The taxidermy displays at the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention draw a crowd every year, for a reason. It’s a really safe bet that most turkey hunters appreciate a quality turkey mount, and some of the most detailed and lifelike turkey taxidermy ever produced can be found at that show. But how do you get that level of expertise in your mount?
First, you pick the right taxidermist. Find someone who specializes in turkeys, ask for references, look at his or her past work, and don’t be afraid to ask questions before dropping off your trophy bird.
But even a champion taxidermist can’t help if you don’t do your part. Proper care in the field will ensure your taxidermist of choice has everything he or she needs to do a top-quality mount.
Tip 1: Nail the Head
© Michael Pendley photo
Toby Roub, owner of Nature Werks Taxidermy in Richmond, Kentucky, says field care of your bird begins before you ever fire the shot.
“So often, hunters bring in birds that have been shot low. No amount of sewing will fix a shotgun blast to the chest, wing area, or back of a turkey. About the only way to repair that is to cut out the damaged section and replace it with a patch from another bird.”
Roub says to be choosy with your shot timing if you plan on mounting the bird. Don’t shoot at a bird while his head is tucked close to his body, or while he is walking straight to or straight away from you with his fan up and displayed. “Try for a head-shot only — but at the same time, don’t wait till the bird is so close that you destroy the head with a super-tight pattern. If the gobbler is walking or strutting with his head tucked in close to his body, yelp or whistle to make him lift his head before pulling the trigger.”
Tip 2: Grime Boss Realtree Wipes
Courtesy Grime Boss
Every feather left in the woods is one that won’t be visible on your mount, so once your bird is down, get to it and try to minimize the flopping as much as possible. Watch for wing and tail feathers in particular. Pick up and save any that come loose after the shot in case your taxidermist can replace them in the finished mount.
After the bird is still, Roub recommends using a damp cloth to wipe away any blood that might be on the head. “Most taxidermists like to use the original head for the mount after it has been freeze-dried and painted,” he says. “Get as much blood off as possible before it dries. Dried blood is harder to remove and can cause discoloration in the finished mount.” A pack of Grime Boss Realtree Wipes is the perfect tool for the job and the soft and lightweight Realtree package easily slips into your turkey vest so the wipes are always at the ready.
Ed Hancock, award winning Certified Master turkey taxidermist and owner of Full Fan Taxidermy echoes Roub’s advice on shot placement and minimizing flopping. “Continuous flopping is like taking sandpaper to the turkey’s feathers,” he says. Immobilizing the bird quickly prevents broken and damaged feathers that will have to be repaired or replaced later. Hancock recommends getting to the bird soon after the shot and either holding the gobbler down to prevent wing movement or picking the bird up (watch out for those sharp spurs!) so that the bird’s wings simply beat air instead of against the ground or underbrush.
Tip 3: Hang Out and Beat the Clock
© Michael Pendley photo
Roub’s next move often surprises hunters. Rather than rush to chill the bird, he prefers to move it to a shady location and allow it to slowly cool and dry a bit before doing anything else. “All too often, hunters will put a freshly killed, still-warm turkey in a plastic bag, seal it up, and stick it in a cooler or a freezer. Those feathers trap a lot of body heat and moisture. Even though the hunter might have the bird in a cool, or even freezing, location, the trapped heat causes the bird to sweat, wetting the feathers and increasing the chance that the skin will start to rot, causing the feathers to loosen,” he says. “Just hang your bird in a shady or cool location for an hour or two to allow some of the body heat to escape and let everything dry off.”
Once the turkey has cooled off a bit, it’s time to get it to the taxidermist or into cold storage. “If you can get the turkey to your taxidermist within six to eight hours from the shot, then do that,” Roub says. “Most taxidermists can skin the bird on the spot and give the hunters the meat.”
If it will be more than eight hours, but fewer than two days before you get to the taxidermist, Roub recommends putting the bird in a refrigerator. “That cools them off and keeps them dry, but they are still able to be skinned right away upon getting to the taxidermy shop. Whole turkeys take up a lot of room in the freezer, so most taxidermists skin them right away.”
Tip 4: Hit the Freezer
© Michael Pendley photo
Will it be more than a day or two before you can take your bird in? Then it’s time to wrap and freeze. Roub’s preferred procedure for preparing a turkey to be frozen starts with the head. Begin by placing a gallon-sized freezer bag over the head. Squeeze out as much air as possible, and secure the bag around the base of the neck with a rubber band, piece of string or a zip tie.
Next, smooth the feathers and wipe away any dried blood, fold the tail down flat, and make sure the wings are in a natural, tucked position at the side of the bird. Slide the turkey into a heavy garbage bag and squeeze out as much air as possible. Some hunters like to double-bag the bird for extra protection. Your turkey is then ready to place into the freezer.
