Monday, February 20, 2017

DIY European Whitetail Deer Mount

A do-it-yourself Euro mount of my buck from this year didn't sound too hard. After all, I'd seen a few of my friends on Facebook do it. Yet, as I sit here now, freshly done with the process, the $75 fee to have it done by someone else doesn't sound too bad. I'm going to step you through the process of my homemade European mount, and you can decide for yourself if you want to go the DIY route.

Step 1 - harvest a nice buck

First, I'll start by saying that I shot the buck in early December. I knew I wouldn't get to the mount until the end of the season at the earliest, so I cleaned a lot of the meat from the neck and hung it in the (unheated) barn. I guess I could have made room in a freezer for it, but that would have been a real pain given the antlers. Eventually, the season ended, and I had to catch up on other projects, so the head hung for another couple of weeks. Finally, it was time to give it a go. I watched a number of YouTube videos and read a number of articles about the cleaning process. Honestly, a lot of the articles simply were not helpful. They either weren't detailed enough or were only convenient if you have certain tools/equipment that I don't have. However, this video was far and away my favorite: Not only was it informative, simple, and detailed, but the guy in the video has a sweet western PA accent. In addition, like this video, I don't have immediate access to a pressure washer or air compressor--two tools that are often cited as "necessities" in so many Euro mount articles. Although they certainly would have helped at times, a little extra time, effort, and elbow grease did the trick.

Overall, the head had a bit of a funk to it, mainly smelling like decaying meat, especially when I peeled off the skin. However, it really wasn't that bad...until I got to the mouth. At that point, a pungent smell that I won't soon forget wafted into my nostrils. The tongue had begun to decay...and it wreaked. Plus, it had partially turned to mush and coated parts of the mouth. So, in step 1, as soon as you decide you want to do a mount (i.e., when the deer is still fresh), cut the tongue out of the deer. The brain also began to turn to mush. Although gross, it didn't smell that bad, and it actually made it fairly easy to remove, but more on that later.

It took about 40 minutes to remove the skin and cut some of the bigger chunks of meat from the skull. At this point, the only tool I had a used was a small skinning knife. I prefer a small knife that is easy to finesse into small spaces and around delicate features. In addition, I highly recommend having a picture of a Euro mount in front of you, especially if you haven't done one before. Parts of the skull, such as the nose and sensory pits, are easy to break or mangle. Plus, a picture provides a good reference for identifying features of the skull that aren't necessarily common knowledge, which will help in the cleaning process. With my head "fairly clean", I went outside to start the fire.

In the video above, water is boiled on a hot plate, and many articles recommend using a turkey fryer. I don't own either of those items, and I certainly wasn't going to do it inside on the stove, so I planned ahead to do it over a fire. Thankfully, we have a couple nice fire pits at our house. I had saved a box of wrapping paper to get the fire started, to which I added the Christmas tree and some logs from our land. The fire was ripping in no time. Still, it took about 45 minutes to get the water in a 17 gallon tin wash bin (full of approximately 14 to 15 gallons of water) to get to a simmer. I also added a quick squirt of dish soap into the water to help breakdown oils on the skull.

Boiling the skull in the yard and enjoying the day and view

While the water was heating, I went back inside and grabbed some electrical tape. I used the tape to wrap the bottom 3"-4" of each antler. Although I wasn't using any sort of bleach or chemical in the water, the antlers have quite a bit of dried plant material on them from the buck rubbing trees, and I wanted to preserve it as much as possible. I then zip tied the antlers onto a long branch, placed the branch across the wash bin, and put the skull under water. I will warn you, do not fasten the zip ties too tight, as you may want to adjust the skull a bit during the boiling and cleaning process. I then set a timer for 2.5 hours and headed back inside to spend time with the family, although I did pop back out every 30 minutes or so to add wood to the fire.

After the 2.5 hours, I removed the skull from the water and began cleaning. At this point, I was using a mix of a knife, needle nose pliers, hemostats, and a wire brush. Although I was able to clean off a bit more meat, cartilage, and membrane, it needed more time in the water. However, the lower jaw did pop right off, and the eyes weren't too tough to remove. In hindsight, I would give the skull at least 4 hours (maybe even 5 or 6) during the first "slow boil". So, back in it went for another 2 hours.

