So you have the animal of your dreams at your feet! All the long hours of scouting, working out, and practicing with your weapon of choice has paid off. What you do after the high fives and pics are over can make a significant difference in the quality of your future trophy. Depending on where and when the animal hit the ground can determine if a person can take their time skinning or not. But what are some keys to ensuring your taxidermist has a quality specimen to work with? You don’t want to have a nightmare phone call from your taxidermist explaining because of what you did in the field your dream animal will not be gracing your home over the mantle as you had envisioned.
To hopefully avoid a phone call like that, what are some key things a hunter can do to keep their taxidermist happy? I had the privilege of interviewing Hugh Hayden, a highly experienced taxidermist from Arizona. I asked him questions surrounding three main areas: Field Care, Storing your future mount, and if needed Shipping your mount.
So Hugh, how long and what type of taxidermy do you do?
I apprenticed and worked in an award winning professional studio for 13 years. For the last 5 years I’ve been running my own studio. I’m mainly a mammal taxidermist but I have mounted every legally huntable animal in the world. I specialize in small mammals, large cats, and life size taxidermy; however no request is too big or small.
How important is it to get the blood off the hide and keep the inside of the flesh clean?
Very important. Once blood dries it can stain horribly. Hollow haired animals can bloodstain very easily. Blood is almost impossible to remove in the field but if it is at least “cut” with water, it won’t stain. The most practical thing to do is rub the wound with one hand while pouring your water bottle over it. Keeping the skin side of the cape clean is also important. If the fibers fill with dirt and debris, it dries the surface area and locks in the fat and oils, which causes problems in the tanning process.
For a wall mount, how far back on the hide should a person go?
Always stop the belly incision where the final ribs tie into the sternum and then go at least 12” behind that.. A good rule of thumb is a line all the way around the animal, half way between his front and back legs. Your taxidermist would much rather cut off excess leather than have to stretch the skin to make it fit! Short capes are probably the most common mistake, and a big cause of heartache for the hunter!
When fleshing off the skull, what’s the MOST important thing to watch out for?
It’s crucial to get all the skin without any holes. A very sharp knife can make a mistake in a hurry! If a person has time before their hunt, they should ask a local taxidermist if possible to come in and watch how it’s done on a few heads. If in doubt, let your taxidermist do it. However, it really should be learned. If you’re packed, or dropped into an area, it’s handy knowledge to have.
Should a guy leave the antlers on the skull or cut em’ off?
Cut em’! It’s a simple task and your taxidermist will smile if he doesn’t have to discard the skull for you! Some taxidermist like more bone left on the skull plate than others. A safe line of cut is halfway through the eye sockets from the top of the skull downward, and halfway through the eye sockets from the rear of the skull forward. To visualize it, you will be leaving the top back quadrant of the eye socket attached to the skull plate.
*Note: Bone edge and bone saws are sharp. If you are hunting in an area where Chronic Wasting Disease has been found, take caution to not nick or scratch yourself. Removing the skull plate results in contact with the brain, where CWD originates. It doesn’t make you less tough to even carry a handful of latex gloves in your pack. (I hate brains! Not even slightly embarrassed to admit that.)
For a pack out, how should the hide be rolled up?
Fold skin to skin and roll with the head inside. For lifesize trophies, fold arms, head, and tail to the center then roll it up. My stock answer really for any question on field care is this; treat your trophy with as much care as you treat the meat. You wouldn’t drag the tenderloins in the dirt or lay them in the sun, so don’t do it to the head or skin. You wouldn’t buy a gorgeous porterhouse steak and throw it in the back of your truck to show all your buddies for three days! Your taxidermist doesn’t want to smell your elk before he sees it!
Packing this hide out is “extra” weight so I toss it in the bushes halfway to the truck, how easy is it to get a replacement hide? How much can that choice cost me?
Well Clint, some folks buckle under the strain. I say make one trip to the truck and march back and pick up your hide! For a mature, tanned mule deer cape, it is going to cost between $200-250. Tanned elk capes are currently priced between $400-600 depending on size. Some capes are impossible to find or you’ll pay a pretty penny to get one. Desert bighorns, if you can find one, can reach into the 5 digit mark. Remember too, no taxidermists have stock capes when you are in need of one! Bite the bullet and pack it out. Also, a lot of taxidermist are willing to buy your cape if you don’t intend to have your trophy mounted or they may trade you a skull mount for your skin.
Should a guy salt and flesh out the hide once back to camp or not?
It takes quite a bit of salt to do the job properly, and a few specialized tools to make it an easy job. So you really need to weigh the pros and cons. If the weather is cool and you’re less than a day away from a freezer, I would suggest not going through the hassle. Again, it wouldn’t hurt to ask your taxidermist for a lesson on this topic. Be willing to pay him for his time or volunteer a weekend of helping with some raw work. I had a client who was flown out to the tundra for a caribou hunt. He had a trophy bull on the ground the first morning, and the pilot wasn’t expected back for 6 more days. He had chosen to take a few pounds of salt, (the bare minimum) and a few fleshing tools. His decision saved the cape. Weigh the options.
What are the most common but avoidable mistakes a guy could fix in the field to really help out with how their trophy will look on the wall?
