According to Eric Forbes, it’s really not that hard to skin a deer.
“You have to free the Achilles tendon first,” he said, demonstrating with an expertly sharpened knife, before lifting the carcass to the rafters of his father’s garage with a block and tackle. “Once it’s vertical, most of the work’s done.”
Every deer season, Eric, friend Mike Sweetman and Eric’s father, Jeff, a veteran butcher, gather at the Forbes home in the town of Florida, hang a large “deer cut-up” sign out front and brace for the stream of successful hunters.
“My hands are killing me,” Eric said, “I’ve skinned 160 deer in the last two weeks.”
The three deer cutters have been working non-stop, processing about two carcasses an hour since the opening of the southern zone regular season Nov. 17. Every so often they clean off the steak-cutting bandsaw and throw their white butcher coats in the laundry. The flattened cardboard boxes that protect the cement floor from stains are changed out every few days.
They charge $60 a deer.
Jeff gets a sense for the deer season even before the Department of Environmental Conservation can tally up the registered tags. Based on his booming business, it’s been a very good season.
So far they’ve processed well over 200 animals, 25 percent of which were more than 140 pounds.
“They’re all big and healthy,” he said, pointing to the large rack on the deer his son worked on. “We’re getting a lot of bucks.”
When Eric finished, the hide joined a huge pile of similar hides in the back yard, where an excited black Labrador named Louie delighted in the odors.
Other area processors also have seen an increase in deer business. Butchers at Marlow Meat Processing in Howes Cave were too busy for an interview Wednesday. “We’re swamped,” said a hurried voice over the phone.
The classified advertisement Walt Talmadge placed in The Daily Gazette at the beginning of the season was only his phone number and six words — “DEER Skin, Cut, Wrap Galway. Walt” — but it has brought in at least three animals a day since the season opener, at $65 a head.
“In my opinion, it’s way up this year,” he said.
Talmadge has been processing deer on a seasonal basis for a few decades, racking up an estimated 3,500 animals. And though he doesn’t hunt himself, he knows what makes a good deer season.
“There wasn’t much winter kill last year,” he said. “When there isn’t much snow, the deer stand a fair chance against predators.”
Deer have pointy little cloven hooves he explained, which sink deep into the snow. Packs of coyotes are light and have wider paws, easily catching deer bogged down in tall drifts.
Last winter was mild, so the deer were well-fed and able outrun the hungry canines.
Early DEC estimates “reported deer take during the southern zone opening weekend was 9 percent higher than in 2011.”
Hunters have a window of time to register their animals, so the numbers aren’t exact, but the DEC predicts this season’s take could be as much as 13 percent higher than last year.
“The hunters say they’re out there,” Eric Forbes said. “There certainly isn’t a shortage.”
The regular firearms season in the southern zone wraps up Dec. 9.