The work station after the first 2.5 hour soak

Finally, I grabbed the skull again and removed as much material as possible. However, it was simply too dark to continue working on it. Although the area I was working in is well lit, it is lit by one large spotlight-style bulb that casts shadows that made it difficult to effectively work, especially around delicate areas like the nose cavity. So, I threw the skull in a box and stored it in a heated area overnight, mainly because I was worried that the water in the skull would freeze and lead to damage if left in the barn. If you plan on doing your Euro mount the long way (i.e., without a pressure washer or compressor), start the process early in the morning. However, even if you get all of the meat and material removed in one day and are ready to whiten the skull, I would let it sit overnight to dry, then wipe the skull with a rag to remove any residual oils.

Back to the fire for more soak time

The next day after work I grabbed the skull again for an hour or so of cleaning before dark. Although some of the material had become overly dry and hard, I was able to remove a lot more material, including a lot that came off easily using a wire brush. In addition, I used a screw driver to essentially scramble anything and everything in the brain cavity. I then ran water from a spigot into the cavity to flush out the material. I repeated this process 3-4 times, and afterward, it looked pretty good. The biggest problem area remained the back of the skull near the "ear lobes". I tried to remove the lobes as noted in the video above, but they simply weren't ready yet. Specifically, I put needle nose pliers in the lobes and tried to twist and work them free, but it just did not happen. I recommend using short pliers instead of long pliers during this step, as the long pliers wanted to flex and bend. I knew I had to remove more material, so I put the skull back in hot water.

This time, I wasn't doing another fire, and my wife was kind enough to let me do it in the kitchen since there wasn't much left to do. Thankfully, it didn't really smell, and two hours at a steady simmer did the trick. Some chunks of meat and material came off in the hot bath, and the rest of the meat was fairly easily removed with pliers, forceps, and a wire brush. Additionally, the ear lobes popped right off (see detailed instructions in the video above). At that point, it was time to prep the peroxide bath. Initially, I mixed a concoction of peroxide, baking soda, and water. It formed a paste that I used to coat the skull. I then let it sit for a few hours. Unfortunately, it didn't really do the trick. So, I decided to mix a batch of peroxide and water in approximately a 1:1 ratio. Note that you will need two important things during this step: an ideal size bin and a lot of peroxide. Some folks heat their peroxide-water mixture, but I kept the mixture at room temperature to avoid antler discoloration caused by the steam. After eventually finding a plastic bin that was a decent size (tall sides, long enough to fit the skull, and fairly narrow), I added the peroxide and water. I only had three bottles of peroxide (two "regular" bottles and one with a spray nozzle), so I could only cover about 1/4 of the skull, but thankfully, I was able to completely cover the teeth and most of the nasal cavity. I then regularly sprayed the skull with about a 60:40 peroxide-water mixture and also poured the mixture in the bottom of the bin over the skull every hour or so. I let the skull sit and doused it for about 36 hours. At that point, the skull wasn't bleach white, but I felt it was the perfect tone--white enough to look clean, but off-white enough to look natural. I really don't like the look of the uber white skulls.

The skull soaking in a whitening mixture

Mounting the skull was pretty easy. I used a piece of old barn wood, a 4" decking screw, a 7/64" drill bit, and a drill based on the video linked above. I drilled pilot holes in the board and skull. Then, I put the screw through the wood and into the skull. I added a hangar on the back, and the process was finished. Although this is probably obvious for most, make sure that you hang the mount in a stud or using an anchor of some sort. Additionally, I will note that I drilled everything at a slight angle because I liked that look better. A more vertical mount limits what you can see of the the more intricate parts of the skull, and after all the work that went into it, that seemed like a real waste.

The finished project hanging in the nursery

So, would I do it again? I think I would, but I would ABSOLUTELY borrow a pressure washer. I would even go down to the local gas station with a pocket full of quarters and use the air compressor. Additionally, I would tweak some of the "boil' times (particularly, a longer first soak), and I would definitely clean the skull more before starting the process. If you are going to do everything by hand, buy forceps with large finger holes. The ones I used were what I generally use for fly fishing, but they got really annoying during skull picking because of how poorly they fit and moved on my fingers.

