How to Skin Game Birds for Fly Tying
Updated: Feb 18
As a bird hunter, I try to use as much of the birds that I shoot as possible. As it plays out sometimes, some game birds are just center patterned or roughly handled by my dog, so salvaging what meat I can and then composting the rest of the bird is all I can hope for. However, when you are gifted with birds that are lightly shot (and handled softly) they can be prized for one of two things: They can either be fully plucked and made into any number of delicious recipes, or the bird can be skinned and its feathers preserved for future fly tying use.
Fly tying materials, especially the natural materials, can be difficult to obtain or just too expensive. If you are a hunter, or know a hunter, then you have the chance to acquire a lifetime supply of some of the most incredible fly tying feathers out there. Pheasant, partridge, mallard, turkey, and ruffed grouse come quickly to mind when thinking of fly tying feathers. Yet, there are many other game birds to expand your fly tying creativity: quail, chukar, sharp tailed grouse, prairie chicken, and so on. Just holding some of these birds in your hands will get you excited for what fly patterns can be created at the fly tying table.
Having a fully skinned bird is also way easier to use at the fly tying vice than having to rummage through a bag of feathers. You can pick the skin up, thumb through the different sizes, and pick the exact one you need. It saves so much time and you can get the right feather for the hook size you are using.
Skinning game birds is not as challenging as you may think. Yes, some birds like most waterfowl require a lot of work to preserve their capes, but skinning most of your upland species is fairly simple. In the following article, we will focus primarily on upland species, and I will make a few notes about skinning waterfowl if you are choosing to tackle that project.
Choosing the Right Game Bird to Skin
Before you begin to skin your bird, or even think about skinning it, you need to pick the right one. A bird that has been blasted and is a mangled mess is not the ideal candidate. A bird that was winged or hit in the head and has minimal damage to its core body is what you are looking for.
When I come across a bird like this, the first thing I'll do is walk back to the car and place the bird in there. If I am too far from my vehicle, then I will pull out a plastic bag (that I usually have with me), place the bird in that, and then put the bird in my game vest. This will help to ensure that the bird isn't too roughed up in your vest which causes feathers to fall out.
Some game birds will be easier to work with than others. Hungarian Partridge, pheasant, grouse, and chukar are great birds to start with. However, whatever bird you have will do. Turkeys are about the only thing I would not skin because it is such a large bird and the cape would be gigantic.
(Read: A Guide to Feathers Used in Fly Tying)
Once you are back home, I recommend placing the bird in the fridge for a day or two. This helps to cool the bird down which makes the skinning process a bit easier. If you plan on eating the bird after skinning it, then placing it in the fridge for a day or two isn't a big deal...so long as it isn't gut shot (and that goes back to looking over the bird when you first recover it to determine the damage).
Materials and Tools You Will Need for Skinning Game Birds
You may have most of the materials and tools listed below, if not you can find with a quick trip to the grocery store:
A sharp knife- I like to use either a scalpel or a small curve knife I use to clean my birds. The scalpel can give you a little more precision and make cleaner cuts.
Game shears or a good pair of sharp scissors.
Coarse salt- Salt will be used to rub in-between the skin and meat to help release the skin. I use salt (rather than borax) because I eat the meat afterwards.
Toothpicks- Toothpicks will also be used to help release the skin from the meat in tougher spots.
Butterknife- Used to flesh the skin. A soft wire brush (like copper) or a spoon can also be used.
A bucket and dish soap- Something like Dawn dish soap.
Hairdryer- If you don't have a hair dryer, you could get away with a metal wire rack and a well-vented, dry area.
A small box, shoe box, or something similar.
Borax- This can be found at most grocery stores located in the aisle where the cleaning detergents are (20 Mule Team is one brand that is at a lot of grocery stores). Borax will be used as a preservative applied to the skin.
Step-By-Step on Skinning and Preserving a Game Bird Skin for Fly Tying
We have our bird, we have our supplies, we are ready to begin. For our example below, I'll be using a Hungarian Partridge:
1. Lay the bird down, breast side up, and make an incision just under the skin along the breast bone (figure 1, click to enlarge). Take this incision up to just under the jaw of the bird, and then down to the vent near the tail feathers.
2. Next, begin working the skin away from both sides of the breast meat. Take your time, and if you tear the skin just work slowly around the hole. If there are tough spots to release the skin from the meat, then rub in some salt between the meat and skin.
3. After the skin is released from both sides of the breast meat, work your way down to one of the thighs and begin peeling the skin away from that leg (figure 2).
