With Cam Johnson - Wild Things Taxidermy
Once you have your trophy on the ground, a lot of people want to dress or gut the animal. Utilising the meat is always a good idea, but you must ensure that you do this in a way that will not damage the head-skin. Making sure you don’t cut too far forward is critical; you need to make sure you do not go past the brisket or sternum bone on a shoulder mount cape. This is particularly important on fine-haired species like hog deer and chital, as any stitches are very hard to hide if the cut goes too far forward into the neck area. In the case of a life sized deer mount, its best to check with your taxidermist how he or she would like to cape removed, as sometimes it’s easier to cape it before gutting has occurred. Always make sure to keep the area clean and wipe as much blood and gut content off the cape as you go; the latter on a cape is asking for hair slip.
Plan Your Mount Style
Before you start your caping job, it is essential that you take into consideration some important points, such as the style of mount you would like.
Shoulder mounting is probably the most popular of the mount styles, and for this the traditional caping method is the most popular. A mid body cut and straight line cut down the back of the neck gives your taxidermist enough skin to play with.
Wall pedestal mounting is gaining in popularity with the ever increasing availability of manikins. More and more Australian taxidermists are doing these mounts now. They usually feature more of the shoulder which in the case of spotted deer like chital and fallow, really shows off more of the animal. They are also a great option for any of our species, especially the bigger ones like sambar and red deer to really show the size of these animals. Often wall pedestal mounts will include some habitat which really adds to the realism of the work. Caping for this mount style requires some pre planning, and the mid-body cut around the animal is not appropriate; immediately in front of the back legs is suggested. The legs can be socked and the backline cut is the same as with the shoulder mount.
Life-size and half life-size mounts are extremely popular with the smaller, hard to obtain trophies like hog deer. They are a really impressive life-sized mount, but really any of the species can make a spectacular mount. It really is a case of how far you want to go with these mounts, with the only limitations being enough room to house them, and enough money to pay for them. A cheaper option is a half life-sized mount, being more expensive than a shoulder mount, but taking up far less room than a full life-size. As the caping of a life-sized deer is a big job, it’s often best to take it to your taxidermist and let him or her do it after a discussion on the style and position you would like. If you would like to have a go yourself, make sure you consult with your taxidermist prior to starting.
Tools for the Job
Caping a trophy requires you to have several tools handy to ensure the job runs smoothly. Obviously a knife is needed, but be sure that the knife you use is suited to the job. A large bladed skinning/gutting knife is not what you want here. A small sharp skinning knife that is easy to keep sharp is what is required, along with a steel or some type of sharpening device to keep the edge straight. As well as a sharp skinning knife, I like to use a scalpel, or one of the scalpel knives that are on the market to do the Y incision behind the antlers. Another must-have is a small flat head screw driver to lever the skin away from the coronets. Always try and use a screw driver instead of a knife or scalpel, it does a much better job with less chance of making cuts in the skin. Finally, if you are going to cape the trophy out completely including the face, you will need a set of ear pliers to turn the ears. Again, scalpels, knives, spoons and fingers are not the preferred way of turning ears; pliers do the fastest and cleanest job.
Planning and Executing Your Cuts
Before you put a knife into your trophy, you also need to take into account any skin damage and bullet holes. A large bullet exit hole in a visible place can sometimes be the difference between a life-size mount and having to settle for a shoulder mount.
For the sake of this discussion we will concentrate on the basic cuts for a shoulder mount. The first cut to make is around the body of the deer about midway between the front and back legs. Be careful not to cut too deep and puncture the stomach when doing this cut. Your next cut is a straight line from the middle of the neck behind the antlers, through the top of the shoulders, eventually meeting up with the cut around the body. Where possible, try and get your trophy onto its belly and get its neck out as straight as possible. This will ensure you get the cut down the neck straight.
The next cuts are to the legs. The older way of doing this is to ‘sock’ around the leg rather than a straight cut up the back of the leg. Either way is fine, and in most cases your taxidermist will cut the legs even if you have socked them. The cut up the back of the leg then goes in a direct line to the cut around the body. You need to take note of the picture provided as a cut too low here affects the brisket area on the mount.
Once these initial cuts are made you can start working away at the skin, using small cuts while trying to leave as much meat on the carcass as possible. The more meat you leave on the carcass means less work for you in the fleshing process before salting. As you move closer to the head, keep in mind that any cuts in the neck and throat area are hard to hide, so slow as you go. Once you have removed the cape up to the back of the head, you can either cut the head off and take the head and cape to a taxidermist to finish, or keep the head and cape cool and get it done once the deer has been processed.
Keep in mind you won’t want to leave the final caping stage too long in warmer weather. When cutting the head off the neck, locate the vertebrae that connects to the skull and cut between them with your knife. Once you have cut around the neck and separated the vertebrae, the head should come off with a good twist.
As far as the face is concerned, it is a slow and careful skinning job down towards the eyes and pre orbital glands, being particularly careful at the back of the eye. I like to put my finger in the eye socket and ‘feel’ the knife, being very careful not to cut myself. Once you get to the pre orbital glands, use the screw driver again to lever them out of their spot, using the screw driver means less chance of an unwanted cut in this area. When you get to the mouth, open it as far as you can and make your cut along the gum line as close to the bone as possible. Work on skinning the lips and free up the skin towards where you stopped after the pre-orbital glands. Next comes removing the nose through the cartilage up to the nasal bone on the skull. Once you get this far, the skin will be nearly off, and you can slowly work the remaining skin until it is all free.
Splitting the Eyes/Lips and Salting Your Skin
You have probably all heard about splitting the lips and eyes but probably don’t know why it is so important. If you don’t split these areas, salt cannot penetrate as there is fleshy meat not exposed. It is critical that this happens or the chance of epidermis and eye lash slippage is great. Using your small skinning knife, create a pocket in the top of the ear so you can insert the ear pliers. Working them from side to side and back and forth, you will be surprised how quickly and easily the ears can be turned. The lips and nose need to be split also, and any flesh removed.
Once the cape is clean of flesh, you can lay it on a flat surface and apply salt, but only if all the above steps have been done. If you cape to the back of the head and don’t do the face, it is better to freeze the lot as it is. Using a fine grade salt will make the salting process go faster, as it draws moisture out very quickly and protects it from bacterial attack. I like to salt the skin once, let it sit for 24 hours, shake that salt off and apply another layer of salt and let that sit for another 24 to 48 hours. I then shake the second lot off, apply another light layer and hang the cape over a beam to air dry. After you have done your second salting it is fine to get it to your taxidermist. Don’t salt your cape once and roll it up in a hessian bag, salt will not stay where you want it and areas will be missed. Flat on the concrete is the way to go.
Remember, your taxidermist will appreciate getting your cape salted when you drop your trophy off. They can do all of the above caping, turning and salting steps for you, but it will be at an added cost. With practice you can save yourself some money and have the satisfaction of contributing to the end result.