By Mark Kayser
Maybe it’s hard to imagine, but shooting a trophy buck can bring on a wave of anxiety. Depending on when and where you’re hunting when you down that bruiser, you might have to consider dealing with warm weather, insect invasions, freezing cold, proper cape removal and a host of other challenges that could affect the overall quality of a future taxidermy mount. This obviously is a great problem to have, but once you have that big deer on the ground, it’s still a problem.
If the deer is truly is a once-in-a-lifetime buck, the mount will probably be part of your décor for the rest of your life. So before you start hunting the deer, begin hunting for the right taxidermist and get his/her advice on the steps to take to ensure a great mount. Then, when your trophy triumph occurs, you won’t have to deal with a ton of tough questions all at once.
PROPER FIELD CARE
After the initial back-slapping ends, you need to move quickly. In fact, minutes count in many hunting environments.
Begin your taxidermy success story by carefully removing the buck from the field. For a shoulder mount, make sure the hide from mid-buck up isn’t scraped, rubbed or dragged over rough terrain. Carefully load the deer into a truck and secure it so it doesn’t roll or rub.
Now act quickly. Once the field-party celebration has occurred, there’s the inevitable trip around town, down to the convenience store and over to the brother-in-law’s house. You should savor the experience, but all those actions add up to more wear and tear on your trophy’s hide as the deer is lifted, pulled and rolled around in the bed of your truck. So try to minimize the tour, and be sure to monitor the handling of your trophy.
Any time the air temperature is above freezing, bacteria can begin growing on meat and hide. The warmer it is, the faster they grow. The problem is most noticeable above 40 degrees F. At such temperatures, exposed flesh on the hide can begin to deteriorate quickly. You’ve likely heard of a deer hide “slipping,” meaning the hair pulls loose from the skin due to too much delay in cooling. It’s a real phenomenon. Such issues can quickly accelerate without proper care, leaving the cape worthless.
Even under cooler conditions, you need to act with appropriate speed. If you don’t know how to properly cape a buck’s hide from its shoulders, neck and head, you’ll definitely need the prompt attention of a qualified taxidermist. Few of us have the freezer space to store a whole deer, and even the wrong initial cuts below the neck could jeopardize the completed look of your finished mount.
Brian Lewon operates Lewon’s Taxidermy in the humble hamlet of Randolph, Nebraska, along with his wife Val and son Kevin. Brian has been a sought-after taxidermist for more than 40 years, and when combined with Kevin’s experience, the family’s taxidermy knowhow covers nearly 60 years. They’ve won over 100 awards in international, national and state taxidermy competitions. With so many years of mounting deer and other big game, Brian realizes the importance of speed in caring for a trophy after it’s down.
“You can’t get the cape off of them fast enough,” he stresses. “Taking your deer immediately to a qualified taxidermist is my first recommendation, but sometimes that’s not always possible. To help hunters out, we’ve included the proper steps, with images, on our website (lewons.com). I also instruct hunters to spray Windex around the eyes, mouth and nostrils and wipe it clean. This is where bacteria start, and this action slows that process.”
Are you acquiring a mental image of your trophy on the road to ruin? Brian says he’s seen hunters tote deer around for five or six days, showing them off, before caping. That’s often when he gets to be the bearer of bad news about needing a replacement cape.
When hunting far from home, consider locating a good taxidermist close to where you’ll be, so you’ll know where to take your buck. You won’t have to cape, preserve or store your trophy; your taxidermist can do it. Ever-evolving regulations concerning transport of deer parts in CWD areas can make this an even smarter move.
THE HUNT FOR A TAXIDERMIST
As an avid deer hunter, you undoubtedly have noticed the quality and workmanship of trophies in your friends’ dens. You’ve seen mounts that look as if there’s a living, breathing creature sticking its head through that wall. You’ve also seen mounts that look as though they belong in the saloon backdrop of a 1950s Western movie, with bugged-out eyes and faded hides.
Window shopping and word of mouth will be your best clues to a quality taxidermist. (Just make sure this recommendation isn’t coming from a cheapskate.) Now take your hunt for a great taxidermist to the next level. Do the real research.
This is as imperative on a distant hunt as one near home. If you shoot a buck hours from your local taxidermist you’ll need to either cape the buck yourself or, again, locate a professional. Outfitters, local hunters and even online hunting forums can help you with the search. That once-in-a-life Iowa giant needs the right care and storage before he makes it safely back to your East or West Coast domicile.
“We offer out-of-town hunters taking their trophies back to their local taxidermist the service of caping the deer and freezing it for them,” Brian says. “I recommend that you discuss this with your outfitter. What happens if you do get a trophy buck? You’ve undoubtedly asked them questions about the actual hunt, but make sure they have a plan in place so that your trophy is taken care of the right way.”
AWARDS VS. EYE APPEAL
With a list of possible taxidermists near home in hand, visit them personally. You can tell a lot about a business and business owner from a personal visit to the storefront. A professional setting will convey orderliness, show cleanliness and discourage loitering of others. The taxidermist also will have a favorable personality.
