After shooting a 140-class 8-pointer with a bow in 2012, a good friend of mine decided a couple of days after the kill to have his largest bow-killed buck to date mounted by a professional taxidermist. Sadly, my friend made many mistakes before he chose to go this route and finally dropped off the buck at the taxidermist’s shop.  Because of the neglect given to the buck, the cape could not be salvaged.  However, for a small fee, a replacement cape was purchased, and now the big 8-pointer is displayed on my friend’s living room wall.

Nobody will ever know the cape on the buck does not belong to the antlers unless my buddy wants them to know.  And truthfully, it is not the cape people are looking at when they stare at the 22-inch spread on this buck.

There are some easy things a hunter can do to avoid having to purchase a replacement cape.  Let’s face it; getting a deer mounted is not cheap.  If we can avoid spending needless money on something we could prevent by taking a little more time to do it right, I would say it is worth it.  Wouldn’t you?

  1. IT STARTS IN THE FIELD

With any deer you kill, whether a wall-hanger or not, the first thing a hunter will do is field dress the animal.  Proper field dressing is a must if you want to have the animal mounted.  As always, place the animal on its back to begin field dressing.  The first cut is made just above his sex organs.  After I have cut through the skin, I like to use a knife with a gut hook.  Gerber makes the knife/gut hook I use.  It gives a clean, smooth cut.  The initial cut is made from the sex organs to the sternum.

Do not cut past the sternum and into the breast area with your knife while field-dressing an animal.  This will only cause extra work for the taxidermist.  It is possible the sewing job could be noticeable, however slight.

Because you did not cut past the sternum, you will have to reach into the deer’s throat and chest cavity to remove the windpipe and other organs.  Since you will be working blindly while cutting connective tissue, be very aware as to where your knife blade is.

There is no need to bleed a deer by cutting its throat.  The field-dressing process will remove all the blood that needs to be removed for now.  Not only should you not cut the throat, but also do not make any cuts except for the one I described for field-dressing the deer.  Any cuts above the sternum is damaging useable cape.

  1. GETTING THE DEER OUT

Do not tie a rope around the deer’s neck as you drag it out of the woods.  This will damage the cape, and more times than not it leaves a bald spot where the rope was.  If you have to use a rope, secure it around his antlers.  This will keep the head and upper body off the ground.  Dragging a deer will quickly damage the cape beyond repair.  To prevent the deer’s hide from rubbing on the ground when you absolutely must drag it, wrap the upper body in a tarp or jacket.

The best method for getting a deer out of the woods is by carrying it.  Unfortunately, this is not always possible or practical.  The next best method is hauling it out.  If you can, drive next to the downed deer and simply load it into the back of your truck.  Again, this is not always possible.  An ATV is another good way to haul an animal out.  Lastly, invest in a two-wheeled game cart to haul your prize out of the woods.

  1. COOL IT DOWN

We have all been told as hunters the importance of cooling an animal down as quickly as possible to protect the meat.  The first step in accomplishing this task is field-dressing the animal.  However, this not only protects the meat from spoilage, but it also protects the cape.

After your deer is field-dressed, it is time to hang your deer.  NEVER hang a deer by its head if you’re going to have it mounted.  I always hang a deer by its back legs for two reasons.  First, it prevents rope burn around the neck.  Second, the cape could stretch if the deer is hung by its head/antlers.  After you have the deer hung, place some ice bags into its chest.  The ice will cool the deer faster than without it.  The water will not pool inside the deer as it runs out of the muzzle along with the blood.

A reason you do not want water to pool is because it is a breeding ground for bacteria.  Use as little water as possible when rinsing blood stains from the cape.  Using excessive amounts of water might not show any immediate damage to the cape, but after a while, you could begin to notice hair slippage.

  1. MAKE THE CUT

After you have your buck out of the woods and cooled, it is time to cape the deer.  Do not go to the extreme with this task.  All that is necessary is to remove the head and plenty of cape for a shoulder mount.  It is important to leave more than enough cape with the head.  A taxidermist can always cut excess hide off, but he can’t add more.

