Time to find a good taxidermist is before you bag a trophy
This is the time of year when Bob Hutchinson's frustration takes root.
It's outdoor show season. The Great American, the largest show in the country, runs through Sunday in Harrisburg, as does the Washington County Sportsmen's and Conservation League show at Washington Crown Center.
The Allegheny Sport, Travel and Outdoor Show is Wednesday through Sunday in Monroeville. Other shows will follow in Erie, East Brady, Philadelphia and elsewhere in the weeks ahead.
At each, sportsmen will book trips costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. Then they'll go home and make travel arrangements, practice with their bow, put fresh line on their rods and take the stairs to get in shape.
Only later, when the once-in-a-lifetime trophy they so eagerly sought is dead and in need of immediate attention, will they look for a taxidermist.
“Guys want to go out west to get an elk. They want to go to Africa on a safari. They want to go to Canada for a bear hunt. And they do it. They book the trip,” said Hutchinson, who runs Hutch's Taxidermy and Wildlife Art in Mt. Pleasant.
“Then all of a sudden, they get something, and they start calling around because they have no idea where to go.”
Hunters and fishermen should research taxidermists now to see who produces the kind of work they want to display, said Joe Simmons of Simmons Wildlife, a Slippery Rock taxidermy studio.
“You wouldn't go out and buy a car without looking around, maybe checking out the different makes and models. It's the same with taxidermy,” Simmons said. “Guys need to do their homework.”
Sportsmen can start next month when the Pennsylvania Taxidermy Association holds its 35th annual convention and wildlife art show from March 5-8 at Seven Springs Mountain Resort.
It's a trade show for taxidermists and a big one. The Pennsylvania association is the largest state organization in the nation, and this event offers members the chance to attend educational seminars, meet vendors and talk to others in the business.
From noon to 5 p.m. March 8, the show opens to the public. Sportsmen can stop by and view the 400 or so mounts prepared for competition by taxidermists from across Pennsylvania, other states and Canada.
“Educating the public about what good taxidermy is, that's what we're trying to push,” said Hutchinson, the association's president. “We're trying to teach people how to find good taxidermy.”
Not all work is equal, said Andy Lukatch, a Latrobe taxidermist and instructor at the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy in Ebensburg.
“We don't put out one product, you might say. If you go to a convenience store and buy a Pepsi, it's a Pepsi. Then, if you go to another convenience store down the street and buy a Pepsi, it's the same thing. It's a Pepsi. I think a lot of people think of taxidermy as being the same thing,” Lukatch said.
“But it's definitely an art, and everyone does everything a little bit differently.”
Price often is the first thing people ask about, Simmons said. It shouldn't be as important as the quality of work, though, he added.
He suggests investigating what individual taxidermists are capable of. Most will have photos of past mounts, if not also a studio of some sort, he said.
Ask questions, Lukatch added. For example, does the taxidermist tan his hides? Not all do, he said. Ask what materials he uses. And check out the eyes, ears and noses of mounts: That's where a taxidermist's attention to detail shows up, he said.
Find out, too, whether a taxidermist is licensed by the state, with a tax identification number and business insurance, Hutchinson said. There are about 1,200 licensed taxidermists in Pennsylvania, he said, along with a lot of unlicensed ones. There's no guarantee what training or experience those latter people have, he said.
Also find out whether a taxidermist is certified by the state taxidermy association, meaning they've submitted their work for peer review and competition and attended seminars and one-on-one workshops, Simmons said. Being certified doesn't necessarily mean they're better than a licensed taxidermist who isn't, he said.
“But that's showing the client you are continuing your education, keeping up with the latest techniques and newest technology and producing the best mounts you can,” Simmons said.
Taxidermists are doing good work these days, Hutchinson said. The mounts aren't like grandpa's deer head on the wall from yesteryear. They're “artistic representations” of wildlife, often featuring “habitat,” with bears mounted standing on rocks surrounded by acorns, deer mounted next to fence posts and brush and trout mounted on pebbles, he said.
But as with most things, “you get what you pay for,” Lukatch said.
“Guys aren't out there to rip you off. They're trying to give you something you'll be happy living with for the rest of your life,” he said. “But taxidermy, it's an art. You have to educate yourself about it and figure out what kind of product you're going to get.”