Preparing For The Taxidermist
A mounted trophy is the tangible reminder of a memorable hunt. It's there to be admired on long winter evenings and its there to provide the strength to carry on when the course of events are temporarily rocky. When I look up at any of my mounted trophies, I rarely see the individual animal; rather, I recall the events of the hunt, the people and the places, the exhilaration and the excitement.
Since my trophies are important to me, I insist that the mounts must be the best that money can buy. Just as there are good plumbers and bad, there are also good taxidermists and bad. Some evidently have never looked a deer or moose in the face, others take shortcuts to save money, some cannot seem to deliver a mount in less than five years and others yet should simply look for another line of work. Fortunately, among them are also extremely conscientious and talented professionals who take great pride in their work. They're often called on to perform miracles and, just as often, they perform miracles with the pitiful materials provided.
Quebec-Labrador caribou are breathtaking trophies.
Bottom line is that the quality of the mounted trophy is entirely the responsibility of the hunter who has final control over every aspect from the choice of taxidermist to the in-field care of the capes or skins. Frequently, we tend to shirk one or more of these responsibilities.
One common mistake is to look around for a good taxidermy shop after the hunt rather than before and that usually leads to rash decisions and, often, extra expense. If you don't already deal with a particular shop on an ongoing and satisfactory basis, do some shopping around during the months prior to your trip. Take a look at the game rooms of other hunters to evaluate the work of various taxidermists and then, prior to your departure, approach those whose work you find most pleasing. Discuss prices, the amount of time required to mount the trophy and also what is needed of you in order to produce the best possible mount. In terms of costs, remember that the least expensive is not necessarily the best, but on the other side of the coin, neither is the most expensive. The best taxidermists are often artists who take great pride in their work and, at the same time, are reasonable in their charges. They'll produce a mount that is pleasing and, at the same time, durable.
Frequently, however, taxidermists are called on to make the impossible possible. Those I've spoken with estimate that six out of every ten skins they receive for mounting have some kind of problem. Most common among these are capes without enough skin to make a full shoulder mount and capes with various degrees of hair slippage. Other problems encountered are bullet damage and careless skinning, though these can usually be repaired on all but thin-haired African game.
Short capes and slipped hair are another story entirely. It's been said often that a taxidermist cannot produce a shoulder mount from a cape that's cut off halfway up the neck, but some hunters take that advice too literally by starting the cape exactly at the shoulder. Problem is that it gives the taxidermist absolutely no margin to work with. A generally touted rule of thumb is to leave at least a foot and a half of excess skin on a cape; I make it a point to take the cape from halfway between the hind and fore legs. No taxidermist will complain about having to trim away excess pelt, but one and all gripe bitterly when there's too little to work with.
The most difficult step in caping any animal is skinning out the head. If you have never turned the ears and split the lips, let somebody experienced do it for you. The logic to bear in mind is that, provided the weather is cool and the pelt is delivered to the taxidermist within a couple of days, it is usually better to leave this task undone than to let inexperienced hands attempt it. The ideal alternative, if you have access to a deep-freezer, is to simply skin out the head and freeze the pelt; most taxidermists will impose a slight surcharge for turning the ears and splitting the lips but it's a small price to pay for having it done right.
Which brings up the subject of slipped hair. At best, a skin with a patch or two of slipped hair can be mounted so that the problem area is not readily visible. At worst, the entire skin is unusable.
With the game at hand, the quality of the mount depends on the care given the cape.
With readily available animals like deer, the taxidermist can solve the problem by using a replacement cape at a slight additional fee; obtaining replacement capes for other game -- particularly off-shore game like African animals -- will entail a considerable amount of effort and cost.
There's really no excuse for slippage because in almost all cases it's the result of sloppy trophy care. The hunter either did not take the time to remove the skin promptly and properly or did salt it adequately. Or, in the case of camps where professional skinners are on hand to look after the task, the hunter did not take the time to inspect the work done and ensure that the skins were well salted. Internationally noted taxidermist Jack Jonas put the blame where the blame was due during a seminar at the 1994 Safari Club International convention in Reno, Nevada.
"If the hair slips, you have nobody to blame but yourself," he said bluntly. "It's your fault either for not doing it right or for not keeping an eye on the skinners to make sure it's being done right. You have to make sure the cape is properly taken care of."
