ALTON — John Dykstra knows his work inside and out, literally.
On Father’s Day 2011, Ed Laliberte of Alton landed an 8-pound togue at Schoodic Lake. Nine months later, he’s arriving at Northland Taxidermy to retrieve his trophy fish, exquisitely mounted on a shed moose antler by Dykstra. He is a state- and federally licensed taxidermist.
Inquisitive black Labs investigate Laliberte and other visitors crossing the shop’s threshold on this gray March afternoon. Soon the sky will emit a light, cold rain, but inside the taxidermy shop at 260 Alton Tannery Road, Laliberte is all smiles as he checks out his trophy.
He recalls the moment he decided to mount the magnificent togue: “When I saw it coming out of the water, I did,” he says. “Course they look a lot bigger before you get ’em in the net.
“It’s the first I’ve had mounted,” Laliberte says, adding that the togue was a half pound heavier and 1½ inches longer than another togue caught by his wife, Diane.
Soon after catching it, Laliberte dropped off the fish with Dykstra. Mounting a fish begins with its preservation: Dykstra recommends that an angler who cannot deliver a fish quickly to a taxidermist should wrap the fish “in a towel and plastic and freeze it.
“The towel keeps the [fish] fins from getting busted,” he explains.
Dykstra has preserved fish, birds, and mammals for a long time. While growing up in New Jersey, he realized that “when I wanted to preserve an animal I had shot, I had to do it myself. I was more or less self taught” by reading a Northwestern School of Taxidermy correspondence course that his father had ac-quired.
He opened Northland Taxidermy in 1980 and moved it to its current location in 1992. Rachel Rounds of Hudson joined him full time in 2009; she obtained her state taxidermy license last summer.
“The definition of taxidermy is, ‘Move skin.’ That’s what we do,” Dykstra says. Over the years, taxidermy has changed — and it has not. “The basics are the same, but the materials that are available to make it [an animal] look real have changed,” he explains. “You take the dead critter” and stretch its skin “over an artificial body of some material, mostly rigid foam.”
In the past, “every taxidermist had to make his own mannequins,” he says. “Sometimes they made fish bodies out of wood. They would use the original deer skull” and “build it up” with clay and plaster of paris and “fill out” a rutting buck’s thick neck with excelsior (or wood wool).
Today a mannequin removes the guesswork in mounting an animal. According to Dykstra, by carefully measuring specific points on a skin, a taxidermist can order a mannequin that “fits.”
He explains that “you make the form (mannequin) fit the skin” by carefully measuring between an animal’s eye and nose, around the animal’s neck at the base of the ears, and “about 3 inches back” from the base of the ears. With these measurements, “we order a mannequin to fit the hide,” he said.
Dykstra orders a mannequin for every bird, fish, and mammal that he mounts. No subject is too small, and every mannequin imaginable is available; opening one manufacturer’s catalog to the deer section, Dykstra counted more than 120 pages of mannequins for deer shoulder mounts.
A taxidermist’s work starts as soon as a bird, fish, or mammal arrives at the shop. Anglers and hunters deliver their trophies any time of day; during the fall, hunters often arrive at Northland Taxidermy after dark. Most people call Dykstra to tell him what they are bringing; other people “just show up,” he says.
Sometimes a hunter brings just the head and hide, sometimes the entire animal. “If it needs to be skinned, we skin it,” Dykstra says. “You want to separate the meat from the skin as soon as you can. The customer gets the meat.”
Not every animal arrives promptly. “We can salvage most stuff,” but a hide left too long on a carcass can spoil, Dykstra says. “Most people have been educated to take care of them (animals) quickly.”
Once the hide has been removed and flensed, Dykstra and Rounds turn the ears inside out, split the lips, and shave around the eyes. Then they salt the hide before storing it in a walk-in cooler.
“Once they’re salted, they can sit there for a month or more,” Dykstra says.
A Pennsylvania tannery picks up hides, “quite a few at times,” at Northland Taxidermy and other taxidermy shops in Maine, he says. Before shipping a hide, Dykstra marks the inner skin with a metal punch that identifies the hunter. After the tannery returns the hide, he marks the inner skin with a number to “match the number to the [hunter’s] name.”
Dykstra strives to mount an animal, bird, or fish “in a year” after its delivery to Northland Taxidermy. He and Rounds handle “200 to 300 jobs” a year.
While Laliberte picks up his trophy togue, Rounds installs a glass eye on an 8-point buck that she’s mounting. Shot last year in Brooksville, the deer hails from Maine, as do most wildlife mounted at Northland Taxidermy.
However, Dykstra’s shop hints at hunting that occurred farther afield. A bull elk lifts its massive rack toward the ceiling; a thick-muscled Cape buffalo stares across the room where Rounds carefully works. A hunter bagged the elk in British Columbia; the Cape buffalo hails from Zimbabwe.
The buffalo “was neat to work on,” Dykstra says. “It was the first I’d ever worked on.”
Discussing the other mounts he has done, he observes that “they all have their challenges.” One major challenge awaited Dykstra and Rounds when the Brooksville buck arrived at the shop: The hide had spoiled.
“We agreed to use a different cape (skin),” Rounds says, pausing for a moment as she delicately tucks skin around the mount’s glass eye. Dykstra purchased the replacement cape from a butcher who had skinned other deer.
Rounds resumes her detailed work. She has applied glue to the mannequin; carefully positioning the cape around the glass eye, she fastens the cape to the mannequin with pins that “will hold the cape in position until the glue sets up.”
Rounds initially worked on small game animals when she started working for Dykstra. Her skill levels have improved; when she took the Maine taxidermist test, she brought with her one mount she had created for each of the four categories for which she tested: fish, deer, birds, and small game.
Rounds passed the test, “the hardest in New England.” Now she can mount a deer head “in about four hours.
“For me, a deer head would be easier than a bobcat,” she says.
Based on her experience, Rounds notices differences in taxidermists’ work. “If it looks alive, the guy has done it right,” she says. “That’s what we’re striving for.”
With the spring turkey hunt just around the corner, business remains steady at Northland Taxidermy. Dykstra estimates that there are less than 100 “active taxidermists” in Maine. The work is painstaking, and “it’s not something [that] someone is going to make a killing at,” he comments. “We’re making a living and paying our bills.”