Recreating the perfect trophy

There was a time when Mike Vickerson was like most people and did not even know what a Himalayan tha

There was a time when Mike Vickerson was like most people and did not even know what a Himalayan thar is. Now he’s familiar with the goatlike animal, inside and out.

A client recently sent a thar — and a wallaby and chamois — to Vickerson, the proprietor of Adirondack Wildlife Studio in Pine Lake and an award-winning taxidermist with a growing reputation. The customer wants full-body mounts.

Vickerson started out in Pine Lake in 1985 working with familiar local game animals: deer, bear and fish. Now, he derives 20 percent of his business from clients on safaris around the world. This month, he is awaiting shipment of trophies from two African outings.

Vickerson said he finds the exotic projects, many of which require considerable research, exciting and interesting. But, he said, “you live on your locals.”

Those locals are the customers who each year bring him the deer, bears, assorted fish and turkeys. A deer mount costs $460 without a back panel and $490 with one. He turns out 65 to 75 a year.

Skilled artist

Vickerson, ranked a master by his professional association, must know what he is doing. He has twice won the blue ribbon at the annual United Taxidermists of New York competition for deer mounts. He also won twice for brook trout mounts, and one of those placed second nationally.

To the untrained observer, Vickerson’s wild turkey mounts look like they could start walking at any moment. He, however, is not totally sold, pointing out that every feather has to be perfect. A turkey, with all its feathers and delicate features, is time consuming. It will cost $650.

Every good taxidermist has to be half artist and half surgeon. To be celebrated for work on birds, Vickerson says, it doesn’t hurt to be part hairdresser too.

“I don’t feel I do a real bang-up job on them,” he said of birds. That is probably just the artist in him talking. Outdoor writer Ron Kolodziej trusted Vickerson to mount all six turkeys that make up his rare “World Slam.”

“I’m quite satisfied with them,” Kolodziej said of his turkeys, two species of which he took in Mexico. “Mike is very competent and very honest.” Over the years, Kolodziej has also brought Vickerson assorted other game.

Early interest

As a lad growing up in Fort Plain, Vickerson said he learned to appreciate the outdoors. Part of that involved trapping. One day, he said, he was contemplating his catch and it occurred to him: “It would be cool to put it back together.”

His father took him to visit a taxidermist where he picked up some brochures on the craft. He began experimenting. By the time he was a senior in high school, he said, he knew he had a calling and a career.

A week after graduation he was headed to Wisconsin to enroll in taxidermy school.

What he learned when he returned to Fort Plain, he said, is that “it takes time to build a clientele.” During that transition period, he said, he worked a day job to support his family. After getting home from his job, working for a contractor for a telephone company, he’d spend every evening in his studio. Finally, some 15 years ago, Vickerson had developed the clientele to do taxidermy full time.

Vickerson tans his own deer hides using a standard chemical solution. The long-haired skins of other species are sent to a specialty tannery in Raleigh, N.C., which charges as much as $400 per hide. It also takes up to four months. To absorb the cost, he must charge as much as $2,700 for a full-body mount for some species. A full-body deer is $2,250.

“Some clients have trophy rooms larger than this studio,” Vickerson explains, adding, “and they are full.”

As taxidermists participating in the annual competitions know, professional judges distinguish the best from the merely good by getting out their flashlights and magnifying glasses to examine the intricate work around a mount’s eyes, nostrils and ears. Those are the areas that must look life-like in detail and the areas that will come apart if not done with skill.

One test of a good taxidermist, Vickerson said, is whether the mount still looks good after 20 years.

Always learning

Taxidermy is constantly changing — both in techniques and materials, Vickerson said. “I’m always learning, always getting better. Things I used five years ago are not used today,” he said. Cutting edge approaches, which often involve new tools, are a norm in the industry. “I subscribe to every trade magazine and go to every convention I can.”

Some taxidermists have trouble with fish, but it is one of Vickerson’s specialties. To win a competition, the mount must not have any visible seams. Vickerson has perfected the method of carefully skinning a fish and then turning it inside out like a tube sock so there are no seams.

Animals rights people may find the whole field of taxidermy distasteful, but they may take consolation from the fact that many trophy fishermen do not kill their catch. This group will take measurements and photographs and send them to Vickerson to totally recreate the fish.

There are basic plastic forms to be shaped and modified, but recreations necessitate employing the skills of a fine artist. Scales have to look like scales, and the unique and varied colorations have to be near perfect. It takes years to master the skills needed to layer the paints and colors to reproduce the markings of each species, Vickerson said.

Satisfied customers

Jason Kemper, the planning director for Saratoga County, goes to Vickerson for his deer, brook trout, northern pike and walleyes. Kemper said Vickerson has the artistic ability to examine the trophy and see the rendering that will achieve its full potential. “He’ll walk you through it,” Kemper said, always from the perspective that for the customer, “this is a once-in-a-lifetime trophy.”

Mike Rudzinis, president of United Taxidermists of New York, said Vickerson’s credentials and awards speak for themselves. “He’s a good taxidermist, obviously,” Rudzinis said. He said Vickerson, who is also credentialed as a professional judge, won his awards in very stiff competition.

Deer hunter Rick Beauchamp, who has had mounts done by taxidermists around the country, said he brought his latest trophy to Vickerson after examining his work.

It was clear, Beauchamp said, “Vickerson does a good job.”

Each year by September, Vickerson said he has all the deer heads completed. He puts at least 12 hours in each mount. Then there are the elk, caribou, wild boar, moose, turkey, bear and who knows what else. He has also done snakes and turtles.

Vickerson is not complaining about his workload. He smiles and shrugs. “I’m one guy. This is it,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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