Gerald Almy: How to care for deer bound for taxidermist

Gerald Almy

How you handle a deer you harvest can play a large role in determining the quality of mount you get back from the taxidermist. Follow these tips from award-winning taxidermists Lewis Lee, of Plains, Virginia, Bradley Patton, of Patton’s Taxidermy in Woodstock, and Lee Fleming, of Bear Ridge Taxidermy in Maurertown.

An attractive deer mount on the wall can bring the joy and memories of a hunt back year-round, even when the late winter snow flies or searing summer heat makes it seem like hunting seasons are years away.

But each year after they’ve enjoyed a successful hunt and decided to invest in a mount, many hunters find they have not taken the proper steps needed for the taxidermist to create an attractive shoulder mount.

“Hunters need to realize that the taxidermist is not a magician,” says Lewis Lee, who works with his brother and son in the Plains, Virginia. “He can’t overcome spoiled hides, capes cut too short, drag marks, and slit throats.”

Plan ahead

Lee suggests thinking about whether you might mount the animal before you even pull the trigger or release your arrow. “Don’t shoot an animal in the neck or head. Instead, aim behind the shoulder.” Head or neck shots create a situation that is almost impossible for the taxidermist to completely repair.

Don’t ‘bleed’ the deer

“Far too many capes are damaged this way,” says Lee Fleming. “If the deer is alive enough that you need to cut its throat, it’s dangerous to be approaching that close with a knife. If it’s not, there’s no reason to do it. The deer will bleed sufficiently from the arrow or bullet.”

Field dressing

Roll the deer on its back and make one cut up the underside of the animal from the center between the hind legs to a point a few inches below the middle of the front legs. Never extend this cut all the way to or beyond the front legs. Knives with “gutting hooks” are handy for this purpose.

Try to get as little blood on the hide as possible. Then drain it, prop a stick in the body cavity to allow air to circulate, and let the animal cool down.

Transporting the deer

Never drag an animal by the hind legs, as this can damage the hair by pulling it against the grain. When Fleming drags a deer out of the woods, he ties the front legs up around the antlers and pulls it with the rope and handle held up high. That way none of the shoulder or neck hair that will be on the mount is damaged.

If you put it in the back of a pickup truck, cover it up with a tarp to avoid exposure to dust, sun, and wind. Then transport it to your home or the taxidermist’s shop as quickly as possible.

If you’d rather hang the animal to age for a few days, that’s fine if temperatures are cool enough. But it will be harder to skin the longer you wait, especially if the weather turns extremely cold.

If possible, the best bet after field dressing is to take the whole animal to the taxidermist. Most are willing to skin it out for you so they make sure they get all of the cape required for a quality mount. There may be a small extra charge for this.

Skinning and caping

If you decide to skin the animal yourself be aware that many hides are ruined for quality shoulder mounts by cutting them off too far forward on the deer. Lee Fleming says to cut along the center of the animal at the backside of the deer’s front legs.

“Cutting along the front of the legs does not give the taxidermist enough hide to work with.”

Lewis Lee recommends skinning the entire animal and taking the whole hide to the taxidermist. This saves making an extra cut around the middle of the deer.

Bradley Patton recommends not trying to cape out the face of the deer “unless you are experienced and skilled at this delicate task. Instead, cut the head off at the neck after you skinned it down close to the base of the skull.”

Care of the hide

Fold the hide flesh-to-flesh and store the head and deer skin in a cooler or refrigerator for up to two to three days, or freeze it if you can’t get to the taxidermist that quick.

Leaving the deer skin and head lying around is a sure way to ruin it for a mount. “Blood, dirt, and moisture make a cape and head a perfect place for bacteria to grow if you don’t cool it down,” says Fleming. “Once bacteria begin to grow, the hair will slip and the cape is ruined.”

Final choice

When I took a deer to Bradley Patton a few years ago he made me aware of one final decision you have to make when you have a deer mounted for the wall.

“What direction do you want it to face?” he asked. That’s important, since you don’t want a magnificent trophy looking away from people entering or sitting in a room. You want it looking towards them. Straight ahead is usually a poor choice since it doesn’t show the beauty of the deer off as well and looks stiff. Think about these choices before you drop your deer off.

The reward

Take the proper care of your deer from the moment you pull the trigger or release an arrow and a taxidermist can turn it into a mount that will bring back the memories of your hunt with just a quick glimpse any time you look at it during the long off season.

Few pleasures are sweeter than that–except perhaps the experience of the hunt itself!

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.