Whether it’s a computer technology store or a taxidermy shop, you can see red flags as you walk in the door. A messy shop doesn’t necessarily mean poor workmanship or a lack of business sense, but if you study the traits of successful entrepreneurs, you’ll see they work with a focused mindset. That includes everything from their work space to their paper trail.
During your visit, ask for references, just as you would while vetting outfitters or even an attorney. A good deer taxidermist should be able to supply you with at least 5-10 happy customers. Of course, some references could be good friends of the operator, but others should be average customers with unbiased reviews. It’s smart to ask for the names of customers who had work completed five or more years ago, so you can check to see how their mounts are holding up. Note everything customers say, then average it all out. You should get a reliable feeling on whether the taxidermist is legitimate.
“My wife, Val, is the most valuable person in our business,” Brian states. “She’s integral in maintaining the professional appearance of our studio and invaluable with bookwork details. After logging in a trophy, she’ll help clients choose poses — and whenever I need a third hand to help pull a skin over a form, she’s right there to help out.”
If you want to legitimize your research further, ask the taxidermist about his/her training. Some of the best mechanics in the world never went to trade school, and the same might be true of taxidermists. Nevertheless, a certificate of completion at a qualified taxidermy school goes a long way.
“I’m pretty much self-taught, but that doesn’t mean I don’t continue learning new aspects of taxidermy,” Brian notes. “I tell everyone I’m still a student and always studying, even by watching wildlife and noticing new postures to add to our lineup. If we see a new method to make our work look even better, we’ll take three or four days off for seminars, or even to work side by side with experts. My son Kevin specializes in birds, and he’s spent considerable time with nationally known bird experts to polish his trade.”
Whether a taxidermist mentored under a schooled taxidermist, attended an institution or was self-taught, what’s most important is using proper procedures. For example, tanning of the hide is incredibly important. If a taxidermist does it in-house, ask why this route was chosen over the use of a commercial tannery. References can corroborate the longevity of a taxidermist’s work. Not all commercial tanneries are equally reputable.
Lastly, check with your taxidermist and the state or province’s board of regulations to inquire if licensing is required for a taxidermy business. Be discreet or simply reach out to the state or province, but if licensing is required, be sure your taxidermist is running a legal business. Nothing will ruin your trophy memory more than having a wildlife agency raid your taxidermist’s shop and confiscate your deer for months . . . or forever.
WHITETAIL MOUNT FEES
We all want the best buy possible. That noted, don’t be a penny pincher on something that means as much to you as a deer mount will.
You’ll quickly discover there are numerous garage-based taxidermists willing to mount a buck for under $200. Some might do a good job, but the odds are against it.
“Currently, we charge $695 for a standard deer mount,” Brian says. “That includes finishing the caping off of the skull, tanning, repair of small damage like a bullet hole and completing the artistic work of their trophy. I try to evaluate the trophy when it’s brought in to note any other concerns or added repairs that might require additional time and expense. If I do find something after the fact, my policy is not to charge (for the additional work).”
If you get a good deal, give yourself a high-five — assuming the quality is there. For the most part, expect to pay $500 or more for a good whitetail shoulder mount. The old saying “you get what you pay for” has merit when it comes to taxidermy. That’s why you shouldn’t cringe at a high price if the quality is as good as a Disney animatronics display. The deer should have curb appeal with special attention to the eyes, ears, mouth and nose: basically, the same points you see when you look at your spouse on a daily basis.
Your mount will provide a lifetime of enjoyment, so you want it to be a spectacular work of art. So does your family; they’ll also have to look at it. If your money saving makes them cringe, the mount might not stay on the wall of the family room for longer than one season.
WHEN WILL IT BE DONE?
Most hunters anticipate the arrival of a deer mount more than a new piece of hunting gear. If you discovered a gripe during your reference check, it was likely due to timeliness. Other than poor workmanship, complaints about how long it takes to get a mount back rank high.
Just ask your friends. Nothing’s more frustrating than waiting two or more years for a mount, knowing full well the taxidermist continues to log in additional work every season. I’ve had to wait two or more years for whitetails, and I once waited four years for a black bear hide to be done. I never darkened the doors of those taxidermists again.
The best in the business turn around whitetail mounts in approximately a year. They have to. If they want to run a successful business they need to get the past year’s inventory out the door. If not, the new wave of deer will soon drown them, not to mention the backlash from dissatisfied customers.
“Most of my clients want their mounts back as soon as possible,” Brian notes. “It’s just natural, but hunters who bring their bucks in sooner are first in line. They may get their mount back in a few months, where the last person to bring a deer in for the season might have to wait a year or slightly longer. I try to be honest, and we work steadily to avoid getting behind.”
Taking a trophy buck is a special event in the life of any whitetail hunter. Reliving that moment every time you walk into the room is what it’s all about. That makes a lifelike shoulder mount well worth the time, effort and price.
Learn what you should consider when choosing a shoulder mount or European in Part 2 - Choosing a Whitetail Mount.