Follow along on Josh’s exciting, once-in-a-lifetime archery mountain goat hunt in Utah. Watch as he gets it done on opening day!
Follow along on Josh’s exciting, once-in-a-lifetime archery mountain goat hunt in Utah. Watch as he gets it done on opening day!
I never felt so tired! It was 4:30am on the nineteenth morning of my Utah bow hunt. Whenever I lied down to sleep my mind swirled with strategies to outsmart the giant, velvet-clad buck I called “Big 5.” But he always managed to stay one step ahead of me.
I spotted Big 5 on the fourth day of the deer hunt. He was feeding in a thick, oak brush-covered hillside, and I raced to get ahead of him in the fading evening light. Just as I was closing in, the wind shifted and blew him out of the canyon. I spent the next week searching surrounding canyons and exploring other parts of the unit, but couldn’t turn him up. Although I saw plenty of other bucks, none compared to the amazing Big 5. At that point I decided to devote the rest of the season to hunting this one buck.
Just before dark on the twelfth day, Big 5 reappeared in the canyon where I first saw him. There wasn’t enough light for a stalk, but I returned to camp with newfound hope.
My mind buzzed with excitement as I lied in bed anticipating the morning stalk. But wouldn’t you know it, over night a great herd of elk moved in and pushed all the deer out. I spent the next three days searching for him, but to no avail.
During this time I joined forces with two elk hunters—Brian and Mike—who were hunting in the same general area. We had an agreement: I would keep tabs on any big bulls, and they would keep an eye out for Big 5.
Just when I was beginning to lose hope, Mike spotted Big 5 crossing into the canyon at dark on the fourteenth evening. The next morning I sneaked into the deer’s primary feeding area, but ended up busting him out again while still-hunting through the thick and noisy oak brush. This was the lowest point of my hunt.
Bowhunting is a low-odds venture to begin with; things don’t work out most of the time. As a rule, bowhunting success comes from having multiple opportunities, and the fastest way to limit your success is by hunting for one deer exclusively.
To keep hope alive, I wrote a list of positive affirmations in my hunt journal. Of particular note was a reminder that not only do I have 27 years of bowhunting experience under my belt, but I’ve been down this road before: Hunting for just one deer. Only this time was different. I didn’t have three years to get the job done!
Hope returned on day 16 when I discovered a new buck—a massive, old, wide-racked 4×4 I called the “Tank”—in an adjacent canyon. He wasn’t as impressive as Big 5, but the longer I watched him the more I fell in love. He was a magnificent deer, and if nothing else he served as a good backup. The season was half-way over after all, so I was relieved to have another target on my very short list.
So you can imagine my disappointment when, the very next morning, I found that Tank and Big 5 had joined forces! They were now feeding together—along with a few smaller bucks—in the bottom of the canyon where it all started. And just like that, all my eggs were in one basket: Bust one, bust ‘em all.
Desperate to make a stalk, I threw down my glass, picked up my bow and scrambled to the bottom of the steep, aspen-choked canyon. But just as I was closing in, the wind changed and blew one of the smaller bucks out of his bed. I turned and backed out immediately to avoid further damage.
The next morning, in complete darkness, I snuck to the bottom of the canyon hoping to get in front of the bucks before first light. But once again my plans were foiled when I glassed up the bucks feeding at the top of the canyon! As morning dragged on, the bucks side-hilled out of view and disappeared. Once again they stayed one step ahead of me.
By day nineteen I was at wits end. At some point during the restless night I hatched a plan to get ahead of the bucks. I knew from experience that big bucks get big by being unpredictable. So if they fed at the top of the canyon yesterday, perhaps they’d be at the bottom today. Again, in the cover of darkness I dropped down the canyon. And wouldn’t you know it, the bucks stayed high! This time, however, I wasn’t letting them out of my sight.
Immediately I ascended the aspen ridge between us, and then watched as all three deer—Big 5, Tank, and a smaller 3-point—fed along the ridge top and eventually bedded beneath a couple big pine trees. I pulled out my notebook and drew a diagram of the bedding area, noting landmarks that I could use during the stalk. But first I’d have to wait for the thermals to stabilize.
