Over the last 13 years of guiding hunters, I have dealt with many expeditors and taxidermists from many western states. While each professional seems to have their own preferred methods, it is a wise idea to visit with your intended taxidermist before the hunt to make sure everything is done as close as possible to their standards. This will make sure expectations are met and excuses and delays are kept to a minimum.
I am surprised each season how many hunters I meet, including some guides, who do not feel comfortable caping the face off of an animal. Now I understand that some taxidermists ask their clients to bring the uncaped fresh head to their shop so they can do it their way, but most of the time this is an impossible request unless you are talking about locally killed animals less than a few hours away from your taxidermist’s shop. My tips and suggestions contained in this article are based around backcountry or out-of-state adventure hunts where you are tasked with keeping your cape from slipping and deteriorating before you return from the field.
This almost goes without saying, but it is vital that you have a sharp knife capable of making straight cuts with very few restarts. I prefer a lightweight blade handle that uses #60A replaceable blades for all animals that I have to take care of. I like to carry plenty of extra blades and never try to push it when a blade gets dull. Some fixed blade knives are very handy to have for fleshing hides back in camp, but they rarely make it into my pack on the mountain.
While you can carry the hide back to camp with the head still on, think of all the extra weight you are carrying with the bottom jaw and extra meat on the skull. This is not to mention the common error of placing your backpack straps across the face of the animal that will surely rub strange lines and cowlicks on your trophy. Take the time to learn how to cape in the field, have the right tools, and do it at the kill site.
WATER AND HEAT
Bacteria grow best in warm, wet environments. Of course, Alaska is home to this exact climate. It may seem dry if it is not raining, but oftentimes, the humidity levels in hunting camp are north of 60%. This weather is about as bad as it can get when it comes to your cape. It is extremely important to keep your cape or hide hanging out of direct sunlight but not contacting the warm ground or something else that can make it sweat. Once my cape is hanging in the tree, the clock starts ticking and I want to get it out of the field as soon as possible because it will start the deterioration process immediately.
Some hunters like to keep their cape cool by dunking it in a small pond or cool creek until they can get it off of the mountain. This can be a good idea, but you must make sure that absolutely no water is being added or leached through the bag into the cape. Multiple contractor strength bags will always come in handy with this method.
BUGS AND DIRT
Your best odds of keeping flies and dirt off of the cape and face of your trophy is to remove the cape entirely from the head and get it tied up in its own game bag as soon as possible. I prefer to take the extra 20-30 minutes to entirely cape the face off and let it hang or lay out to allow the skin to cool completely. However, you do not want the skin side to dry out, so make sure the skin side is matched up to itself and not exposed to sun or drying air. A full animal head with the hair still on sitting back in base camp for a day or two is sure to be full of maggots and other infestations and you will not feel very motivated to get up and finish the cape job you should have started right after quartering the animal.
TO SALT OR NOT TO SALT
I always seem to hear of hunters who are so excited to get back to camp and start the drying process on their capes by dumping a bunch of salt on it that they brought. In my years of experience, this is most often the wrong idea! Unless the cape is completely prepared for drying, which means all excess fat and flesh have been removed, the ears are turned completely inside out, the lips are turned and fleshed, and the eyelids have been turned completely, you do not want to put salt on this cape. What usually happens is the hunter starts the salting process after doing a half-way flesh job and then they put the cape in the freezer when they get home because they know the flesh process wasn’t done completely. This worsens the problem because a salted, frozen cape is horrible for a taxidermist to work on when they finally receive it. Unless you are prepared to flesh and turn your entire animal’s cape and have salt or access to salt in the near future to complete the entire drying process, I would suggest staying away from salt completely. A cool, dry cape in a shady spot will keep good longer than your meat will and should not stress you out.
SPEED AND LABELS
We’ve all walked over to our chest freezer to find a few tied up black trash bags full of something we swore we wouldn’t forget to label or take care of six months ago. I prefer to carry a permanent marker with me at all times in the field and make sure to write on the game bag, flagging tape, or labels that I bring with me on each bag of meat or hides. It can definitely save you some headache once you get your cape in a shared freezer, cooler, or ultimately to your taxidermist.
Keep in mind that even in states like Alaska where the antlers/horns must not be removed from the field until the last bit of meat is removed from the field, this restriction does not apply to capes or hides. I often take the cape out with the first load or two of meat to make sure it’s taken care of and not laying around the kill site out of my protection and exposed to the elements.
While a cool fridge can keep a cape good for a while, getting it cooled and frozen solid is going to be the best. I always fold my capes with the face and ears in the middle of the fold to keep the face from becoming freezer burnt. Do not roll up a large cape like an elk expecting that it will release all of the internal heat from the roll very soon. This can take an elk cape two to three days to freeze solid, and if heat is still trapped in the middle, it can be devastating to the hair.
On early season hunts, where possible, I put a 7.0 cubic foot chest freezer and battery inverter in the back of my truck. As soon as I reach the trailhead, in goes the cape and meat. Where a freezer does not make sense, a cooler with ice and a clear separation between the ice water and the cape is my next preference.
Don’t forget to take care of your cape on your next hunt just as you would take care of the meat to preserve it and get it ready to bring home to the family. Take pride in your work and go get some practice on animals you don’t intend to mount. I like to have my friends and potential clients cape cow elk heads or anything else they do not want to have mounted just for some real in-field practice.