Do not attempt to skin around the mouth, nose, and eyes of the deer.  When you have caped the deer like I will describe, the head and skull of the deer stays attached to the cape.   By leaving the head attached to the cape the taxidermist can make the delicate cuts near the mouth, nose, and eyes and make sure it gets done correctly.

To cape the deer, make a cut in the hide 6- to 8-inches behind the front legs.  This cut needs to encircle the entire body of the deer.  The next step is to slit the skin at the knees, or slightly above.  Make a cut from the knees to the cut that goes around the body.  This cut should be done on the backside of the legs.

Now the hide is ready to be peeled away from the deer’s body.  At this point, a knife will not be used much.  The hide should easily pull away, but at times you might have to use your knife when you come across a stubborn area.  Be very careful not to cut through the hide.

Continue to pull the hide down until you reach the deer’s ears and jaws.  The point where the head meets the neck should now be exposed.  Using your knife make a cut completely around the neck about 3 inches below where the head and neck joins.  Make the cut deep enough that you get to the spinal column.  At this point, the only thing left to do is remove the head and cape.

The removal of the head can be done in one of two ways.  My preferred method, and the one I recommend, is to use a hacksaw and cut through the bone.  This is the quickest and easiest of the two methods.  If you prefer, the head can be separated from the spine by grabbing the antlers and twisting.  Twisting the head off can sometimes be tricky, especially if one person is trying to do it by himself.

  1. PREVANTIVE MEASURES

All that is now left to do is take care of the hide until you are able to deliver it to the taxidermist.  Keep the hide clean, both inside and out.  Tossing the hide on the ground will cause tiny pebbles to get stuck in the hide.  Taxidermists hate picking out rocks because you were carless where you laid the hide.

Get the head and hide to the taxidermist as soon as you can.  If you are not able to get it to him immediately, roll up the hide and put everything in the freezer.  As long as the temperature is 40 degrees or below, your hide will be fine for a while without being put in the freezer.

Wrap all of the head and hide in a plastic bag.  It is not necessary to cover the antlers.  Within 90 days, or so, it is possible for freezer-burn to set in, so try to get your trophy out of the freezer and in the hands of the taxidermist before then.

A taxidermist is an artist.  He or she is a person that can turn a head and cape into a beautiful memory that will last a lifetime.  Case in point: My sister, Lisa, killed a massive 8-pointer on our family farm in Illinois.  The big 8-pointer had an inside spread of 24 3/8-inches, and tines measuring more than 14 inches.  The weather was very cold so once the deer was dressed we hung it in our garage.  Forgetting the deer was hanging, a member of our deer camp tried to open the garage door from the outside.  Thinking the door was stuck, he gave it a little extra push to try and get the door up.  Hearing a crash from outside the garage, it dawned on the hunter the big buck was still hanging.  Or, at least it was supposed to be hanging.  Walking inside he found my sister’s buck on the floor with three tines broken off.  The moral of the story is: Do not think you can’t take an animal to a taxidermist because they will not be able to fix it.  They can.

A taxidermist is a pro.  They have probably run across anything and everything wrong with an animal that you could possibly imagine.  The good news is that they can fix just about all of them.  Looking at Lisa’s buck hanging in her house, you would never know the rack was once busted up.  I have an 8-pointer in my office that took a pass-through shot to the neck.  There’s no sign of this wound.  If you have a deer that you think is beyond saving, take it to your taxidermist to look at.  More times than not, he can save it.

Taxidermists might not be magicians.  Sometimes the work they do makes one think they are.  However, anything we can do to make their job easier, quicker and with less hassle, we should do it.  Hopefully, this article will help you — and your taxidermist.

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Jason Houser
Jason Houser is an avid traditional bowhunter from Central Illinois who killed his first deer when he was nine years old. A full-time freelance writer since 2008, he has written for numerous national hunting magazines. Jason has hunted big game in 12 states with his bow, but his love will always be white-tailed deer and turkeys. He considers himself lucky to have a job he loves and a family who shares his passion for the outdoors. Jason writes full time and is on the pro staff of two archery companies; in his free time, he fishes and traps as much as possible.