‘If it means something, it’s worth putting on the wall’A talk with John Dykstra of Northland Taxidermy
Northland Taxidermy has provided hunters with lifelike game mounts for more than 30 years. In the woods of Alton, the shop’s owner John Dykstra stays busy with fish scales and bear hides year round, and he has passed on his knowledge to his son, Dan Dykstra (now an accomplished fish mount painter) and former apprentice Rachel Rounds, a licensed taxidermist and full-time employee at Northland Taxidermy as of last year.
Mid-August, at the cusp of bear hunting season, Dykstra stepped away from his bait sites and worktable to answer a few questions about his business and the art of taxidermy in Maine.
BDN: How old were you when you created your first mount and what was it?
John Dykstra: It was probably a chipmunk or something – a chipmunk or a pigeon or something like that. I was probably 10, 12.
BDN: So what got you into taxidermy at such a young age?
Dykstra: When I got something with the BB gun, I wanted to preserve it. My father had always hunted, and he had different mounts around, so knew about taxidermy but couldn’t do anything myself, as far as having somebody else do it. I always worked with my hands a lot, anyway. I’ve been told I’m fairly artistic, I guess. I dunno. I’ll leave it somebody else to judge that, but yeah. [My father] had old mailorder taxidermy lessons that I dug out and read through and [I] started out doing it the old school way.
BDN: What is the range of animals you mount and do you have a specialty?
Dykstra: We do about anything anybody wants to bring through the door that’s legal. There are some things that people would like to have done – hawks and owls – and we have the permits to do those, if they have to have the permits to keep them. But the most common things are deer, bear, moose, the typical Maine game animals. But we do other things, too. We did a cape buffalo for a fella from Glenburn. He went over to Africa, a safari, and brought back a cape buffalo. It might be the only one we ever do. We’ve done mountain lions and caribou, elk, stuff that’s not native to Maine. As long as we’ve got good reference, we can do a good job for somebody.
BDN: So do you have any idea how many animals you’ve mounted over the years?
Dykstra: Not for sure, but we do somewhere in the vicinity of 300-400 pieces a year. We’ve had years when we’ve done over 100 deer heads, over 100 bears, but with the deer population being down and the economy tending to cut into the bear hunting – bear hunting is a really expensive proposition even if you do it yourself. It costs a lot of time and bait and the price of fuel. People can’t afford it like they could a couple of years ago. So we don’t have the volume right now that we had. And there’s been some competition, too. Some new guys have popped up, and the pie’s only so big. We get our share of it, but wouldn’t mind having some more.
BDN: What has changed in the taxidermy world recently?
Dykstra: The biggest changes is more openness with the stuff that’s available. Back prior, say in the 70s or before that, taxidermists tended to keep all the secrets to themselves. If they had a good way of doing it, they weren’t going to tell anybody else. Now, some of the nationally-known taxidermists have been affiliated with some of the supply companies and they get paid to tell people how to do different things. And new materials and mannequins that come out, the supply companies want you to know how to use them, so provide a lot of how-to stuff. So it’s more open, the exchange of information. There’s forums online, too, if you have a problem with something, you can get on taxidermy.net, I think it is, and talk to other taxidermists.
BDN: What are some old techniques in taxidermy that won’t change?
Dykstra: You’ve still got to skin them. You’ve still got to scrape the fat and meat and sew and turn the ears out. The preparation is no different now really than it was hundreds of years ago. The animal still has to be skinned, the ears, lips turned, the flesh salted or tanned, preserved in some fashion that way, the basics, the initial steps are the same. The whole goal all along is to re-create a critter that was actually living and breathing at one time.
BDN: What has changed you think with all the conservation efforts and catch and release?
Dykstra: Most people still want their fish. They want the real head. They don’t want the fake head. We can use artificial heads, especially on salmon or cold-water fish, but most of the mounts we do are real skin mounts with the real head … I’ve had a few cases where people have caught something — either they caught it and didn’t mount it when they had it or they caught a fish in a catch and release water — then we can order a fiberglass reproduction. It’s not going to be that exact fish, but it’s going to be close.
BDN: What is a frequent mistake people make when they bring in an animal?
Dykstra: Usually they make a mistake when they’re skinning them. Fish, if they gut it, that’s not usually a good thing because when we skin a fish, it’s usually going to go on the wall, so we’ll make the cut on the backside so the seam won’t show. If they gut it, then we’ve got to fix that … Animals, deer especially, when they’re skinning them for a shoulder mount, they cut them wrong … If they skin the critter, I usually recommend they bring in the whole hide so that if it’s cut wrong, at least we’ve got all the pieces.