4. Work the skin free from around the thigh, then begin pushing then leg up and towards the body with one hand while your other hand pushes the skin further down the leg (figure 3).
5. Keep working the skin down past the ankle joint. Take your knife and cut the ligaments in the ankle joint to separate the foot from the leg (figure 4). You can then snip the foot off of the skin. Repeat this with the other leg.
6. Now that both legs are free, continue peeling the skin away from the lower back. You will feel more resistance the lower down to the tail feathers you go. Stop peeling the skin once it becomes difficult (figure 5).
7. At this point, you will need to take your game shears and cut the tail feathers free from the body. You will need to cut some of the meat along with the tail feathers otherwise they will all just fall out (figure 6). If you have a bird with large/long tail feathers (like a pheasant) you can trim it away from the rest of the skin if you prefer.
8. Peel the skin away from the back and begin working it free from around one of the shoulder joints (figure 7).
9. I have found it easier to remove the skin from the wing if the humorous is cut free from the torso. Take your knife and scissors and cut around the shoulder joint and snip the ligaments to remove the humorous bone (figure 8).
10. With the humorous free, begin to work the skin down the bone. Take your time here, this is the most difficult part. Use coarse salt and a toothpick to help release the skin down and over the "elbow joint" (figure 9).
11. You can either clip the "elbow joint" here (figure 10) and then cut the rest of the wing from the skin on the other side (figure 11). Or, you can continue removing the skin down the ulna bone and over the "wrist joint." If you choose to do that, the secondary feathers practically grow into the ulna bone so you can't just peel the skin here. You will need to use a knife to help shave the secondary feathers off of the ulna bone. Most often, I primarily use the feathers from the bird's cape, and only rarely use the feathers from further down the wing. The option is up to you. After you are finished with the first wing, repeat these steps with the other wing.
12. The legs, wings, and back are now all peeled. Continue removing the skin up the neck (figure 12). Once the skin is free to the base of the skull, trim the skin away from the head.
13. Our skin is now off of the bird (figure 13). You will notice yellow areas, that is fat and we will need to remove as much as possible.
14. Fill up a bucket with lukewarm water and a few drops of dish soap. Submerge the skin into the soapy water for around 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, pull the skin out and lay it down. Take a butter knife, spoon, soft bristled metal brush (like a copper brush) and begin scrapping at those fatty areas (figure 14). The more fat you remove the better it will preserve (this is called fleshing). Remove any meat as well (except you will need to keep some meat around the tail feathers otherwise they will fall out). You may need to place the skin back in to the soapy water for a second or third soak to help with removing the fat.
Note- Some birds have more fat than others (for example, Hungarian Partridge usually are fattier than ruffed grouse). If you are skinning waterfowl, you really will have to work at removing that fat and may even need something like a fleshing wheel to help out. Waterfowl have deep layers of fat so it will take a while.
15. After you have removed as much of the fat as possible, rinse it off in a bucket with clean water. Lay it down on a towel, feather side up (figure 15). It will look like a wet mess but as we dry it the feathers will come back to life. Take your blow dryer (set to warm, or low heat) and begin drying the feathers. You will want to blow dry in the direction that the feathers grow (i.e. with the grain). Drying the skin will take about 30-45 minutes depending on the size of the bird.
16. The skin is all dried and it looks amazing (figure 16)! Take the time to admire your work, you've earned it!
17. Now, place the skin into a small container like a cardboard box, shoe box, etc. skin side up. Liberally cover the skin with the borax and rub it into all the nooks and crannies. Let this sit for 4-5 days, then shake off the borax and apply fresh borax, then let that sit for 2-3 days.
After that second set of rest days, shake the borax off and use a toothbrush to brush away as much of the borax as you can. Place the skin in to a ziplock bag for storage, or get straight to fly tying!
The first couple times you try to skin a bird it may result in numerous rips and tears, but that is part of the learning process. Take your time, and after a couple birds you will develop a work flow and gain a feel for how to skin your game birds. Not only are these capes something to be proud of on your own fly tying table and patterns you tie, you can also give them as gifts to your fly tying friends.
(Also, check out this how-to article, Improve Your Skill at Reading Water for Fly Fishing: Riffles)
Lastly, if you live in or are visiting Spokane, I provide guided fly fishing trips and instructional lessons around Spokane to include float trips on the Spokane River and stillwater trips across various Eastern Washington lakes. I guide with Fly Fish Spokane, and more information/trip rates can be found at the website: FlyFishSpokane.com