knife is getting one with quality steel that’s easy to attain an edge on. While softer blades may dull more easily than hard steel, they are easier to regain an edge on when in the field. Knowing the anatomy of the animal you’re breaking down, and using the knife to cut, not saw or force through bones, will help in maintaining an edge on your knife. All cuts are easy to make and should not be forced, especially through joints and cartilage.

Animal fat can quickly dull a knife, which is why it’s critical to have a quality steel to easily hone that knife. At the same time, cutting through cartilage, tendons and ligaments can be tough on knives, making quality steel even more important. Having a blade you can hone in the field – one that reacts to a good steel – is important in regaining that edge in order to continue safely and efficiently breaking down an animal.

While it’s occasionally unavoidable, try to refrain from cutting through hair and into dirt. Sometimes big animals like elk, moose and bear are impossible to move around by yourself, meaning a cut may slice through skin and hit dirt, which dulls a knife. When cutting the hide, do so from the skin side, not down through the hair. To do this, make a small hole where the cut will begin, then get the blade inside the skin, cutting upwards through the hide. This will help keep an edge and should allow you to get through multiple animals before having to sharpen your knife again.

When your knife does become dull in the field, sharpen it right away, for a dull knife leads to bad cutting techniques, and that’s how accidents happen. When hunting, I rely on two simple yet very effective sharpeners. In my daypack, I’ll take one sharpening steel afield to touch up the knife while breaking down animals. My favorite is Kershaw’s Ultra-Tek blade sharpener, a 600-grit oval steel that’s very lightweight and works wonderfully in quickly regaining an edge. When back in camp, if I need to further sharpen the knife, I’ll use a whetstone or a Work Sharp guided field sharpener.

Rarely do I take a compact folding saw afield when deer hunting, for a deer’s skull – the only part of an animal I use a saw on – isn’t so heavy that it needs to be split, like moose, caribou and elk do. When quartering big game in the field, I don’t use a saw to split the pelvis or remove the legs, neck or ribs – that’s all done with a knife.

Having the right knife to get the job done is important. Here, the author removes the cape from a mule deer in spike camp using the same 3-inch bladed Kershaw knife he relied on to gut, skin, quarter and debone the buck.

Having the right knife to get the job done is important. Here, the author removes the cape from a mule deer in spike camp using the same 3-inch bladed Kershaw knife he relied on to gut, skin, quarter and debone the buck.

ONE WORD OF CAUTION when embarking on a big game hunt where you’ll be breaking down an animal in the field, and that’s to be aware of the state’s recovery laws. Most states require a proof of sex to accompany the meat from the field to camp or home. This is usually best retained by keeping the genitals attached to one hindquarter, and/or bringing the head of the animal out. When bringing the head out, if sawing off the antlers to cut down on weight you’re packing out, cuts are often required to be made below the eyes, so the eyes are intact. Some states require the meat to stay attached to leg bones, too, meaning complete boning out of meat while in the field may not be legal.

If you will be transporting game heads across state lines, know that multiple states require the brain to be removed from the skull. This means you’ll need a saw to cut through the brain cavity, so be prepared. Prior to heading afield, make sure you know the meat recovery and transport laws of the state you’ll be hunting in.

Find a knife that works for you and familiarize yourself with how it handles. Practice at home, rubbing fat and blood on the handle and getting it wet to see how it performs. Once you know what a knife is capable of, as well as the anatomy of an animal and how to disarticulate its joints and muscles, you’ll see why a simple blade is all that’s really necessary. ASJ

Elk hunting in the backcountry can be demanding, yet to break down an animal, all you need is one quality knife and a sharpener, maintains the author, here reaching the end of the trail with a pack string carrying his bull out of the woods.

Elk hunting in the backcountry can be demanding, yet to break down an animal, all you need is one quality knife and a sharpener, maintains the author, here reaching the end of the trail with a pack string carrying his bull out of the woods.

Editor’s note: For copies of Scott Haugen’s comprehensive DVD, Field Dressing, Skinning & Caping Big Game, send a check for $20.00 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. This, along with his many books, can be ordered online at scotthaugen.com.

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