You are perched on a tree stand or hidden in a blind. Your hands are shaking. Your heart is pounding. You feel a little sick to your stomach and fear that your chest will explode. You’ve just put an arrow through the boiler room of a huge buck and watched him bound out of sight. You know he’s yours, but you fight the urge to immediately begin searching for him.
After a torturous hour that feels like an eternity, you get on the blood trail. The arrow is on the ground right where the buck stood when you took the shot, a complete pass-through. The blood trail starts strong and then gradually diminishes. By the time you’ve followed it for 80 yards, you’re struggling to find small specks of crimson that lead through brushy cover. Was the hit as good as you thought it was?
You’re so intent on looking for crimson specks that you practically step on the buck before you see him. One of his big antlers juts high above the ground. Your heart and hands start doing funny things all over again.
You’ve finally dropped the whitetail of a lifetime and you know just where you want to display the mount in your trophy room. However, there’s a huge difference between an exquisite mount you can enjoy for decades and an inferior mount that doesn’t do justice to your trophy.
To help you achieve your goal of an exceptional whitetail mount, Jeff Morris of Big River Taxidermy in Lansing, Iowa, offered tips and insights that you should give serious consideration. An award-winning taxidermist, Morris has been in business full-time since 1997. He lives in the heart of some of the best trophy whitetail hunting in the country and mounts about 200 whitetail heads annually, including many record-book bucks.
Choosing a Taxidermist
Once the cape and antlers have been properly cared for, you must choose a capable taxidermist. Don’t assume for a second that one taxidermist is as good as another. Taxidermy is a mixture of science and art. The best in this field are dedicated to their craft and want their mounts to do justice to the animal. They also have gifts that some people are born with but most are not.
If you’re serious about getting a quality mount for your prized trophy whitetail, don’t start out by looking for the taxidermist who charges the least amount for his work.
“Price should be the last thing on your mind,” Morris said. “The first priority is the quality of the work.”
Although Morris is a full-time taxidermist, he believes there are part-time taxidermists who do good work. If you’re considering a part-timer, that person should have taxidermy awards to demonstrate their ability, Morris stressed. Morris has many such awards.
“I’ve taught a lot people taxidermy over the years,” Morris said. “Some people just can’t do it. Your mind has to interpret what it’s looking at properly, and your hands have to be able to do what your mind wants them to do. It’s an innate ability. A lot of people don’t have that.”
Morris’ standard fee for a whitetail mount is $500. He claims that $300 to $650 is typical of what taxidermists charge in the Midwest. Bear in mind that this fee is for a standard wall mount that could be one of several poses. There will be additional charges if you want a pedestal mount, special plaques and scenery or a deer that features an open mouth, which takes more skill and time.
“My clients range from millionaires to hunters that can hardly afford to have a deer mounted,” Morris said.
Morris could charge more for his work, but he would lose so many clients that he couldn’t maintain a livable income. His $500 fee is low enough to keep him busy, yet high enough that he can pay his bills.
“To make a living at this you have to be good and you have to be fast,” Morris said.
Morris may be fast, but given the number of whitetails heads he mounts each year, he must finish them pretty much in the order that he receives them. His turnaround time is six to 14 months. Quality work takes time, even for someone as experienced as Morris.
To excel at mounting whitetails, you must study the animal, especially live whitetails, to understand their expressions and how their facial muscles work, Morris pointed out. Morris doesn’t claim to be an expert hunter, but he often sneaks away from his taxidermy shop during the bow season to hang out in trees. He has observed countless whitetails in the wild over the years with a taxidermist’s critical eye. His biggest buck to date scores in the mid-150s.
“Studying live deer really helps, which is why I’ve had a live buck in a pen in my front yard for 13 years,” Morris said. “It’s my reference deer. The best his rack has ever been is maybe 125.”
It’s unlikely that you have examined the features of live deer while hunting as carefully as Morris has done and even less likely that you have a penned deer in your front yard. Then again, if you use trail cameras, you probably have photos of whitetails to scrutinize. Some of them may be of a trophy buck you hope to someday display on your wall.
There are also countless photos of live deer in magazines and on the Web that you can examine to learn what a lifelike mounted head should look like. Refer to these when you check out the heads done by taxidermists that you may be considering for your mount.
“The gateway to a good mount is the eyes,” Morris emphasized. “They should be bright, clean and have an expression that matches the pose of the deer. They should be the proper shape and have no shrinkages around them.”
The cape should be symmetrically placed on the underlying form. A dead giveaway to a poor mount is when the white patch and brisket are not centered where they should be. You might think this is a rare blunder, but Morris claimed that “it happens a lot.”
The ears are also critical to a good mount, Morris stressed. The edges of the ears should be straight and crisp, not wavy. The hair patterns on the ears should be correct. And the ear placement, shape and positioning must be right.
“A lot of taxidermist don’t shape the ear butt muscle properly,” Morris said. “It takes most people a long time to learn how to make that look like the small muscle groups on a live deer.”
A more egregious error with the ears is placing them too low on the head or too close to the antlers. The ears must be located in just the right spot or the mount will not look right.
Beyond this, the eyes, ears and head posture must work together to create a lifelike expression. A good taxidermist can vary the mount’s attitude to match what you want. Consider having the head mounted to replicate the attitude of the buck when it presented itself to you in bow range. Was it sneaking along looking for mischief? Was it bold, aggressive and out for trouble? Was it on high alert and ready to bolt? A mount that matches whatever the buck’s mood was will remind you of the moment of truth.
A great place to study whitetail mounts and find a capable taxidermist is at a sport show where many mounts are on display. An excellent example is the annual Ohio Deer & Turkey Expo, typically held in March in Columbus, Ohio. Among the many things on display here are scores of trophy whitetail heads that have been entered in a trophy deer contest.
At an event such as this you can see plentiful examples of taxidermy that range from inferior to exceptional. When you see work that you like, you should have little trouble getting contact information for the taxidermist that mounted the head.