By Clay Newcomb
Preserving the hide and meat of a bear is an important aspect of the hunt. Most hunters understand meat spoilage and realize that they’re working against the clock after the kill, but “hair slippage” is also a very common problem with bear hides. This is when bacterial buildup on the skin of the animal begins to break down the epidermis (skin) to the point that the hair loosens and falls out. Sometimes hair slippage isn’t noticed until after the hide comes back from the tannery with bald spots. The last thing you want is your trophy bear hide to not turn out perfect. It’s surprisingly easy for this to happen because bears have abnormally high levels of bacteria. The hide and meat spoils quicker than deer and other ungulates.
There are many ways a hide can go bad, but it always involves prolonged periods of exposure to temperatures above 40 degrees. Bears are typically hunted in the warmer seasons of the year. If a bear is left overnight in the field during warm weather, the hide and meat can spoil. A hide wrapped in a tight ball and thrown into the freezer before thorough cooling can spoil from the inside out. While in a remote place, it can be difficult to get a hide into the freezer or ice chest quickly enough, and it simply gets too warm for too long. The dark-colored hide also gathers heat from the sun quickly and can get warm quicker than other objects.
I’d like to give some generalizations to gauge time frames and temperatures as related to hide and meat spoilage. I will use the term “care” to mean the hide is removed, the meat is quartered, and both are put in cold storage under 40 degrees. The time frame would start from the time the bear expires and ends when it’s in cold storage.
In temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees a hunter has ample time to care for a bear. Getting the entrails out quickly is always important, but in this temperature range you’ve got up to 24 hours to get the hide and meat cared for. Temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees are also quite forgiving. It would be acceptable to leave a bear overnight if absolutely necessary. The time stamp in this temperature range would be around 12 hours. In temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, the window gets smaller – you’ve got about six to eight hours. In temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees the hunter has four to six hours to take care of bear. In temperatures above 80 degrees you better find him quick and get him taken care of. It’d be safe to say you’ve got around four hours. Again, these are generalizations, but they can act as a guide. The warmer it is, the less time you have.
It’s important to get the hide removed from the carcass as quickly as possible, especially in warm weather. The more fat and meat removed from the skin the better. Excess material on the hide acts as an insulator making cooling happen slower. However, it’s not critical that the hide be fleshed perfectly. The term “fleshing” refers to the removal of almost all fat and meat from the hide. Fat quantity often depends on the time the bear is killed and varies from animal to animal. A spring bear will typically have less fat than a fall bear. It’s important to have less than one inch of fat left on the hide when freezing. It’s perfectly acceptable to freeze a hide with the skull and paws intact; however, the hide will freeze quicker if they are removed. It is common for hair slippage to occur on the face of a bear, and most often happens with the skull is left in the hide. For an animal that will be mounted, this isn’t a good location to lose hair. Remove the skull from the head before freezing if you want to be extra safe.
In an ideal situation the hide would freeze evenly. It’s best practice to spread a hide out as much as possible in the freezer to allow for even cooling. When the hide is completely chilled but not frozen, you can wrap the hide and put it in a bag for the final freezing. When an ambient-temperature hide is wrapped into a ball, it may be several days before the inside layers freeze. Many hunters have lost hides that have rotted on the inside sections of the wrapped hide. Maybe it was in good condition when it entered the freezer, but the inner layers are so well insulated because of the layers of skin, fat and hair, it stays warm for days. You can’t always do this because of space limitations in freezers, but remember the idea of even cooling.
Salting a Hide
If refrigeration or freezing isn’t possible, you’ll need to plan ahead and bring some salt. It’s a time-tested method of hide preservation that stops the growth of bacteria. It’s important that the hide is thoroughly fleshed and the paws completely removed down to the claws. The skull must be removed from the hide and the ears “turned” and “lips split.” In short, “turning the ears,” means removing the cartilage from the ear. It’s easier said than done, but is a must if salt is your only preservation method. “Splitting the lips” is taking the thick part of the lip and trimming it down so the salt can penetrate it thoroughly. Today’s scalpel knives with ultra-sharp replaceable blades are perfect for this type of job. The job will be much easier with multiple blades, or you’ll need an easy way to sharpen a traditional knife.
The process is simple once the preparation is complete. In a dry place, stretch the hide out and apply a liberal layer of salt on the skin side. Let it stay on the hide for 24 hours. It will draw out the moisture and become wet. The next day remove the salt and reapply another fresh layer. Two applications is usually enough to preserve the hide for an extended time. There is no exact science for knowing how much salt you’ll need, but estimating 10-12 pounds per application on an average-sized black would be safe. This would mean you’d use roughly 25 pounds of salt total. Any type of salt will work, but “canning” or “pickling” salt is the best choice and is very inexpensive. Even after salting, I suggest putting the hide in the freezer once you are able.
I recently spoke to a good bear taxidermist who turned me on to a unique product for bear hunters. This is not a paid advertisement, but this is a cheap product that a bear hunter should consider purchasing – especially if they’re hunting in a location where the freezer is a long ways away. It’s an anti-bacterial chemical product, primarily used by taxidermists, to slow bacterial spread. It’s made by Van Dyke Taxidermy supply and is called STOP-ROT. It might just save your next bear hide.
STOP-ROT aids in preventing hair slippage on game hides. By applying this chemical to the skin-side of a hide, you basically extend its time stamp while out of the freezer. It’s important to get as much of the fat and meat as possible off so the product touches actual skin. All you have to do is apply liberal amounts of the liquid on all surfaces of the flesh side. It won’t interfere with the tanning processes of your taxidermist and is reported to actually help the fleshing process. The chemical is pretty harsh, so you don’t want to get it on your skin. It can be applied using a brush or a rag. It’s still important to get the hide frozen or salted as quickly as possible.
One quart of STOP-ROT costs $21.30 plus shipping and would roughly treat one bear hide. It can be purchased online.