Prepare your trophy for the taxidermist

     We all dream of that trophy we can hang up on the wall. Well before you get that trophy on the wall here are some steps to prepare your animal/fish before taking it to the taxidermist. The preparation steps were provided by award winning taxidermist, Eric Cinicola, of Mountain River Taxidermy located in Jim Thorpe, PA.

OK, you finally shot or caught that trophy of a lifetime……. NOW WHAT???

First things first, make sure to tag the animal properly according to state law, also throughout the process make sure that you comply with the rules regarding proof of sex, you don’t want to have your animal confiscated for not complying with the law. Next, you need to decide what type of mount that you want to do. The type of mount that you choose, the pose, and the species will determine how you need to skin and field dress the animal.

I will cover the three most common skinning techniques and how they apply, but first I want to help you avoid the most common mistakes.

Do not cut the throat on any mammal that you are going to have mounted.
Do not drag the animal, especially antelope, unless you want a mount with no hair.
Do not put the skin in a plastic bag.
Do not drive around with the animal in the back of your truck all weekend.
Do not hang the animal in your garage for a week in warm weather.
Last but not least do not put the animal in a plastic bag or any other non-breathable container until it is completely cooled out.

The basics that you will need to properly skin any game animal in the world, possibly with the exception of an elephant, are a sharp knife and a bone saw. I only use the bone saw for splitting the brisket or pelvis when field dressing, or to remove the antlers, or horns from large mammals. For the rest of the field care I use a sharp scalpel knife.  It’s not a bad idea to carry a good quality sharpening steel if you know how to use it. If you don’t know how to sharpen a knife (don’t feel left out, your one of many) then I would suggest that you carry at least two and maybe three pre-sharpened knives. One knife will not do the trick on a large mammal.

Skinning game heads.

Shoulder mount game heads are the most commonly mounted mammals in the world so this is a good place to begin. The animal can be field dressed as you normally would with the exception that the belly cut should stop at the rib cage. When skinning an animal for a shoulder mount (ex. Deer) I start by making an incision around the midsection of the animal approximately 6” to 8” behind the shoulder. I then make an incision from the base of the skull down the center of the back of the neck to the first incision. I then make an incision around each leg at or just above the knee joint. This facilitates tubing of the legs during the skinning process. The cape is then skinned off of the carcass up to the base of the neck. At this point I recommend that you leave the skull in the cape and sever the skull at the axis joint. Get it cold, keep it cold, and get it to the taxidermist.

Skinning via the ventral incision.
A ventral incision in laymen’s terms is a belly cut. This is how most mammals are skinned for rugs and is also very common for life-size mounts. Start by making an incision from the vent to just between the front legs. Then make an incision starting from each foot or paw down the back of each leg to the belly incision. Try to make the leg incisions meet the belly incision at the same point. Carefully remove the skin from the carcass trying not to cut any holes in the hide. You can leave the skull in the skin and sever the skull from the carcass at the axis joint. Leave the feet or paws in the skin also and severe them from the carcass at the wrist or knee joints. Cool it down and get it to the taxidermist as soon as possible. Standard field dressing procedure is used when doing the ventral incision.

Dorsal Incision.

In some cases a taxidermist may prefer to have a dorsal incision when mounting life-size animals. Mounts that are in a standing position are well suited to the dorsal incision. Animals that have short belly hair and leg hair, such as pronghorn, sheep, and some of the African mammals are also good candidates for a dorsal incision. If there is any doubt about what skinning method to use, talk to your taxidermist before the hunt.

Start by making an incision from the base of the skull to the base of the tail straight down the middle of the back. Carefully remove the skin from the carcass. Sever the skull at the axis joint, and the legs at the knee joints. You should also cut the tail from the carcass and leave it in the skin. If needed, you can make a short incision from the base of each foot on the back of the leg up to the knee joint.  Sever the feet/paws at the wrist joint and skin up to the knee, and then cut the joint at the knee to separate it from the rest of the carcass. Cool it down, keep it cold, and get it to the taxidermist. When using a dorsal incision I normally field dress the animal after it has been skinned.

After skinning the animal it is very important get the skin cooled down and keep it cool.  This will temporarily arrest the growth of bacteria and prevent the hair from “slipping”. Long story short “slipping is when bacteria attacks the epidermis of the skin and causes the hair to fall out. This is not conducive to a good mount, so get it cold and keep it cold.  Put the skin in a cloth game bag (never plastic). If the ambient air temperature is low enough you can simply hang it outside to cool it down, but if the temperature is warm (38 degrees f +above) you will have to resort to other means. Put the skin in a cooler with ice, take it to town and put it in a meat locker, put it in a refrigerator, freeze it, use dry ice, whatever just try to keep it dry if at all possible and get it cold.  Keep it cold and get it in to the taxidermist.  On a side note, it is just as important to cool down the meat and keep it cold to prevent bone sour and spoilage.  In my opinion most complaints related to gamey taste in wild animals is due to improper field care.

Salting the hide

For extended trips in the field, especially during warm weather it may be necessary to salt a hide in order to preserve it.  I do not normally suggest this unless you are proficient in properly skinning the cape from the skull, splitting the lips, nose, eyelids, and ears, and completely removing all of the flesh and fat from the skin. Consult with your taxidermist on how to complete these tasks and then you can properly salt a skin.
I buy my salt at the local feed store in 50# bags. They usually call it hay & stock salt, or milled solar salt. Be sure that it is non-iodized. You can also use pickling salt from the grocery store, but expect to pay a lot more. Do not use rock salt.
Lay the skin out flat and apply the salt liberally. On a deer cape I usually use about 1/3 to ½ a 50# bag, on an average bear hide I will use a whole bag. There is no such thing as too much salt. Let the salt stand on the skin for 24 hours, then shake it off and salt it again. You shouldn’t have to use as much salt the second time, but be sure that the entire skin is covered. Let it stand for another day and then shake the skin off and let it air dry. Large hides should be rolled before they are completely dry otherwise they are difficult to transport.

Other considerations.

Velvet Antlers, if you shoot an animal that is still in velvet get it to the taxidermist as soon as possible. If you can’t get it to the taxidermists freeze it. If you are planning a hunt where it is likely that you will kill and animal in velvet talk to the taxidermist before you go.

Out of state or out of country hunts.

If you are traveling out of state to hunt familiarize yourself with the regulations pertaining to interstate movement of animal parts. With the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), Bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), and other diseases affecting cervids many states have implemented restrictions on what animal parts can come across state lines, and how those parts must be handled. If you are traveling out of country it is best to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to see what you must do to legally import the species that you are hunting.
Outfitters and Guides

Just because you are on a guided hunt, DO NOT assume that the guide or outfitter know how to properly care for you trophy. A little vigilance can prevent an inexperienced skinner from ruining a priceless trophy.

Once again I cannot stress enough the importance of visiting with a taxidermist to learn the proper field care and skinning techniques before you go a field.  As the saying goes “ There is more than one way to skin a cat”.

(Read continuation for details on bird and fish preperation under fish stories and bird hunting)

These are some tips to ensure your trophy will be ready for the taxidermist. Check out Mountain River Taxidermy on the web at or contact Eric at 570-233-1845 for information on getting your trophy up on the wall.

One Comment

  • Craig says:

    This is something every hunter/fisherman should read. I love getting stuff mounted and didn’t know anything about some of this stuff. Thanks guys.