When most hunters think about losing a trophy it's because of a poor shot or tough tracking conditions. Few people give much thought to the care and preparation of their animal once it hits the ground. Thousands of trophies are lost each year due to poor field preparation and taxidermy problems. My point of view is that the hunt is over only when my client hangs his trophy on the wall – nothing can leave a worse taste in a hunters mouth than a list of trophies that he hunted and didn't get to enjoy as they were somehow 'lost' on the way to his house. This article is aimed at outlining the basics of trophy care and giving some simple tips from my experience and the basic facts from some taxidermists that I know.
Growing up hunting in the States I was ignorant to many of the basic principles of proper field preparation for trophies. I learned the right way to handle skins and the principles behind it when I started my hunting career in Africa. Our idea of trophy care in the States was to skin a deer up to the head, cut it off at the neck, and pack the skin with skull attached into the snow or put it in the deep freeze until we had time to transport it to the taxidermist! The rest of the work was done by the taxidermist at his shop. This type of procedure will not work in Africa. Most of the time in Africa the skins are weeks if not months away from a taxidermist; and the climate can lead to decay and hair slip much faster in Africa.
As with most things in hunting, it helps to be prepared. Field preparation of a trophy is no different. It's important to have the right plan and equipment ahead of time. Here is a short list of the basic equipment that every hunter should have with him to ensure the correct handling of an animal: 3 x knifes (+/- 6 inch blade, small thin blade, and razor knife or scalpel blade), knife sharpener, rope or hoist for hanging the animal during skinning, large plastic bucket for soaking skins, chemical resistant trophy tags, permanent marker, zip ties for securing tags, and plenty of clean grade 1 coarse salt (salt is cheap – make sure you have enough of it).
99 percent of trophy problems come from the field – not the taxidermist or the tannery. A little bit of knowledge and care in the field can help to prevent any problems down the road. The basic idea is to get the skin off the animal and dry as fast as possible to prevent any bacterial growth from deteriorating the hair follicle and damaging the skin. Bacteria that cause hair slip need oxygen and moisture to flourish. Bacteria are everywhere and time is your enemy here. Blood on the inside or outside of the skin increases the chances of bacteria populations taking hold on the skin and damaging it. Salt is the best weapon you have against bacteria. Salt basically creates an environment that stops the growth and spread of bacteria while dehydrating the skin and sealing the hair follicle around the individual hairs on your skin. When this happens correctly the skin can survive the tanning chemicals, mounting processes, and the test of time hanging on a hunter's wall. Bacteria can also flourish in the thicker parts of a skin such as the mouth, nose, and thick areas of a skin. Salt works well, but it can only penetrate a skin for a few millimeters. It is essential to open up these problem areas with proper skinning so the salt can penetrate the entire skin.
Once your buck hits the ground, it should be kept in the shade until it can be recovered and transported to the skinning area. Direct sunlight at this time is not good for the skin. High temperatures work against you as well – so the hotter it is the faster you need to get the trophy in the salt! In many areas the camp or skinning shed is not too far away, but many times I have found it necessary to skin and salt an animal in the field. For these situations your kit and salt need to travel with you on the vehicle.
When the animal gets to the skinning area it should be thoroughly washed clean of blood and dirt. This also helps to cool the skin. Use as much water as possible throughout the skinning process. After the animal is skinned properly, I prefer to soak it in a saturated salt solution for 4 – 8 hours depending on the size and type of skin. The salt water solution should be mixed in a clean plastic container (I have also used bath tubs and sinks for this process). It needs to be a so called "saturated solution". This means that it is not possible to dissolve any more salt into the water. The skin needs to be submerged in this solution for the correct amount of time. I can't really say how long is too long; it depends on the thickness of the skin and the surrounding temperature. This whole process is actually a science - but I wouldn't call it an exact one! High temperatures and dry conditions will speed things up – cold temperatures and wet air will slow things down. Once the skin's time in the salt water is finished, you can hang it out to drip dry for a few minutes while you prepare to salt it.
While the skin drip dries I usually write out the tags for the trophy. It is best to tag each individual item with two tags, each horn with one tag, and the skull with a tag though the eye hole. The tags should have the hunter's name, the species of anima,l and the identification of the skin part (cape, backskin, flatskin, etc.). It is time-consuming to identify a skin after it's dried and folded as they are hard to handle when dried out. I prefer to use plastic cable ties to attach each tag though a small hole on the edge of the skin.
After the skins are tagged, it's time to get them into the salt bed. The ideal place has a sloped floor, is shaded with a breeze, and is sealed off from outside influences such as dogs, rats, people, sunlight and rain. Put down a layer of salt the size of the skin, then lay the skin hair side down on the salt. Cover it with an inch or so of salt, making sure that salt is touching every part of the skin. There shouldn't be any skin to skin contact; the skin shouldn't be crumpled up or folded over on itself. If this happens those areas will most likely decay. Pack salt into the face, ears, nose, lips, etc. It helps to rub the salt into all parts of the skin; this ensures that the places with folds and creases have contact with sufficient salt.
While the skin is in the salt it's a good time to take care of your skull and horns. As you can imagine, the bone and horn is a lot more durable than the skin. The bottom jaw on horned animals is not needed in most cases. The meat around the skull should be trimmed off down to the bone. Some people will boil the excess flesh and brain out in the field. This is mandatory up in Africa because the time it takes to get the animal to the taxidermist is longer and it's not nice to smell a 7 day old buffalo skull! If transport to a taxidermist is less than a week I will typically flesh the skull out and then pack it in salt to draw out some of the moisture. I then transport it wrapped in plastic to the taxidermist and let them boil it.
Depending on the conditions and the type of skin I will leave a trophy in the salt for 3 full days. Obviously more time is needed for thicker skins such as buffalo and elephant. After the salt has done its work of drawing the moisture out of the skin and preventing bacteria growth. Thicker skins such as elephant take longer. The skin will still be flexible and somewhat damp as this point. It is best to hang the skin in the open air in a shady spot that gets good wind. This will evaporate away the rest of the moisture on the skin. A skin can typically be folded up after 2 days of this treatment. It should be like folding thick cardboard at this point – not brittle enough that the skin cracks but stiff enough that it takes a bit of pressure to fold it. I find it best to fold the skins with the hair side in – this protects it from abrasion and possible damage. It is best to fold the skins in as much of a square as possible and to leave a tag visible for ID purposes.
Once the skin is folded I leave it in the open for a couple more days if time allows, to dry the skin out even more. The skin can then be stored on wooden racks in the skinning shed where it is protected from outside influences (rains, rats, bugs, animals, sunlight, people, too much heat, etc.); the idea here is a cool dry secure place preferably with insecticide! If a skin is going to sit for a long time it is best to bring it inside as the changes in weather will bring moisture into contact with the skin. This skin is now preserved and can actually last a very long time before it is tanned. I know of taxidermists tanning skins up to 10 years after it was shot and properly prepared in the field and stored! This is not ideal however – I prefer to get the skins into the hand of a professional taxidermist as soon as possible.
People have written books on the subjects of skinning animals, preparing trophies, and taxidermy. This little article is not even the tip of the iceberg. But it will steer you in the right direction on handling your trophy animal. You only get one chance to preserve your trophy after it is shot. So take enough pictures and then get to work on your trophy in the correct way. I believe that if you handle a few of your animals from start to finish you will be a more well-rounded hunter. You will also have a better respect for the skill of the skinners and taxidermists that through their expertise get your trophy on the wall.