I returned to camp and was just about crawling out of my skin waiting for the south winds to prevail. Finally, at noon I set out on a low-odds stalk towards the bucks, knowing that one false move could blow the bucks out forever. Surely they were growing weary of my chase.
The midday sun beat down on my face as I crested the ridge fifty yards above the bedded bucks, but thick oak brush obscured my view. Must get closer.
Hot, south crosswinds carry away my scent and the sound of my footsteps amongst the loose gravel on the hillside that grows steeper with each step. A frightened chipmunk shrieks and scurries away. I freeze for a minute, then take a range from the lower limbs of one of the trees: 45 yards. I slowly load an arrow and continue forward. Everything must be perfect now.
Each footstep is timed with the occasional gust of wind or the raspy sound of flying grasshoppers. I take another range: 35 yards. I wince as the wind continually dips down, then rises again. My heart-beat quickens; sweat beads up across my face. I take another step and look up again. Fuzzy antlers are suddenly bobbing through the oak brush. Big 5 is up and feeding, but only his head is visible.
I slowly raise my bow and scan ahead for a shot window. The situation unfolds in strange contrast: the natural world flows lazily along, but my mind is frantic as I try to manage a myriad of details in a heightened state of awareness. I’ve been here before; I know the odds. “What happens next? How does this end?”
The buck slowly feeds towards a little, two-foot gap in the oak brush. It’s all a blur as I draw my bow and track the buck with my 30-yard pin. He finally steps through and my arrow is off. There’s an audible “thunk,” and then pandemonium as all three bucks explode down the mountain. Seventy yards out, Tank and the smaller buck regroup and look back, but Big 5 continues out of sight.
Twenty minutes later I begin tracking down the mountainside. There’s blood right away, and for the first time in weeks I feel a sense of relief. A little further down the canyon and there he is. In my haste to shoot, the arrow hit forward in the neck, but did the job.
Like a dream, I reach down and grasp the buck’s sprawling antlers in my hands. I feel strangely numb. Whatever elation I’m supposed to feel has been cancelled out by the rigors of mountain, dampened by loss of sleep, and swamped in disbelief. Sometimes a hunter gets lucky; other times he earns it. In this case, the only luck I had was seeing the buck in the first place. I gave this hunt everything I had; I paid full price for my trophy.
Long ago, in a personal attack fueled by jealousy, an old “friend” once said to me, “I don’t have to shoot the biggest deer on the mountain to prove I’m a man!” I don’t disagree, however it does prove other things: That you have a special skill set; that you are a provider of meat; and above all, you are the top predator you were meant to be. And that, my friends, puts you one step ahead of the rest.
It’s often said that one should spend as much time researching taxidermists as they do researching their hunt. That’s because a taxidermy mount embodies the memory of your hunt for a lifetime. A quality mount is not cheap, but neither is your hunt. While your hunt will soon be over, the memories will remain. So isn’t it worth investing a little time and money in a quality mount? In this article I’ll guide you through the process of selecting a quality taxidermist.
Before we begin, I should mention that I’m a professional taxidermist living in Southern Utah. My business is Nate’s Taxidermy and I’ve been mounting big game animals for ten years. I’m not seeking to score more business with this article, but rather help fellow hunters figure out how to get professional quality mount.
One reason I became a taxidermist was the vast unprofessionalism I encountered in the industry before I became a taxidermist. Turnaround time was always delayed, craftsmanship was questionable, and professionalism was unheard of. Calls mostly went unanswered and any guarantee of quality was non-existent. With this in mind, here are my top suggestions for anyone searching for a taxidermist.
First off, visit as many taxidermy studios as possible. Every taxidermist should have a well-lit showroom with a variety of species to inspect. The goal of taxidermy is to bring the animal back to life…or close to. Do the specimens look “alive”?
Begin by asking what skills and methods separate them from their competition. When touring showrooms look for things like symmetry in the face, especially the eyes and ears. Watch for drumming (places where the skin has pulled free of the form). This usually occurs in highly detailed areas like the face, inside the ears, and around the legs. Drumming indicates low-quality glue or cutting corners.
