When the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, there were 57 attainable merit badges. The first one of the group to be dropped, due to lack of interest, was the taxidermy badge in 1952.
Although millions of scouts worked through the seven ranks during that time, only about 10,000 ever acquired the not-so-coveted taxidermy badge. This spoke volumes to America’s lack of interest in stuffed animals, which was mostly thanks to the industry’s horizontal movement for decades.
Then, in the 1970s, a revival was born when the National Taxidermy Association was formed. Technological advances made at-home taxidermy more attainable, which ignited national competitions, dedicated magazines and devoted schools. Suddenly, taxidermy wasn’t just for museums.
Today, sportsmen create their own museums with skulls and rugs to commemorate their proud harvests and memories. One of the most common forms of this taxidermy is the full shoulder mount, which is often associated with antlered big game.
Hunters who plan on getting a full shoulder mount on an animal they killed usually rely on a professional to create the final masterpiece. However, a hunter’s responsibility for the end product is more than just pulling the trigger.
“On average, each year I have to come up with replacement capes for half of my customers,” said Matt Gonsor, owner of River Valley Taxidermy in Baltic, S.D.
This frustrating truth stems from avoidable mistakes that a lot of hunters make after a successful shot. Bringing in a damaged cape is a downer for your taxidermist — and your wallet.
Follow these rules to keep both in a better mood.
1. Don’t Damage Deer on the Drag
So, you’ve just shot your Booner, and it’s time to get it back to the truck, which just so happens to be one of the best times to ruin a hide.
Never drag your deer by its back legs, which causes large amounts of friction between the ground and the deer’s cape. Drag the buck by its antlers or front legs instead, as dragging a deer “with the grain” of its fur is not only easier in the long run, but it also helps keep the deer’s shoulders, neck and head — the parts used to create a shoulder mount — off the ground.
2. Don’t Mess with the Throat
When it comes to butchering your buck, never hang it by its neck. The stress of the rope on the deer’s hair and hide can cause irreversible damage. Hang it by its back legs instead, but don’t cut the throat to bleed the deer out.
“A good taxidermist can fix a deer that’s been headshot, but not even the best taxidermist can’t use a cape with a 10-inch cut in its throat,” said Josh Neuharth, owner of Western Wildlife Creations in Menno, S.D.
3. Make Cuts under the Skin
Another issue that taxidermists often see is when hunters make cuts from the wrong side of the hide. If you’re caping out an animal, always make your slices from the inside out. This method ensures that there’s no excess hair loss and gives your hide the best look possible.
4. Leave Plenty of Hide
Don’t go through all the work of skinning your buck to only realize that you didn’t leave enough skin around the brisket.
“The most common problem I encounter is people not leaving enough cape on their deer,” Gonsor told me. “My rule of thumb is to start skinning from the middle of the belly and tube skin up as far as you can before cutting off the head.”
5. Wash the Hide, Antlers
A good rule of thumb is that you should present your deer to the taxidermist in the same condition that you want it back — the Golden Rule of taxidermy, so to speak.
To wash a cape, gently scrub it with a damp wash cloth, but never fully submerge it or use chemicals. The same goes for the antlers, although some hunters prefer to leave mud or small pieces of dried velvet attached. Communicate this with your taxidermist if that’s the case.
6. Don’t Salt the Hide
A common misconception is that you should salt the hide if you’re not immediately taking it to the taxidermist. Salting is useful on remote hunts to deter bacterial growth, but prolonged exposure to salt dries out the cape and causes issues for fleshing.
If you do salt the hide, make sure to tell your taxidermist to prevent it from being ruined while in storage.
7. Never Let the Cape Touch Ice
If you’re traveling with your cape in a cooler, absolutely don’t let it come in contact with ice or water.
“Melting ice inside a cooler on a hot day is a breeding ground for bacteria, which can cause hair-slippage with the cape,” Neuharth said. “Keeping your hide cold is a must, but don’t screw it up by letting it get wet.”
8. Beware of Wrinkles
If you’re on the fence about getting a buck mounted, you can keep the cape in your freezer until you make a decision. However, it’s very important that you don’t haphazardly toss it in the ice chest and walk away.
When freezing a cape, never let the skin and hair come in contact with each other. This makes the thawing process less delicate for your taxidermist. Also, make sure that the ears and nose are thoroughly protected for storage.
If you plan to freeze the cape, try this three-step folding method that Neuharth uses on all of the hides brought to him each hunting season:
• Fold 1 (skin to skin): Fold the cape the short way.
• Fold 2 (hair to hair): Fold the cape the long way, with the head extending beyond the brisket.
• Fold 3 (hair to hair): Fold the head back the opposite direction and tuck the nose under.
9. Limit Hide Exposure
Before getting tanned, the hide is an incredibly delicate thing. Throughout the entire process, you should take all measures possible to keep your cape out of the elements. That means don’t let your buck ride on a game rack above the exhaust, and make sure you always double wrap it before placing it in the freezer.
10. Don’t Overdo It
Stop what you’re doing if you’re not confident with the caping or storing process.
Both Gonsor and Neuharth stressed that the best option is to always get your deer to the taxidermist as quickly as possible. Let their surgical hands do the job, rather than your clumsy, excited ones.