How to Clean a Turkey the Easy Way
So those turkey hunting tactics worked out for you, and you were able to seal the deal on a big old tom turkey. Congratulations! Whether you tagged out on a cagey old gobbler you’ve been chasing for years or a younger jake that just showed up on one of your clover plots, one thing’s for sure – you’re excited to dig into some wild turkey meat. But if it’s your first time turkey hunting, you’re probably wondering, “How do I breast out a turkey?” or “how do I remove a turkey fan for mounting?” In this video, Michael Waddell shows you how to clean a turkey so you can quickly enjoy some delicious wild turkey recipes. He also shows how to break the turkey, getting both the fan and spurs off with just a pocket knife! Watch the video below and read the blog for step-by-step instructions.
Cleaning a Turkey Step 1: Preparation
If you have no idea how to clean a turkey, there’s very little preparation required. First things first before you dig in, you’ll need to get some zippered food storage bags and a knife. The Bone Collector® Havalon® Rebel knife is a great option for cleaning a wild turkey. It features an AUS cryo-hardened traditional fixed blade on one side and Havalon’s signature “always sharp” replacement blade system on the other. While it’s mostly overkill for a thin-skinned turkey, it does come in handy when cutting through the tougher legs and tendons (later on).
The best part of cleaning a turkey using this approach is that you don’t need to bother with truly field dressing a turkey (i.e., gutting a turkey), which you would need to do if you were skinning a turkey or plucking it. This process includes only keeping the breast meat, although you could definitely keep the drumsticks too. They’re just really tough to eat unless you cook them right. The breast meat you remove is also very clean using this process, so you could literally almost toss it in the pan right away. Last, if you’re wondering how to clean a wild turkey for mounting a full bird, this approach would have to be tweaked a little. Full body mounts require you to carefully remove the skin with the feathers attached. But you can definitely use this process to create a turkey fan mount or save the spurs and beard. Check out Michael’s process for cleaning a turkey below.
Cleaning a Turkey Step 2: Breast Meat
First, you’ll sometimes notice a bare spot on a turkey breast. Many people think this is from breeding hens, but it’s actually from wearing the feathers off while roosting in trees. Anyway, this is a good spot to make your first cut. Turn the turkey so that it is on its back with its legs facing you, and make an incision with your Havalon® Rebel knife in the skin near the breastbone (locate the bone with your fingers). Don’t cut too deeply at this point – you just want to cut the skin. Then reach your fingers in and pull the skin away in each direction. It will usually easily separate away without any further cutting. Pull the skin back until you expose the base of the wings and the top of the drumsticks. Then push the legs back and down to pop them out of the socket. At that point, you can start fileting the breast meat off, simply following the central breastbone down until you feel resistance at the rib bones.
After making the first vertical cut along the breastbone from the neck down towards the rear, work your way back from the rear of the breast towards the neck by making small horizontal cuts along the ribs. Pull the meat up gently as you cut to save as much meat as possible, including the delicious and delicate tenderloin. Follow the rib bones up past the wings to the neck and crop until the breast meat is fully severed. At that point, you’ll just need to pick the smaller pin feathers and any other debris off and place it into the storage bag.
Cleaning a Turkey Step 3: Spurs
Once you’re done breasting out a turkey on both sides, you may also want to save some other items for a turkey mount. With an older tom, you may find that it has really long or hooked spurs on the back of its legs. These are definitely worth saving to think back on in the future.
Most people simply cut the leg bones on each side of the spurs to save a short, hollow segment with the spur attached. But if you don’t have a saw with you in the field, you can still bring the spurs home without taking the full leg with it. Just turn the legs so they are facing you (with the spurs facing back), and cut the front tendon in the knee joint. After making this cut, bend and twist the leg to break the joint. It takes a little practice to find that sweet spot of where to cut, but you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. After that, simply cut whatever skin and tendons are still holding the leg on. Then you can bring the spurs home attached to just the lower bony segment of the leg.
Cleaning a Turkey Step 4: Beard
Like the spurs, an older tom may have a really long beard on the front of its breast. This is again worth saving for display later, but many people don’t know how to remove a turkey beard. There’s a better way to remove it than cutting it off and getting skin and flesh along with it.
Use one hand to grasp the skin at the base of the beard and your other hand to grasp tight to the base of the beard. Pull on the feathery beard until you can pluck it cleanly off. Using this approach, you don’t even really have to salt it to preserve it.
Cleaning a Turkey Step 5: Tail Fan
If there’s one thing you should save from each turkey you kill, the tail fan has got to be at the top of the list. They are beautiful to look at and it’s fun to compare from year to year. Collapse the turkey fan so you can hold it in your non-dominant hand. Wiggle it around and look at the rump. You will be able to see exactly where the feathers extend into the skin and rump when you move it around and find the joint (usually 2 to 3 inches back from where the primary tail feathers enter the skin). Use your knife to cut along the socket until it separates. You can keep as many of the smaller pin feathers on as you want to display with your fan. As far as how to mount a turkey fan, just spread the fan out the way you want it to look and pin it to a board. Liberally spread some borax or salt on the flesh and it will dry out for display. Once it dries, it will keep the form you pinned it into, so make sure this is how you like it before leaving it.
Once dried, the fan can be proudly mounted, or used for hunting turkeys next year! These fans are perfect for putting on decoys to add realism or can be used to fan turkeys on a run and gun hunt.
After breasting out the bird and collecting the beard, spurs, and tail fan, there are several turkey mounting ideas you can consider. You can display each of the pieces separately or combine them into one amazing mount. If you don’t know how to mount a turkey, here are some easy mounting ideas. As you can see, cleaning a turkey with just a pocket knife isn’t very hard and doesn’t take much time!