Another place to inspect is antler bases. Make sure there aren’t any gaps or separations where the hair meets the horn. Also, take a close look at habitat bases. If you see something weird in your wanderings, ask about it. A real professional will be honest and friendly, and value you beyond the money you’re spending.
Unless you are in a big hurry with your mount, don’t base your decision solely on a fast turnaround time. That being said, your mount should be finished within a reasonable time, say 8 to 12 months. Good taxidermy takes some time, but not years.
Most high-volume taxidermists use commercial tanneries, which are better than in-house tanneries (in my opinion). But most commercial tanneries are currently 8 months out due to supply-chain and staffing issues. As of 2023 you can expect completion times can to be a little longer.
Once the hide is back from the tannery, it shouldn’t take more than a month or two to complete. If your taxidermist keeps extending the time he quoted, or making excuses—like blaming the tannery—then beware. A taxidermist who accepts too much workload is more likely to cut corners on your mount.
Most people would be hard-pressed to distinguish whether cheap materials and high quality ones were used in the final mount. But there is a difference. Just like a food recipe, the quality of the final product depends on the culmination of ingredients. It would behoove you to ask about various materials used.
Start with the tanning process. Was the hide professionally tanned, or just “dry preserved?” Dry preserved isn’t really tanning, and in my opinion should never be used since it will drastically decrease the shelf life of your mount.
Next is the glue (aka hide paste). Hide paste is what holds the whole mount together. There are a variety of glues on the market, but many taxidermists are still using dextrin-based glue simply because it’s very inexpensive. Dextrin works, but it’s also a food derivative (from corn starch) which can attract bugs. Modern synthetic glue is much better. Some glues even contain bug-resistant additives.
Synthetic glues are more expensive, but they’re necessary for the long term survival of your mount. So be sure to ask about the glue! There are many other materials used as well–things like eyes, ear liners, paint, etc—but most are visibly apparent. Basically, if the mount looks cheap, it probably is.
Anyone working in the dead animal business is gonna be a little strange (myself included). Still, no business can survive without some basic customer service skills. Why should taxidermy be any different?
Let’s start by answering the phone. Simple, right? Nope. I recently tried to call a fellow taxidermist for a month straight before giving up. Apparently it’s still a problem in our industry. If your taxidermist does answer the phone, is he courteous and helpful?
What about paperwork? In the past I was given a little, scribbled receipt showing little more than my deposit was paid. When I opened my own taxidermy business I started with the paperwork.
When a client brings me a project, they receive a signed agreement with various details including balance of account, turnaround time, guarantee of quality, desired mount position, and even measurements taken from the carcass. When they pick up their finished piece they receive a “care sheet” for the long-term maintenance of their mount.
Professionals should also have a decent website with updated photos, contact info, and other helpful information.
When you visit the taxidermy shop, is it clean, orderly, and well lit? Or is dark, dingy, smelly and cluttered? Similar to a mechanic’s shop, working conditions often reflect in the quality of service. For example, taxidermy requires a myriad of specialized tools. How can a mount be done properly if the taxidermist can’t find the right tools?
Cleanliness is also vital in a shop. A sanitary workspace prevents insect infestations, as well as bacterial cross-contamination from one project to another. I once visited a shop with a huge bison skull rotting under a table. It smelled so bad I could hardly breathe. The taxidermist didn’t seem to notice, but it didn’t help my confidence any.
One of the first questions to ask a prospective taxidermist is which animals they specialize in. This can usually be discovered on their website, if they have one.
Some taxidermists are generalists while others are specialists. Some guys specialize in birds; others specialize in big game (myself included). There are also specialists in skulls, fish, African game, and small game.
A generalist does everything–fish, deer, skulls, etc. This is fine and dandy, but such a broad spectrum of work requires many more years of training and experience. African big game–which includes vastly more animals–is more specialized than North American big game and also requires more specialized training.
In the end, just make sure you’re not dropping a deer off at a fish guy with little experience in big game.
