By Michelle Webb
By now you’ve probably bought a couple of the latest gadgets, filled feeders, planted food plots, hung stands, cleared shooting lanes, made sure all of your stuff was scent-free in anticipation of finally getting a chance at ‘the big one.’ You’ve gone over and over your lists and you are sure you have overlooked nothing before opening day, or have you?
What happens when you finally do have all your hard work come to fruition? You’re so excited you want to show the world. You take tons of pictures to preserve the moment and drive all around town sharing your excitement. Usually the first question you are asked is, “Are you going to have that mounted?” In most instances the answer is yes or something really close to that. Although many of us are taught how to prepare our game when we learn to hunt, rarely are we taught how to first preserve our trophy for a taxidermist so that they can capture the memory of the hunt forever.
It is a good idea to add checking into a taxidermist to your to-do list. You can either visit someone’s shop to see their work or ask someone you know for good references. You can also contact a taxidermist to come up with a plan ahead of time for when you do make your harvest. This way they can give you specifics on how you need to preserve it.
The following are some pretty basic ways of prepping your deer or other large game animals for a shoulder mount. First wipe off all blood and other fluids off the hair or fur. Bacteria is NOT your friend and anything you can do ahead to preserve your animal’s hide is paramount. Next you want to make an incision around the belly (see photo). It is fine to go ahead and field dress your game, but do NOT cut up into the brisket area. You will make your incision all the way around the belly of the animal a couple of inches behind the front legs. Always cut from the inside or the skin side and not the hair side. Now cut the hide around both front elbows. You don’t have to worry about cutting from the inside here, this is just to ensure that you have plenty of hide for your mount. Better to have too much than not enough! Next, cut from the underside of the elbow straight down to the belly incision. Carefully skin your specimen working the skin down around to the head. Try to be careful and not make any unnecessary holes. Skin all the way up to the base of the skull and then cut the neck leaving about 4 inches of the neck behind the skull. This allows for better measurements and making your animal true to what it was.
Now for those of you who want to cape out your own game, there are some further instructions for you. Instead of stopping at the base of the skull, you will continue skinning until you are at the base of the ears. You want to cut the ear butts as close to the skull as possible. Sometimes it is necessary to flip the hide back over just to check where you are before making that cut. Once you have confirmed you are in the right place, cut the ear butts loose from the skull. With the ear butts now loose it will be easier for you to now make your Y-incision. Being very mindful of your fingers, use your knife to puncture the hide from the inside or skin side of the center of the back of the neck between the ears. Now that you have your cut started you can finish from the outside or hair side. Holding the hide taut and using your knife, cut the skin side down about 3-4 inches from your initial puncture. Now still with your knife cutting from the inside take your incision up to the middle of the back of each antler bur. Now comes the tricky part, cutting around the burs. Most people have a tendency to put their knife on the outside and just go to cutting. This results in loss of hair and a natural look to your mount. Take your knife and with it inside next to the bur, rock it gently cutting up towards the bur releasing the hide. This is thicker than just normal skin tissue. Just be careful and go slow. Once you have released one bur, move to the next in the same fashion. Once both burs have been released you can now finish skinning out the head. Skin the rest of the head out cutting as close to the skull as possible. Whether you skinned your animal up to the neck or decided to cape it out, when you are done fold the hide skin to skin, roll it up and place it in 2 sealed bags. This helps prevent freezer burn which can greatly damage a hide. If you chose to cape out your animal, next you will need to cut off the antlers (see picture).
If you happen to want smaller game such as a bobcat, coyote, raccoon, etc. for a nice display piece then your care will be relatively the same. You will want to wipe any blood or fluids from the hair or fur. You will NOT make any incisions. These specimens will be kept whole and taken to your taxidermist. Cool the animal as soon as possible without getting it wet. Place your animal and tuck the legs and tail inside if you can. Double bag.
If you happen to be a bird hunter, here are some tips for you. Again, wipe any blood or fluids from the feathers in the direction of the feathers. Let the body cool down. Tuck the head underneath a wing. Stick it in an old stocking (pantyhose) with the end tied off head first. After you get it in, tie off the other end. Double bag.
Finally for all the fisherman/women, whether you have caught a fish of a lifetime or a young’un has caught their first and wants to preserve the moment, nothing is too big or too small. To prepare your fish you need to wet a towel and wrap your fish whole. Double bag. Of course an alternative for all you catch and release conservationists, there is the option of having your catch preserved in a different method. The new trend in conservation is having a fiberglass replica made to reflect your catch. If this is your preferred method then after the catch but before the release, you need to take a couple of pictures and get measurements. For your replica to be exact you will need a weight and you need to measure the length and the girth of the fish. This is the information that your taxidermist will need. Please do this quickly and try not to handle the fish to much to ensure that it will thrive once again after the release.
Whatever your prize memory that you want preserved is, make sure the body has cooled down and after double bagging, immediately put your game in your freezer or take it to your taxidermist. If along the way you accidentally made a cut where you shouldn’t have, broke a tine off an antler or something just wasn’t quite right, your taxidermist may be able to take care of it for you. Someone once taught me that “almost anything can be fixed.” But the sportsman or woman needs to realize that their taxidermist is only as good as the sportsman who takes care of his game. Remember always make sure your games is legal and properly tagged.
Taxidermy is much more than just an old deer head hanging on the wall. With all the latest methods mounts are becoming more and more realistic and you can even add a little habit scene fitting for your surroundings or with your preferred game to make it even more realistic. Taxidermy has become quite an art form. Good luck this hunting season and go make some memories in the field.
Michelle Webb is Taxidermist and Shooting Staff Member at Shoot Like A Girl. You can read more about Michelle in the Pro Staff section of our website at WWW.ShootLikeAGirl.com