Hancock’s field care advice is similar to Roub’s, but he takes even more precaution by wrapping the bird’s head in a paper towel and securing it with string before then placing the gobbler’s head in a bag. Hancock also likes to see his hunters fold the fan down flat and sandwich it between two layers of cardboard secured tightly with tape before placing it into a garbage bag and then the freezer. The extra steps help prevent blood from soaking the feathers and tail feathers from getting broken, both of which take extra time for the taxidermist to repair. Once the hunter has wrapped the head in paper towels and plastic, then secured the tail between sheets of cardboard, Hancock suggests tucking the head underneath one of the wings, then sliding the entire package into a large garbage bad. Squeeze any excess air from the bag and secure it around the bird with several wraps of masking tape which helps to immobilize the wings while the bird is in the freezer or being transported to the taxidermist. If your bird has to be shipped, Hancock recommends his customers use a sturdy box or plastic tote with newspaper packed tightly around the bird. He suggests shipping the bird “next day air” and prefers his customers ship on a Monday so that the bird doesn’t end up sitting over the weekend.
While your turkey is in the freezer, Roub cautions to make sure it always remains on top. “Don’t pile a bunch of frozen meat on your bird or toss it around,” he says. “You can easily break frozen wings, crush tail feathers, or even mess up the head. Keep the turkey to one side of the freezer, and don’t move it around any more than absolutely necessary.”
Once frozen, turkeys can stay in the freezer for up to, or even slightly more than, a year. “Turkeys have a lot of fat in the skin, and it holds up pretty well to long stretches in the freezer,” Roub says.
Tip 5: Skin Your Own
© Michael Pendley photo
What if you are at turkey camp and have limited cooler space? Or what if, like me, you really want to eat your turkey now, and you can’t wait until a taxidermist skins it out for you? Both taxidermists interviewed prefer to skin the birds out themselves, but Roub says the process for skinning your bird is the same one your taxidermist would use.
Start with an extremely sharp or a replaceable-blade knife, or even a disposable scalpel, available at medical supply stores. The first step is to ring the legs, just at the point where the feathers meet the skin. Lift the feathers up and ring the skin under them so that you don’t cut away any of the small feathers.
Once you have the skin cut where it meets the feathers, make a cut up the inside of one leg, to just in front of the vent, and down the inside of the other leg until you reach the ringed cut on the opposite side.
Carefully start peeling the skin away from the legs, eventually working up the turkey’s body, folding the skin back and inside-out like a sock as you go. Cut underneath the fatty, connective tissue that holds the base of the fan together, and separate the vertebrae in the tailbone. Leave the fan attached to the back of the cape.
When you get to the wings, sever the joint where the wing meets the body. Leave the wing bones inside each wing; just cut through the joint where the drumette portion of the wing attaches to the spine.
Continue peeling the skin up to the turkey’s neck. Once you are above the body and the neck is exposed, cut through the spine, leaving the head attached to the feathers. Fold the skin feather-side out.
You can freeze or refrigerate your turkey skin at this point. As with a whole bird, protect the head by covering it with a freezer bag and securing it with rubber bands or string. Lay the turkey cape on its back, wings outstretched. Fold the fan up and over the belly of the bird. Next, fold both wings in to cover the fan. Finally, fold the head down over the wings. The turkey cape should be in a compact package at this point. Slide the folded cape into a garbage bag, squeeze out excess air, and freeze or refrigerate.
Hancock prefers to skin his birds himself. Once the hunter has wrapped the head in paper towels and plastic, then secured the tail between sheets of cardboard, Hancock suggests tucking the head underneath one of the wings, then sliding the entire package into a large garbage bag. Squeeze any excess air from the bag and secure it around the bird with several wraps of masking tape which helps to immobilize the wings while the bird is in the freezer or being transported to the taxidermist.
Tip 6: Shut Up and Listen
© Michael Pendley photo
You might have your heart set on a strutter or a bird gobbling on the limb, but to get the best-looking mount possible, Roub suggests listening to your taxidermist when it comes to possible poses.
“Your taxidermist will know what poses will look best with your bird. Maybe one side of the cape is messed up or missing feathers, maybe the head looks better from a certain angle, or maybe the bird has missing feathers that are more obvious with certain poses,” he says. “Tell the taxidermist what you want from a mount, then let them suggest the best possible pose to get it.”
Tip 7: Taxidermist Talk
© Michael Pendley photo
Hancock suggests talking with your taxidermist about size and space requirements for a mount. “If space is tight, let your taxidermist suggest different mounting styles and poses that will best fit the space you have for displaying the finished mount. Most people immediately think of full-strut poses when they think of turkey mounts, but there are lots of other poses we can use that will take up less space if that is an issue.”
Hancock also says to listen to your taxidermist when he or she recommends a particular pose to cover up a damaged area of the bird that might not be repairable. “Most of my customers would rather see a quality finished mount with any damage hidden verses getting a pose that leaves that damage in plain view,” he says. Most experienced turkey taxidermists have seen just about everything when it comes to damaged capes and fans, and they will have several ideas on mount styles that will minimize that damage.
If floorspace is at a premium, talk with your taxidermist about different wall mount styles to show off your bird. Hanging mounts, dead mounts, and even roosted birds perched on a limb for realism can all move turkey mounts from the floor to wall space while still posing your bird in a realistic setting.
Ed Hancock, Taxidermist
Photo Courtesy Ed Hancock