How To Field-Prep Your Trophy For Taxidermy

Taking care of your bird, fish or big game animal while in the field will go a long way toward ensuring you have a beautiful mount later on.

A well-mounted trophy, be it a big game animal, bird or fish, can be a work of art, something that can provide the hunter or fisher with many years of refreshed memories and visual enjoyment. But it does not happen by accident. I will forever recall my first trophy, a large black bear. I had little idea of what I was doing. The bear was shot in late spring so the hide wasn’t particularly good but I did manage to salvage the head and that portion of the hide from the shoulders forward. Thankfully, at least I knew enough to freeze it until I could get it to a taxidermist. Unfortunately, this is where I made my next mistake, as I chose a bargain basement part-time taxidermist who actually worked out of his basement. Cheap, yes, but the results were as one should have expected. He had only home cured the hide and within a year the ears began to split, the lips began to pull away from the form and cracks started to appear in the hide. Within two years it was an unsightly mess that, rather than being a fine work of art, now required disposal. That scenario taught me a number of very valuable lessons. To start with, I learned how to properly skin or cape a big game animal. And while this is a critical first step, I unfortunately don’t have the space in this column to provide a detailed description of how to do either but would encourage you, if you don’t know how, to learn from someone who does, such as a professional guide or taxidermist, just as I did. But if you want the best out of your mounts, field prepping or handling of a potential trophy also requires planning and proper handling in the field. This is where I will focus my discussions.

Birds

I will start with what many a hunter may want to include in a growing collection of trophies, and that is a bird such as a ringneck pheasant. In other instances, it may be the only mount a person may ever acquire particularly if one is limited for space to include much else. They brighten up a room no matter where they are displayed and, as such, warrant consideration, especially if it has tail feathers with more bars on them than there are inches on a yard stick. Actually, all birds can be handled essentially the same whether it is a bird the size of a Gambel’s quail or as large as a wild turkey or a greater Canada goose. I will start by suggesting that a badly shot up bird or a very early season bird that has a lot of pin feathers may not make the best of mounts, so be selective. Late season birds that are fully feathered and have their spectacular late season plumage, such as ducks, make far better mounts than birds shot in early fall when their plumage is lackluster and not fully developed. I also like to look for a mature bird that shows its age by its full plumage or by the length of its spurs, which occurs on such birds as wild turkey and pheasants. And in the case of wild turkey, I will add to that the length of its beard. A long beard turkey in a strut pose is nothing short of an impressive mount. You may even want to consider mounting a bird that has special meaning or is rare, as I did, when I harvested the second only recorded (at the time) Black Brant goose in Saskatchewan. In so far as field preparations, here are some simple guidelines:

From the moment you collect the bird, be very careful not to damage its feathers. Don’t just throw it in a pile with other birds or bang it around in the back of your vehicle all day and expect the feathers to remain undamaged. Prevent it from bleeding on its feathers as well. I always carry two products to assist in this process. First are cotton balls, which I push down the bird’s throat in order to prevent it bleeding from its beak or bill and second, a pair of women’s nylon hose into which I slide the bird, beak first. When in place, the nylon hose will align the feathers correctly and keep them flat against the body of the bird, thus protecting them from unwanted damage. In the case of a long tailed bird such as a pheasant, I also like to roll it into corrugated cardboard that is longer than the bird or carefully tape it to a board that is longer than the bird and then get it into a freezer as soon as possible.

Fish

When it comes to fish the process is even simpler especially if you go, as I highly recommend, the replica route. I have a number of old fish skin mounts, but in each and every case the heads eventually shrunk and they also discoloured over time. The heads had to either be replaced with artificial ones or had to be rebuilt and all required repainting. Unfortunately, some are still in that state.

Conversely, all my replica fish mounts look as good today as they did when I first acquired them. Replicas serve a number of purposes. As well as being a fine work of art, they also allow the fisher to release the fish they caught for conservation of what is often a limited and very valuable resource. Many of these big fish are females and removing them from the population can negatively impact future stocks. Additionally, replica mounts are extremely simple as all one needs to do is take the length and girth of your fish and send these measurements, along with a photo of the fish, to a good taxidermist who works with replicas and your work is done. Other than, of course, paying the bill, it is finished. However, if you feel strongly about retaining your fish for a skin mount, it is imperative that you protect its fins. Do this by placing the fish in a plastic bag that is longer and wider than the fish, then when you are satisfied that all the fins are laid back against the body of the fish, roll it so that it wraps  itself into a number of layers of the bag. Then tape-wrap the bag before taping the wrapped fish onto a board that is longer and wider than the fish and then get it into a freezer as soon as possible.

Big Game

While more complex than either birds or fish, some of the same principals apply, so I will start with some general advice on the handling of your animal in the field because, unfortunately, if it is not handled properly, irrevocable damage may occur.

The Don’ts:

  • Don’t drag it against the hair.
  • Don’t drag it with a rope or wire around the neck.
  • Don’t shoot it in the head.
  • Don’t cut its throat.

The Dos:

  • Clean the blood off the cape as best as possible, for example when sheep or goat hunting I would carry a small container of bio-safe liquid dish soap and use it to thoroughly wash the cape in a creek or in a lake to remove all the blood.
  • If you need to drag it, drag it by the horns — or even better on a skid.
  • Cape or skin it as soon as possible.
  • If you don’t intend on salting the cape or hide, get it into a freezer as soon as possible.
  • If you don’t have immediate access to a freezer, bring enough salt to properly field cure the cape or hide. A sheep or deer cape requires about a kilogram and plan on about two kilograms for a full hide whereas a large bear hide, such as an Alaskan brown bear, can take as much as 10 kilograms of salt.

Here are the steps for salting a cape or a hide (and in doing so I have made the assumption that you already have adequately prepared the item for salting — all the fat is removed, that the ears are properly turned and that the lips are sufficiently split and so on.)

  • Lay the cape or hide out on a clean surface and rub salt onto every part of the skinned surface. Pay particular attention to those areas that are thicker such as the lips and paws etc.
  • Fold the cape or hide salted skin to skin.
  • Place it in a cool, sun shaded location for 24 hours.
  • During the first 24 hours, the salt will draw considerable moisture out of the cape or hide so drain it off and repeat the salting and 24-hour curing process. I most often repeat this process three times and then open the cape or hide up in a shaded and well-ventilated location to air dry.
  • Once sufficiently dry, it can be carefully folded or rolled into a burlap bag. Don’t use a plastic bag or an airtight container unless it is headed straight for a freezer. One last bit of advice, if you are in bear country ensure that your most valued cape is stored or cured in a bear safe location. More than a few hunters have lost an all but irreplaceable cape to a bear so don’t be next on the list.

And always remember that the effort and time you spend in the field properly handling or prepping your trophy will repay you with a lifetime of memories at home.

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