Be sure to ask about experience and training. How many years has the taxidermist been in business? How many times has he mounted the specific animal you’re interested in? Where did he get his training from? Did he go to a specialized taxidermy school or was he trained as an assistant? Both are fine so long as he’s acquired the requisite foundation in his field of taxidermy.
Experience matters. Every animal and every animal manikin (form) is unique, and thus requires some level of customization. Only specialized training and experience will guarantee the accuracy of your mount.
It’s a good idea to request a reference list of previous customer phone numbers from your prospective taxidermist. With a deer or duck you might be fine with just visiting his studio. But with an especially large or expensive mount (e.g. life-size grizzly bear, bison or musk ox) you’d be best making some calls.
A few key topics to discuss with past customers is turnaround time, customer service, and quality of their finished mount. I would also ask long-term customers how their mounts are holding up over the years, and whether or not they would use that taxidermist again.
That’s about it, folks. I know these are mostly common sense items, but you don’t want to take chances with your once-in-a-lifetime memories.
Taxidermy is as much an art as science. Science says your mount should accurately recreate the living creature. A good taxidermist will ‘bring the animal back to life.’
Art, on the other hand, is subjective. That’s where finding the right taxidermist with the right style comes into play. Style varies from artist to artist, so your goal should be to find the taxidermist who reflects both the “look” you desire and an accurate representation of your trophy.
Stop-Rot is an anti-bacterial liquid preservative that “extends the work time of a fresh hide by slowing down or stopping decomposition,” thus saving your trophy hide from decay and hair loss.
Stop-Rot was developed by taxidermist/chemist, Glen Conley, specifically for saving hides from hair slippage ahead of the tanning process. It has been used widely in the taxidermy industry for many years, and now hunters are starting to use it too.
After killing your trophy animal, bacteria immedately begins to multiply all over the animal, especially around wet and bloody areas. In a relatively short period of time, bacteria begins to attack the skin and and hair follicles, thus leading to hair slippage and a ruined hide. A good taxidermist can fix almost anything, but very little can be done to save a hide with hair falling out.
Because bacteria thrives in warm temperatures, Stop-Rot is especially useful during early-season hunts that occur in August and September. Traditionally salt was used to preserve hides afield. However, salt dries out the hide and makes it virtually impossible to flesh properly before going into the tanning process.
Stop-Rot can be used on both the flesh side of the hide and the hair side. The instructions say to “apply Stop-Rot as soon as possible after the animal has been skinned.” For this reason I always keep a bottle of Stop-Rot back at camp. I’ll spray it on any bloody spots or short-haired areas like the face and ears. I just spray it on and massage it in. Be sure to spray a light coating over the entire flesh side of the hide.
Stop-Rot costs around $23 a quart and is only available through taxidermy supply companies like Van Dykes or Trufitt. To avoid paying shipping, request a bottle from your taxidermist. If you live it Utah, you can buy Stop-Rot at Trufitt’s taxidermy supply store at 1744 South Redwood in Salt Lake City. In Southern Utah you can get it directly from me. I never go hunting without this product.
Stop-Rot should be used when hunting in warm conditions or any time you can’t get your hide to a freezer or taxidermist in a timely manner. Although I’m constantly touting the benefits of Stop-Rot, I don’t receive any sort of commissions from it. My taxidermy business, however, relies on usable hides. More importantly is the preservation of your hard-won trophy.
Stop-Rot: Use it or lose it!
I’ve been busy doing a lot of taxidermy lately, trying to get caught up after a busy hunting and photography season. One aspect of taxidermy that I really enjoy is the meditation. Anyone who’s done taxidermy knows that it can be very time consuming and sometimes a little tedious. This is good because it gives the taxidermist plenty of time to reflect on things such as the animal’s life, which is the taxidermist’s job of reconstructing.