I hope this blog helps you on your quest for the "perfect" DIY Euro mount of your next deer. It is quite the process, but it is totally worth it. Until next time, tight lines!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife Video - The Value of Hunters and Anglers

A lot of folks out there still have mixed feelings about hunting, and even fishing, due to the nature of the sports. If you are like me, your reasons for hunting and fishing are numerous and diverse, and it is important for people to know why we hunt and fish, as well as the benefits of hunting and fishing. This recent video from Mass. Fish and Wildlife did a great job of conveying just how much outdoorsmen and women do for conservation and preservation in MA. Hopefully, we can continue to see progressive strategies and management from MA Wildlife in the future!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Protect the Clean Water Act and Clean Water Rule

I don't get political on this site, and I don't really want to frame this blog in the context of politics, but it is going to happen. The following article has been popping up all over this morning: In it, the Trump administration states "For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years."

As someone who spent years in energy research, the rate at which this country could go backward compared to other countries around the world is alarming. Seriously, to save a few bucks, and mind you, not for me or most of the readers of this blog, but for huge corporations, we should not be willing to throw our environment down the drain. Granted, we don't yet know exactly what will be proposed, but the hints that have been dropped are really discouraging. Regardless of your stance on energy, the second part of the statement should bother you as an outdoorsman or outdoorswoman.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) likely isn't going anywhere, nor will it change, but the Clean Water Rule could. The linked article explains a bit about the rule, but basically, it protects small waterways such as brooks, streams, creeks, small rivers, ponds, and wetlands across the country. Without it, those small flows would not be protected under the CWA. Most industry on such flows has been dead for decades, yet lifting this rule will "help increase wages and employment." Personally, I would like to see those calculations (or are they "alternative facts"?). I have no doubt that restructuring the energy system in our country will be done in a way to increase jobs and profits ("wages"), but I can only think of one way that eliminating the Clean Water Rule would make any type of substantial impact. If eliminated, companies would be able to freely pollute these waters without being fined or held accountable for their actions, at least not to the current level of accountability. For a glimpse into how wrong that can go, look up the the coal ash and sewage issues in NC and how little has been done about them. The adage "We all live downstream" has been a rally cry of environmental protection for years. Maybe it is time to start thinking a bit harder about who lives, works, and plays upstream too.

I advocate for anyone reading this blog to take a second and write, call, or email your local legislators regarding this issue. Notably, those of you who voted for Trump--you wanted this country to be run more like a business, and the self-centered businessman who now calls the shots is doing just that. We need to all come together for this administration to be a success. That means praising the good, calling out the bad, and understanding that there probably will be some missteps due to the steep learning curve of going from business to global politics. In this case, stand up for our woods and waters, as well as all of the sportsmen and sportswomen who call them home.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Look Back at Another Hunting Season

Well, the 2016 hunting season is in the books. Some of it seems like a broken record. For example, I didn't spend nearly enough time scouting or bow hunting. Yet again, I regret it, although I feel like I have  a pretty good excuse (who was only 3.5 months old when archery season started). However, like every year, it was a year of many firsts: my first MA buck, my first miss in quite some time, and my first time exploring numerous new areas. In the end, I keep coming back to the idea that so much of hunting is simply about time and space. OK, that seems pretty obvious, but let me explain.

My first MA buck was worth the wait

Temporally, hunting is a sport of seconds, minutes, and hours. We constantly make split-second decisions. We react to sounds and movements, identify bucks and does, evaluate the shots we take, and the list goes on. Sometimes, it comes down to minutes. For instance, I was slowly working my way upwind into an area to do a push with Mary May toward the end of the shotgun season. As I came around some brush, I spotted a nice buck about 50 yards in front of me. Unfortunately, it was too late. He saw me, spooked, and headed for the hills. Despite my best efforts, I could not turn him toward MM. I kept thinking about the unlucky timing of the encounter. A minute earlier, and the brush may have actually shielded me, at least partially, from his view as he walked in for a potential shot. A minute or two later, and he likely would have continued toward MM and been seen during the push. But that timing and those seemingly trivial minutes are all part of hunting, much like refusing to hit the snooze button for an extra few minutes on those cold winter mornings. Then comes the importance of hours--hours of scouting, shooting, prepping...and hunting. Sometimes, the stars align, and a big buck magically walks in and makes things easy, but typically, those hours need to add up before things come together. Or, it could be that you showed up to one of your favorite areas an hour or so after a snowshoer--who totally sabotaged your final hunt of the season--not that I'm bitter or anything.

