Gramp's buck is special. He harvested it on a blustery November morning from his favorite stand in the late 1950's. The symmetrical 4 X 4 rack has an inside spread of 17" and scores 135, Boone & Crockett.
For the last 10 or 12 years of Gramp's life, the antlers hung on a plywood plaque in his three-season porch in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. The antlers drew your eyes like a magnet. They set the standard to measure every buck that relatives or friends harvested.
Because my dad, George, and Gramp hunted together forever, and Dad dragged the buck out to the car along with a heavy buck he shot the same day, no one argued when the antlers were turned over to him after Gramp's untimely death. In my early 20's, Dad passed the torch to me.
I acquired a cape and soon had an impressive shoulder mount. For 20 years the old antlers and new cape caught as much attention as the Alaskan animals I added to my collection of trophies. Then Shawn Lar, from Helena, Montana came along and wrecked everything. Being a taxidermist and perfectionist to boot -he pointed out some flaws in the "perfect" mount. Time was about to play a role in another improvement to the rack.
Gramp probably would've preferred to have a shoulder mount of the buck, but in his day taxidermy was considered a luxury. The process of taxidermy was labor intensive and slow. "Eyes had to be painted by hand," said Shawn. "Most taxidermists did their own tanning, and the results were often inferior compared to what modern tanneries turn out."
An exceptional specimen turned heads 40 years ago like they do today, but hunters had other methods of preserving trophies. A common alternative to shoulder mounts was dousing antlers in high gloss varnish, and that's what Gramp did before screwing the rack onto the homemade plaque. Until Shawn came along, I thought the antlers were doomed to look unnatural. He convinced me to come up with a good cape to replace the faded and oversized one. "Then I'll strip and re-color the antlers back to a natural look," he said.
In 1999, I tagged a mature buck, and the stage was set for a major overhaul. When Shawn was finished with the mount, it looked like a different buck. The varnish was gone, but the antlers maintained the light color that showed through the lacquer for over 40 years. The streamlined shoulder mount brings out the width and height of the rack better than the old form. Shawn put life back into the mount.
I'm left to wonder if I'll ever harvest a buck this impressive. At least I can mutter, "The cape is mine," when admirers ask about the buck. This type of taxidermy opens up all kinds of doors for hunters, trophy collectors, and anyone who finds beauty in an animal mount. Racks and mounts gathering dust can be turned into the centerpiece of your favorite room. Even if you don't hunt, or the piece of the puzzle you're missing resides in mountains thousands of miles away, sources are available to help you acquire what you need.
Taxidermists often have a supply of capes on hand from local animals. Internet sources may provide a rare sheep or moose cape that would've been impossible to find a few years ago. Scores of taxidermists all across the country have web sites.
Perhaps if I'd chosen a taxidermist more carefully 20 years ago, Shawn wouldn't have had to get involved. Picking a taxidermist can be just as important as getting the trophy in the first place. Mike Kuehnast, owner of Animals Taxidermy in Chippewa Falls, has 35 years of experience to back up his thoughts. "Basic taxidermy can be learned with a video, and a few tips from a professional, but apprenticeships are often neglected, and an "instant shop" appears claiming low rates and speedy service," he said.
"Unfortunately, your dream buck may be in for a facelift in five years, and the taxidermist could be out of business by then," Mike added. "Get references, look at their work, and choose quality over price to ensure a one-time expense."
Taxidermy enthusiasts are enjoying the best of times. The ability to preserve a trophy has reached new heights in the past 15 years. The stigma of displaying only remarkable specimens harvested by the owner no longer exists. Beauty is judged by the person who treasures the trophy. A little time and expense may be all you need to turn a dust collector into something special.
For a complete line of taxidermy supplies and information, try Van Dykes Taxidermy, Located in Woonsocket, SD.