BDN: What’s the strangest creature you’ve mounted?
Dykstra: We’ll, I’ve done a few strange ones. I’ve done a gecko more than once. Done a few pets — cats and dogs. I’m not about to do my own cat and dog, but doing someone else’s dog that I don’t know personally, that’s alright.
BDN: How often do you get taxidermy requests for pets?
Dykstra: We get several calls a year about it. I don’t know the animal personally. I mean, the cat or dog has personal expressions that if you don’t know, you can’t create that. [The customers] have to have a good reference for me to even attempt to do it. [Pet mounts] are much more expensive than say a coyote or bobcat because they don’t make commercial mannequins for dogs and cats, pets. And no matter how good a job I do, it’s still not going to be alive. It’s just an empty shell and the rest of them is missing. But we can make them look quite well.
BDN: What is about taxidermy that keeps you interested?
Dykstra: The variety. You’re not doing exactly the same thing all the time. When you’re doing deer heads, you’re doing one after another and that can get tedious; but then, if you get tired of doing deer heads, you can work on some fish, a bear or something else. For me, I’ve always been fascinated with wildlife anyway. The original creator did the best job. I just try to recreate that so somebody can put on the wall so they have those memories to fall back on. That’s something – when somebody mounts something like a deer everybody thinks about mounting a big deer. Well, it doesn’t have to be big, it just has to mean something to you. A kid’s first deer might be a doe or a button horn or something like that, but it meant something to that kid, or adult, whoever it was. If it means something, it’s worth putting on the wall.
For information about Northland Taxidermy, visit northlandtaxidermyshop.com. To search an extensive, but incomplete, list of the many taxidermists in Maine, visit themainehuntingguide.com/taxidermy.html.
BDN: What’s the most artistically challenging thing to do in taxidermy?
Dykstra: The facial expression has to look right. The eyes particularly have to look right, and the mouth, the nose. If that doesn’t look right, the whole critter doesn’t look right.
BDN: What’s your favorite animal to mount?
Dykstra: Favorite thing to do — probably some kinds of small mammals like bobcats and fox, stuff where you can make a habitat, kind of make a scene in the woods, recreate it.
BDN: What are some new trends and materials you’ve seen in the taxidermy business recently?
Dykstra: There’s always new stuff coming out – different bases, different mannequins – companies are always coming up with something new. Some of it is better and some of it’s just different. But they really want you to know how to use them. There’s a lot of how-to stuff. A lot of it has to do with artistic ability and patience. Two different people can use the same stuff and not come up with the same result. If the mounts look like they’re alive, then they’ve done a good job. If they don’t look alive or like they’re about to step off the wall at any moment in time, then they haven’t got it quite right.
BDN: Where do you learn all the little anatomical details in the animals?
Dykstra: We do a lot of field work, sitting in the treestand. When you’re out there hunting, you’re watching all the other critters around too. You see how they move and where they go, and what the woods look like. I mean some people build a habitat and they put all the grasses and plants in nice little neat rows. Well, that’s not how stuff grows out in the woods. It grows all helter skelter and bent over and stepped on. So for a habitat to look natural, that’s what it should be … When you shoot a deer, you’re looking at the eyes and nose and how its all put together. We do work from pictures here as well, but the firsthand observation is always good. When fishing, you’re looking at the colors and taking your own pictures and looking at details of particular fish so that when you go to work on something, you can recreate that.
BDN: What do you hunt?
Dykstra: Whatever’s legal. I like to bow hunt. I like to deer hunt. Duck hunting. But I do more deer hunting than anything else, just because I have more opportunity to … there’s not enough time in the day or days in the fall to do it all.
BDN: What do you enjoy most about taxidermy?
Rachel Rounds of Northland Taxidermy: I like the art. Like that fawn over there. (Rounds walks to a mounted fawn lying down on a constructed habitat of ferns and wildflowers.) The way you can get expressions out of it, like the eye for instance, you want that big wide-eyed look. You’re creating everything. If the eye is slightly more closed it will have that sleepy look, and if it’s more open, it will have that bright-eyed look about it. I like putting together these bases with the different habitat – a little flower in there – I don’t know, I tend to go maybe a little overboard with the habitat. John is usually telling me to go a little easier on it, but … it’s like an art.