Multiple days this season began and ended with icicles on my face

Spatially, it is all about inches and feet. Shooting is a game of inches, and a mere inch can separate a clean shot from hours of tracking. Of course, antlers are also measured in inches, and although I consider myself a meat hunter, there is always something a little more special about harvesting a big buck. Additionally, if you are like me, both good and bad luck have come down to a few feet in one direction or another. If I had stood just 10 feet away from the ancient birch tree I was leaning against, I might have been able to see the head of a large-bodied deer that walked through a nearby thicket mid-season. Within that roughly 10-foot radius were a dozen trees, equally good for leaning, albeit not as big. It was yet another "what if" moment. These instances add up over the course of a season, and when things don't go well, they can certainly affect you mentally, but the only real solution is more time in the woods. That means more time in quiet reflection, thinking about family, work, life, etc. and hoping to catch a brown shadow, or maybe a ghost, in your peripheral vision.

Thoughts of this amazing little guy and his beautiful mom occupy a lot of my thoughts while in the woods 

By the end of the season, just about every facet of time and space had specifically affected my hunts, often negatively, but on a few occasions, those factors aligned in my favor. One such occasion resulted in a beautiful 110 inch, 140 lb (hanging weight) buck, and in the end, that is the only thing I will likely remember 20 years from now. Well, I may remember that miss...that #$%!#* miss. Beyond that, I'll remember this as my first year hunting as a father, and I'll always fondly reflect upon the hours I get to spend with my wife and extended family in the woods as we visit old haunts and explore new ones.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I can't recap a good day in the woods, let alone a good season, without mentioning my grandfather. Below is a picture of him that I recently saw and wanted to share, as it immediately brought a big smile to my face...and I might have had to choke back a tear.

My grandfather, great Uncle Zig, sister, and I with a central PA buck

I hope those of you reading this had a successful year in the woods--whether you harvested a deer or are eating tag soup. Regardless of how it turned out, there is always something to be learned from time in the woods. Sometimes, we learn about the deer, and sometimes, we learn about ourselves. At the end of the season, it always takes some time to get back to reality. It is hard to stop day dreaming about the big deer that roam these New England woods. I may miss the hunt, but I absolutely cherish the time with my young family.

The end of the season means more time with the family--including cruising through the snow in the new ride!

Until next time, tight lines!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Frost Buck

My mother-in-law, Johanna, firmly believes that all big bucks deserve a name that preserves their memory for generations. She has the Christmas buck, an enormous 6 pointer that weighed in at over 200 lbs dressed. As you can probably guess, it was shot on Christmas day. My wife has Talisman, a giant non-typical buck that is one of the biggest in Massachusetts history with a score of 199. The skull of a third giant buck hangs on the wall of Johanna's house. The Bilger buck is a massive 12 pointer that was shot in 1949 by Les Bilger, a renowned hunter and trapper from the area who was a family friend. That buck rough scored 174-175. The buck I harvested this past Saturday wasn't quite at the level of those deer, but he certainly deserves a name. Because of the story that goes with the hunt, I think I'll call him the Frost buck, as a tribute to "The Road Less Traveled." This is how he earned it.

The Frost buck

After a night where Cullen woke up screaming every hour or so, I somehow managed to roll out of bed and make the drive to one of my favorite hunting areas. The wind was howling, with gusts over 30 MPH. I set up downwind of a feeding area, with a bedding area to my south. I was hoping to catch them making their morning commute. Just before first light, I set out a couple pieces of cloth I had sprayed with doe urine. About ten minutes later, I heard what sounded like crashing toward the bedding area, sounds that faded quickly away from me. I suspect a young buck was bedded and came to investigate, only to get a strong whiff of me and head for the hills. In all likelihood, the wind had forced them out of the open feeding area and into the sheltered bedding area earlier than usual.

After a while longer, I crept to another spot where deer move, albeit randomly, throughout the day. It wasn't long before I looked up the ridge to see a couple deer moving. Unfortunately, the wind was swirling toward them in a direction it hadn't blown all morning. I am pretty sure they scented me or something else because they didn't stick around long and never got close to being in range.