But dissecting and reconstructing a dead animal isn’t for everyone. I believe it takes a certain type of personality to pry the eyeballs and brains out of a skull. Taxidermists can be strange folks…
The following is a passage taken from my taxidermy website, natestaxidermy.net, that that might help you understand the art and purpose of taxidermy:
Taxidermy often gets a bad rap. The dead heads hanging on people’s walls often evoke negative feelings in non-hunters. They don’t see a glorious and noble beast, but a poor, innocent creature sacrificed purely for sport or to boost the ego of a heartless hunter. I have a hard time understanding this point of view because to me, that noble beast peering out from the wall is a tribute to the animal’s life, not its death.
All year long I admire and photograph both elk and deer in nature. I don’t particularly even like to kill them. But for a brief period in early fall our roles change from admirer and admired, to predator and prey. It’s a natural shift which always shifts back following the hunt. I know that hunting (by any predator) is a good and necessary thing which sustains balance in nature. I think the deer understands this too because all year long, whether I’m stalking with a bow or a camera, I’m treated like a predator, and the animal acts like prey. They don’t know anything else. This is why the biggest and smartest of them are so hard to hunt, and also why they deserve such admiration.
When I mount one of my own animals, I feel I’ve preserved not only the memory of a great hunt but the memory of a beautiful and admirable creature. I love wildlife as much as I love to hunt, and through painstaking care I can immortalize that special animal. If it weren’t for taxidermy, millions of beautiful beasts would still be harvested each year, but then discarded and forgotten. A quality taxidermist gives the animal a new home and continued life.
I won’t lie; I’m fairly new to the taxidermy arts. However, I’ve been doing European skull mounts for friends, family, and myself for more than a decade. My interest in taxidermy began in 2002 when I harvested a very large 4×4 buck and didn’t have enough money for a full mount. Through much research and trial and error, I was finally able to perfect a beautiful European skull mount on a custom-designed wood plaque.
Years later, after mastering the European mount, I developed a keen interest in furthering my taxidermy skills. So in April, 2013, I went to taxidermy school and have been learning and expanding on my education ever since.
(Story published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, September/October 2013, Issue 79)
Elk hunting’s easy! Well, that’s what I tell my fellow bowhunters anyway. And they usually get a little irritated. But I’m only half-kidding. Compared to spot-and-stalking trophy mule deer, yes, elk hunting is easy. You can’t call mule deer; believe me, I’ve tried. But with enough practice (about ten years worth) you can call trophy elk. I ate ten tags in a row before I finally arrowed my first bull elk…but it was still kinda easy.
In 2012, after ten years of applying for the Beaver, Utah limited entry tag, I finally drew. It was probably the worst year I could have drawn since I’d just purchased a major fixer-upper house that spring. I had absolutely no time to scout the area and spent the entire summer swinging a hammer instead. But I wasn’t about to give up the tag I’d been waiting ten years for. Fortunately, my brother, Brent, had drawn a premium tag for the same unit in 2011. He’s crazy about elk–an absolute fiend–spending 30 days non-stop hunting over the entire unit. I spent a week calling for him that year, and the knowledge I gained from his hunt would prove invaluable for my own.
Surprisingly, my other brother, Russell, drew the same tag after only two years. So the plan was to hunt with him for one week in late August, and if we couldn’t get the job done, we’d return in September and hunt the last week too.
Elk hunting’s easy! At least that’s what I kept telling myself the first couple days as we hiked all over the high-altitude part of the unit without a single response from the elusive bulls. On the third day, Russ and I split up; I went high and he went low. A light rain started that night as I hiked alone into some high-alpine peaks. As soon as I got there, the downpour started. I couldn’t pitch my tent fast enough as lightning crashed all around me. To say it was a little unnerving would be an understatement. But hey, elk hunting’s easy, right?
The next morning I crawled out of my damp sleeping bag and began hiking and calling. But it was all for naught. There wasn’t a fresh sign in the whole area. As I was packing up my tent to leave, however, I heard what sounded like a half-hearted bugle way back down the mountain near a small saddle. I decided to investigate the area on my way out.
Sure enough I found some big, fresh tracks and droppings headed over the saddle and down the mountain. Since I was headed that way anyway, I decided to follow. I made several cow calls along the way, but got no response. Eventually I lost the tracks in some rocky terrain and gave up my futile chase. A couple minutes later, there was an explosion of elk below me as the whole herd blew out of the area. This confirmed my suspicion: the elk were in the area, but not vocal yet.