Again, just thinking things through and taking as much care of the trophy as you would the meat. The hunt is over. You’ve got nothing but time now. Clean the blood, wipe the nose, put the tongue back in the mouth, pose the animal and get some great trophy photos. Then make some decisions. Am I going to mount this? Do I want a pedestal mount? Should I lifesize him? Let your answers then dictate your next steps. I often hear things from customers like, “Well my knife was too dull or too sharp. It was dark. My lantern was fading.” I then call for a “finger check” and ask them how was the lantern so dim, the knife so sharp, the night so dark, that you made swiss cheese of your animal but not one cut on your hands? If you can skin an animal without wrecking yourself, you can skin an animal without wrecking it! Some thought before each knife stroke will make you and your taxidermist smile!
What’s the best way to store the hide and skull once you’re back home?
On the pack out, rolling the head to the center protects the face from the sun, rope or bungee rubbing, etc when you get home it should be re-rolled with the head out. Double or triple bagged in plastic and frozen asap. Everyone wants to show their buddies, but resist the urge. Especially on early bull hunts or late spring bear hunts where the weather is warm. If your buddies wanna see your animal make them meet you at your house. Or, depending on what kind of buddies they are, make them meet you down at the corner!
If a guy is going to do a European Mount, how should it be stored?
If you’re going to boil the skull yourself try to do it immediately. If it can’t be done immediately, get the big stuff cut off, i.e. jaw, tongue, eyeballs, pallet and keep it in the shade. If you’re in a very rural area, put it where domestic dogs or scavengers could not damage it. It doesn’t take long for a critter to pack off a skull!
How long will a hide last in the freezer?
If it’s wrapped well, it can last more than a year. The biggest concern will be freeze drying. Ask your taxidermist if it can be tanned for the time being until you can have the mount completed at a later date. Once tanned, re-hydrated by the taxidermist, and re-frozen they can last indefinitely. If you know, for whatever reason, that its going to be an extended period of time before the mount is completed, offer to store your tanned skin in your own freezer. This will really make your taxidermist smile! We all know how precious freezer space is. We’ve all kicked something to make it fit or rearranged all the shelves or eaten that 7 year old corn dog so the freezer door seals shut!
Could I save a bunch of money by trying to tan the hide myself?
Not really. Skins come out of the tanning process as stiff as a board. Leather isn’t soft until it is tumbled, which is almost an impossible process to do at home. If you’re a handy type of person, it can be a fun hobby, but study up on it first, and start on something that has no sentimental value, or something that is easily replaced...like the neighbors dog, or a coyote.
What are the most common but avoidable mistakes a guy could fix in terms of storage to really help out with how their trophy will look on the wall?
Again, don’t do to a skin anything you wouldn’t do to a porterhouse!
Shipping Your Trophy
If I’m shipping my trophy to my favorite taxidermist, how should I package everything?
Call your favorite taxidermist and ask me for shipping instructions! The process can vary. I ask that customers buy a thick styrofoam ice chest and tape it up like mad. If there is room to wrap fiberglass wall insulation around the hide inside the ice chest, that is a good idea. For shipping the antlers, I suggest sliding a piece of garden hose over each antler point and cutting the hose 3-4” beyond the end of the point. This protects the points and keeps them from stabbing through the cardboard box.
Should I have my local taxidermist do some prep work to make the process easier before shipping?
That’s hard to answer. If your local taxidermist isn’t going to be commissioned for the project, it’s kind of offensive in a sense to ask him to do the dirty work just to send it to another shop. If that is your intentions, use some tact, and be willing to be on the generous side with the gratuities. I have felt the sting of boxing up hides and sending them to a different studio. It happens. But some hunters make a habit of it, and the taxidermist doesn’t smile much! I should note though, that taxidermists who work in areas that see lots of non-resident hunters are used to doing the preliminary tasks and sending the trophy back to the hunters home state. Most shops are very willing to help with this. If you’re a nonresident hunter, don’t be afraid to ask a local taxidermist to prep your animal for transport, or even send it to a tannery with the address of your taxidermist back home. Just respectfully remember that his time is as valuable as yours.
Can the USPS take care of the process or should I use FedEx/U.P.S.?
Best thing to do is call for shipping quotes and call your favorite taxidermist for instructions. Shipping costs can vary greatly! I would not suggest any of the major shipping companies over another. They are all good and offer affordable insurance on all items. After almost 20 years in the business, I have only seen two insurance claims and neither were the fault of the shipping company. But ask what their guarantee is on shipping time. ie, does overnight really mean overnight? Does 2-day ground ever roll into 6 days!
What are the most common but avoidable mistakes a guy could fix in terms of shipping to really help out with how their trophy will look on the wall?
The only thing I could say is to never ship on any day but a Monday. If it is raw, make sure it is frozen solid and well insulated. A hunter sent us a bison from Hawaii. That doesn’t sound right does it? But he shipped it mid week and it landed on a loading dock in Los Angeles and sat there over the weekend. It’s hot in Honolulu. It’s even hotter in L.A. By the time the box got to us, I had to empty the FedEx truck in the driveway, and hose out the entire truck. Again, your taxidermist doesn’t want to smell your trophy before he sees it!