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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A knife is a tool, and you must choose the correct one for each speciﬁc job. While you can dig a hole with a spoon, a shovel works a lot better, and the same goes with knives.
Also, I don’t jump out of helicopters with a tactical knife clenched in my teeth to cut oﬀ the heads of the bad guys. I just like to hunt and ﬁsh, and gut, skin and cut up what I kill, so my advice comes from that perspective.
LET’S DISPEL A MYTH. Just because you skinned your ﬁrst bear with a certain knife doesn’t automatically mean that it is the best skinning knife. In fact, it may not even be a good skinning knife. It just means that it has some sentimental value.
Years ago, the Idaho Press Tribune ran a photo of a 12-year-old boy who had just shot his ﬁrst deer with an old Winchester .30-30. Beside him in the photo were his dad and granddad, who’d shot their ﬁrst deer with the same riﬂe. Do you think you could ever convince that kid that a .30-30 isn’t the best deer riﬂe? I wouldn’t even try.
So if your favorite uncle – the one who taught you how to hunt – entrusted you with his knife on his deathbed, then carry it and be happy. Who cares what I say? Just don’t try to tell me that it is the best design for every task.
Hunters can justify carrying four diﬀerent knives. These are: a clip point to cut the pattern (the initial cut when skinning), a drop-point knife to skin, a caping knife to skin around the eyes, ears and lips, as well as the feet of bears, and a boning knife to bone out your game.
Do I always carry all four? No. When I’m hunting hard in the mountains, I usually only carry two: a knife to skin my animal and a boning knife. I’ve skinned more than a hundred deer with a clip-point knife, because it’s a versatile choice. However, if you want to keep the hide or mount the head, it’s best if you use a drop point.
Let’s brieﬂy review each style of blade, and why they are best for a speciﬁc task.
The tip of this design sweeps upward and comes to a deﬁnite point, which allows you to stab into the hide and cut a pattern. The pattern is the initial cut you make down each leg, around the hocks and up the belly before you start removing the skin. You can skin your animal with a clip-point knife, but due to the shape of the blade, they have more of a tendency to cut holes in the hide while skinning. If you’re just skinning your deer so you can cut it up, then it doesn’t matter if you skin it with your clip point knife.
If I could only carry one knife, this would be it.
A drop-point knife is less likely to cut through the hide, and you can skin faster without being as careful. You’ll notice on a drop-point knife that the tip doesn’t sweep upwards like a clippoint knife. Although I can’t explain the mechanics of why, you’ll simply cut through the hide less often while skinning with a drop-point knife than with a clip-point knife.
If you plan to mount the animal head, you’ll want to carry a caping knife. A caping knife has a shorter, thinner blade with a deﬁnite point. This allows you to make intricate cuts around the eyes and lips of your trophy, as well as when skinning the feet on bears.
When I was a kid, we’d use a hunting knife for this job, but while working in beef production plants, I discovered what a real boning knife could do. I took what I learned there and applied it in my outdoor world.
To get a clean bone (which means to remove all the meat) you’ll want a semi-ﬂexible knife. You don’t want it too ﬂimsy or you won’t be able to control the blade while working. I favor a 6-inch boning knife, but have buddies who favor a 5-inch blade. I favor a semiﬂex, but some people prefer a superﬂex blade. It’s a matter of preference.
A SOFTER METAL BLADE is easier to sharpen, but it doesn’t stay sharp as long. A harder knife is more diﬃcult to sharpen but will keep an edge longer. Again, it’s not a matter of right or wrong, just personal preference.
If you’ve hiked in 7 miles and shoot an elk, it’s nice to have a knife that will hold an edge long enough to skin him so you don’t have to carry a sharpening stone. For that reason, I favor a knife that is hard and will keep an edge but that is not insanely hard. Something of the hardness of a Knives of Alaska knife is perfect.
What about straight blade versus fold-ups? Again, it’s a matter of preference. I like both, and sometimes interchange at the drop of a hat. However, if you choose a folder, make sure it has a locking blade so it doesn’t close on your hand while working, although nearly all folders are lock blades now.
There are several good manufacturers on the market. Choose which brand you prefer, and then pick one with the task-speciﬁc designs that I’ve listed above. And after you’ve made your selection, happy hunting! ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on this and other knife-related topics, see the author’s e-article “Knife Sharpening” (available on Amazon Kindle), and check out the YouTube videos on RonSpomerOutdoors.