I met up with Russ a short time later and he we decided to try yet another area. That afternoon I borrowed the lone ATV to go retrieve my knife that I’d left on a tree stump back down the road. I made it about a mile down the roughest, rockiest trail ever when the ATV tire suddenly jolted off a small boulder, causing the machine to veer hard right and climb the steep bank. In about one second the ATV flipped over. Realizing I was about to be crushed underneath, I did a mid-air swan dive onto the rocky opposite bank while the ATV landed upside down behind me. I was bruised from head to toe, but relieved that I wasn’t dead. One of my ribs took the worst of it and for the rest of the week I couldn’t cough, sneeze, or even sit up in bed without excruciating pain. But, I wasn’t leaving the mountain; not without an easy elk anyway.
After a very discouraging fourth day, I left the mountain. The elk rut was happening yet and I wasn’t going to waste one more day calling to the trees. On my way down the mountain I blew a truck tire on the rocky road. No big deal; I had a spare tire. Then, half an hour later while driving down the highway, my truck began to shake violently as one of my rear tires shredded into a thousand pieces. Now I was stuck. I spent the rest of the day hiking to cell phone range and then getting towed back to town where I had the pleasure of shelling out nearly $1000 for a new set of tires. I thought elk hunting was supposed to be easy!
I returned two weeks later with my lovely wife (and elk caller), Esther. Since my first trip, I’d gotten a report from my brother that the lower elevation bulls were in full-rut mode. We drove to Beaver on Sunday evening, and on Monday morning we hiked a mile up the mountain and instantly had bulls bugling all around us. See, elk hunting is easy…sometimes. I probably could have arrowed an elk that morning but my poor caller (Esther) got lost behind me while I followed the herd up the mountain. Later that evening I found her back at camp and we were both a little frustrated. After educating her on the finer points of elk calling, we once again headed up the canyon. Only a quarter mile from camp, we blew a couple cow calls and two bulls came screaming in simultaneously. They met across a small ravine, but didn’t seem to care much for each other. They locked antlers and smashed and crashed in the forest for a while, raising quite a ruckus! The biggest and meanest of the two bulls finally emerged and crossed the ravine towards us. Though I didn’t get a long look at the bull, I could tell he was a solid six-point and a shooter in my book.
Keeping his distance, he circled around us while bugling and chuckling at the top of his lungs. I quickly positioned myself in a small clearing between the bull and Esther. It was about 7:45 pm as I knelt beneath a giant pine tree in the thick woods. The bull hung up at 80 yards and refused to come closer. I violently flapped my arms at Esther, motioning for her to drop further back…WAY BACK. The bulls in the area were very responsive, but they were smart and hung up well beyond bow range. Esther continued her cow and estrus calls as she dropped way out of sight.
A few minutes later, the big bull couldn’t take it anymore. He suddenly appeared from behind a thicket of pines and came stomping right towards me, his huge rack rocking back and forth as he weaved through the dense trees. He was coming in fast and quickly passed a 40-yard tree that I’d ranged. He was facing me so I didn’t have a shot. At thirty yards I still didn’t have a shot. At 20 yards he suddenly veered broadside. As his head disappeared behind a tree, I swung my bow and settled the pin. A second later, his shoulder appeared and my arrow was off. A PERFECT HIT! The bull smashed away but only made it 50 yards before going down. When Esther caught up to me, I was shaking with excitement and immediately began raving on about the details of the last few intense minutes. After giving the bull a little time, we slowly crept in on him. Although the bull ended up scoring in the lower 300s, it didn’t matter to me. He was my biggest bull yet and I did it with a bow. Mission accomplished.
This part of my limited entry elk hunt ended quickly, and sure enough, it was pretty easy! But, there’s no way I could have done it without my wife and her sweeeeet elk calling. She made it easy! I suppose the hardest part of the hunt was packing that huge bull off the mountain on our backs. That wasn’t easy, but I did it with a big smile on my face.
What a great hunt; what a great wife!