My wife is pretty famous throughout MA and New England for this giant buck 

Eventually, I headed back to the house to meet up with Mary May and my father-in-law Jerry. We decided to push an area where we suspected those deer had headed; however, the push yielded nothing. With only about an hour before lunch, we decided to try another short push in area we know well. After getting set, I started to slowly climb a long hillside toward where Jerry was situated. My job in the push is to cover the back door via a route I've walked dozens of times. Generally, I either push deer up toward Jerry or re-direct deer coming from MM's direction. Of course, if you sneak in, it is a great spot to sit and wait, which I have done many a morning. As I walked, I was noticing fairly fresh sign here and there, as well as giant coyote tracks. Suddenly, I came over a knob and saw a blob of orange near one of my old spots. I had to do a double take. At this point, I was way off the beaten path, and we never see other hunters in that area. I was somewhat let down as I pondered what to do next. I decided to circle back a few hundred yards and cross a flat well above him to not disturb his hunt too much. Typically, I avoid that route because walking across it leaves too many gaps in our push, rather than funneling deer toward Jerry's position. In this case, the less-preferred route was my only option.

I slowly made my way up a small secondary ridge and onto a flat that angles uphill for a few hundred yards before hitting thicker woods. I was moving fairly quickly and quietly, as the ground had thawed and allowed me to walk without a crunch beneath each step. As I stepped into a small lane in the trees, I caught a glimpse of the outline of a deer about 50 yards away. I was directly down wind, and he had no clue I was there. As I raised my gun, the deer raised its head, and I could see the reflection of an antler. I took a deep breath, focused, took my time, and squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped instantly.

In full disclosure, it was hard to tell just how big he was originally. I never got a great look at the head, and I could only see from the base of the neck down from where I was standing, but it looked like a big-bodied deer--the perfect kind for filling the freezer. I waited about 20 minutes while trying frantically to get a text message to send to MM letting her know that the deer was down. Of course, I also texted her earlier that there was another hunter in the area, and that text didn't send right away. So, she got the "there is another hunter down here" text and the "deer down" text at the same time. "Yours?!" I eventually got back. I'm sure the suspense was killing her.

In that span, I also heard the other hunter climb down and walk out of the woods. I feel a little bad about the way it happened, although he couldn't see or hear that deer from where he was. I guess luck was simply on my side that morning, and hopefully that luck finds him this season as well.

As they say on those annoying hunting shows, "big buck down"

I eventually walked over to the deer to check and make sure he was dead. The neck shot was a quick kill, and I got my first good look at him. He was bigger than I had thought--way bigger--in fact, the 9 pointer is the biggest deer I've ever killed (granted, I didn't really hunt for about a decade while in college and both rounds of grad school).

Soon after, MM and Jerry got to me and saw the buck. I'm not sure who was more excited, MM or me, but all three of us were smiling from ear to ear as I told the story of how it happened. Our family has been pretty successful the past couple years, harvesting three bucks and a doe, but this is the biggest buck that has been taken by the group since the Christmas buck in 2006.

A family buck! 

We were a long way from the truck, and although over half the drag was downhill, the terrain was fairly unforgiving. The last 1/4 mile or so was almost all uphill. Needless to say, I'm still sore a couple days later, and I'm glad Jerry and MM were there to help me drag it out. Per tradition, we took the buck to Gould's Sugar House to check it in with a state biologist. Processing will begin for us tomorrow, and fresh loins, steaks, burger, and sausage will soon be on the menu.

I always enjoy checking in my deer here in MA and learning more about them from the biologists (also, of course the kid who never wants to look at the camera is staring right at it in this pic)

I always get sentimental after a successful hunt. This year was particularly special because it was the first hunting season for Cullen. Of course, he won't be out there with us, but I like to think of him as my little good luck charm. Additionally, it was my first MA buck, which goes to show that curses can be broken (for more on that, see my synopsis of last year). Of course, I always think about my grandfather, who taught me so much about hunting, and although I never met him, about Ted Howes, the namesake for Cullen's middle name who had such a special influence on MM and her parents (as well as numerous others). Thanks for looking down on us with your amazing facial hair, old timers! You, and fate, steered me down a path in the woods I rarely take, but this time, it was meant to be.

My two favorites snapped a selfie while we were cutting down our Christmas tree last week

Until next time, tight lines!