But what is the right way to cure a skin or cape? First step is to completely flesh the hide, removing every bit of muscle tissue and fat because the salt cannot penetrate these to get at the hide itself. Jonas explained that there is a bulb of fluid at the base of each hair shaft. On a clean hide, the salt can start working immediately to draw this fluid out of the sack and, once all the liquid has been drawn off, the sack dries around the root of the hair to anchor it firmly in place. The sooner this drying takes place the less the chance of slippage and resulting bald or sparse spots. If the skin is not properly and promptly salted, the bulbs of liquid at the roots swell and soon release their hold, causing the hair to slip.
Meticulously cleaning the cape prior to salting is critical.
The salt should be spread carefully in an even layer about a sixteenth of an inch thick over the entire cape or hide and replaced once it becomes wet, usually after 12 to 24 hours. Make sure to work the salt into the edges of the hide which tend to roll over onto themselves and, if left unattended, are quick to rot. Three applications of salt will generally dry a cape adequately to ensure that the taxidermist receives a hide in good shape.
Throughout this curing process, it's essential to keep the cape in a cool dry place -- that means out of the sun and sheltered from rain. The heat of direct sun increases the rate at which the root sack swells and the hair might start to loosen before the salt is able to do its job. Rain also counteracts the curing process and, when heavy enough, actually washes away the layer of salt, leaving patches of skin untreated.
I use pickling salt because it is finely ground and relatively inexpensive. Figure on using just a little less than three pounds per application for a whitetailed deer cape so you'll need roughly nine pounds to fully cure a hide of comparable size. However, on backpack trips when excess weight is an important consideration, you can actually make do with less simply by recycling the curing agent. Save the wet salt that you remove from the hides and dry it either in the sun or by a campfire. Fresh salt is easiest to use, but recycled salt will do the job as well, provided you break up the larger clumps.
A common practice at many camps is to salt the hide then, after just half a day or less, roll it up and stuff it into a box or plastic bag. For short term handling whereby the hide is delivered to the taxidermist within a day or so, that's fine, but you do run the risk of partial slippage. The other problem is that the first application of salt draws off the greatest amount of moisture; at best, the hide steeps for hours in a soup of bloody brine. At worst, the liquid seeps out of the container and all over your gear during the trip home. If you have the luxury of time, go to the trouble of the three complete applications of salt to draw off as much moisture as possible before you package up the skin.
You'll also make a taxidermist's work easier and be more satisfied with the final outcome if you take the time for a few quick measurements. For horned or antlered game, measure the distance from the tip of the nose to the front corner of the eye, from the tip of the nose to the back end of the skull and the girth of the neck just back from the next. For full mounts, it's a good idea to also take the nose to tail dimension as well as the circumference of the chest right behind the front legs. I find a fabric milliner's tape easy to use and, whenever possible, take the measurements once the cape is off the animal, though I make a point of apprising the taxidermist of that fact. While most experienced pros can judge the proper mould to use for the mount just by the size of the cape, the measurements take the guesswork and the possibility for error out of the job.
You'll need to make some kind of a decision as far as the antlers are concerned, particularly if large formations such as moose, caribou or elk are involved. Even an average rack can be bulky awkward and difficult to transport if left intact on the skull plate so I generally split the rack for transportation. This is especially critical if you're traveling by air since most airlines are more concerned about volume than weight and, while they usually take a split rack as baggage, you'll be handed a hefty bill for unsplit racks and find your trophy traveling as cargo, possibly on a different flight. This might be worth the trouble on a truly exceptional animal that you want to enter in the record books, but it's definitely not worth the time and expense on anything less.
If you do opt to split the rack, record the inside spread prior to sawing the skull apart so that the taxidermist can restore the rack to its full splendor. Presuming that the rack is not book class, you ought to also decide whether or not to have the taxidermist make the mount with detachable antlers. To do this, the horns are cut off a the base and a square socket is epoxied into a hole drilled into the antler base; a corresponding square shaft is epoxied into the antler and, when put together, the joint is impossible to see. Though most taxidermists add a small extra charge for the additional work and materials, they prefer to work on animals with detachable antlers. The real advantage, however, is that the head is easy to transport and fits through any doorway.
Once in place, the final product of your hunt, the tangible element of a truly memorable trip, is a masterpiece of a taxidermist's craft. Provided you've maintained meticulous care at every step of the process from choosing the taxidermist to delivering skins in good condition, the mount on your wall is one you can be proud of for a long, long time.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.