For me, hunting is a process that begins with hunt planning and anticipation, peaks with execution of that plan and the excitement of the hunt itself, and concludes with memories and stories with healthy meals from the harvest. If lucky, I’ll get reruns in my head sparked from a lifetime memento on the wall, sometimes as a skull mount. Handling and cleaning a skull has an almost cathartic aspect to it – respect and recognition of the life you’ve consciously taken, and using that entire animal to it’s fullest. Handling an animal’s skull drives the finality of hunting home.
I’ve received a lot of questions lately about doing your own ‘European’ skull mounts after images have been posted on social media, and I’m happy to share my methods for doing your own here. If it’s not your thing, that’s ok too, there are plenty of talented taxidermists around who can do it for you. The method outlined here has worked for me on bear, javelina, wild boar, antelope, sheep, moose and deer, and should work well for you too.
In Part 1 of this tutorial, we’ll go through decision making process, transporting it home, caping the skull, boiling the skull, and cleaning it. In Part 2 next week, we’ll cover a peroxide treatment, rinse and drying, any touch-up, displaying and enjoying. I’ll try to cover everything in regards to techniques, tools, display aids, method variations for horned vs antlered species, and lessons learned.
Aoudad Ram On Skullhooker Wall Mount
Step 1: The Decision
What to do with the skull of a harvested animal is one of the first decisions you’ll have to make upon its recovery in the field. Skull mount vs shoulder or other mount will dictate how you cape that animal. It’s ultimately a personal decision that’s influenced by a lot of factors from personal judgement of trophy quality, to budget, to wall real estate, to spouse tolerance of dead things on walls, to your willingness/physical ability to get a complete cape off of a mountain versus the lighter weight of just a skull. It’s really up to you.
Skull Caped Out and Ready to Go Home
I personally like skull mounts because I can do them myself, fairly quickly. Done properly they are heirlooms for generations versus shoulder mounts that can collect dust and slowly break down over time. They take up far less room on a wall, and are much easier to move when it’s time to pack up a home and relocate.
European Plaque Skull Cap Mount from Bungard Ancestor in Austria from 1896
You can always cape an animal fully in the field and pack the cape and skull out, or leave the skull in and cape attached if conditions allow and decide later, but I try to make these decisions on the spot in the field, and process the animal accordingly. Packs do get filled much faster when you’re not being careful caping the hide for a full shoulder or larger mount.
Pack Weight Goes Up Fast When Capes and Full Skulls Are Involved
Step 2: Caping the Skull
Once I’ve made the decision to do a skull mount, I don’t get very picky or detailed in caping it out. It’s the last step I do in the field once all the meat is in game bags. Sometimes I’ll also just remove the head at the base of the skull and cape it out back in camp by a fire, but usually I’ll go ahead and quickly remove the cape, lower jaw, tongue and eyes to save the weight. A small caping knife like Buck’s Paklite Caper make the job pretty quick. Make sure to cut up as close to possible to the base of antlers or horns, removing as much flesh as possible. A larger knife blade helps get deep enough cuts on the muscles that connect the lower jaw to the upper skull and once you’ve done a few you’ll learn the anatomy and where those cuts need to happen to pry them apart without too much hassle.
Dad and I Caping Our Newfoundland Moose Skulls Back at Rocky Ridge Camp
Step 3: Getting It Home
This can be any easy step, or a challenging one depending on where and what you are hunting. Getting a caped skull home is easy if you cleaned the deer in your garage, or pack it to your truck and drive it home from a few miles away – but what if you half-way across the country, or in another one?
Over the years I’ve learned a few options and tricks.
Packing Out A Caped Whitetail Skull
Option A: Strap It On and Drive It. If you have a 30-hour drive home ahead, just strap that caped skull on a roof rack, or wrap it in a plastic bag and throw it in the back of the truck. I’ll use cam straps or paracord to secure large skulls like moose or caribou on the roof, and the air flowing over the skulls will dehydrate them and help keep flies off and stink levels down. If storing in a vehicle, I’ll salt the head, wrap the head in paper towels, and secure in a plastic bag.
Getting Ready For the Long Drive from Newfoundland to Tennessee
Option B: Check It. If there’s air travel involved, getting that skull home can be a bit more challenging, but also fairly easy to manage. Skulls for non-antlered game can be frozen (optional), salted, wrapped in paper towels and double or triple garbage bagged and carried on or checked on most airlines – just be prepared for potential trouble from TSA and have a plan if they refuse it as carry on. It’s never happened to me, but you never know what mood the agent will be in that day. Being nice always helps.
Pronghorn Skull and Meat Packed in Orion 45
I’ve also packed skulls in my Orion along with frozen meat, and checked it. It’s easy to fit non-antlered skulls, or even pronghorn antelope as shown here packed with the meat in an Orion 45. Keep in mind the 50-lb weight limit when flying coach, 70-lb in First Class, or some airlines like Southwest allow up to 100-lb for $99 (subject to change, check weight restrictions with your airline at time of booking). Again, being nice helps – on my flight home from WY with the fully processed antelope, skull and cooler my weight was over 80 lbs, but the agent didn’t even charge me for it because she thought the cooler was so cool.
Pronghorn Arriving Safely Home
Option C: Ship It. Antlered skulls like whitetail or horned animals like rams get a little harder to fit into checked luggage, and I’ll usually opt to ship them home to myself. That process involves finding the nearest UPS or FedEx store, and walking in with the skull salted, wrapped in paper towels, and double or triple heavy duty garbage bagged. They may look at you funny, but they’ve always been helpful. They’ll help size a box for you, and have packing aids like bubble wrap for sale there to protect it.
The images below are from an aoudad taken in TX last Fall and shipped home this way, arriving just fine and ready to go in a pot. You’ll find that 2-day shipping is usually pretty reasonable. Just make sure you wrap it well to prevent any fluid leaks. My Dad and I once shipped two boxes of javelina skulls home to ourselves from Del Rio, TX. Mine arrived in TN ok, but his was held at his local GA FedEx office due to box staining and ‘odors’, so he had to go get it in person.
Aoudad Ram from Cow Creek Ranch
Aoudad Skull Cleaned
Aoudad Ram Skull Packed at FedEx, San Antonio, TX Before Shipment to TN
Option D: Taxidermist. Sometimes it’s just hard getting animal parts home. Taxidermists know all the legal requirements if crossing country borders, and are very familiar with the process of crating or boxing and shipping. Their services are definitely the easiest way to go in some cases.
Dad’s Alaska Caribou, Crate Unpacking In Georgia
Step 4: Toss it in a Pot.
Where you put that pot is up to you, and somewhat a function of steps 1-3. I’ve started to boil skulls within 24 hours of harvest, before any decomposition has even set in. That doesn’t smell too bad in the kitchen, but you probably won’t win any Brownie points with your spouse. If it’s been days, or coming out of a shipped box, don’t go there unless you live alone and like it that way. I use a big stainless stock pot on a side burner on my propane grill, or on a Camp Chef/Coleman fuel type stove. I’ll add some Dawn to cut grease, get it to slow boil, and let it roll. If it’s particularly greasy skulls, like bear, or moose, I may boil, dump, refresh the water and boil again. I’ll let it boil for a few hours, periodically checking the water level to make sure the skull is covered, but doing my best to keep the antlers or horns above the water line as not to fade them, or get the grease layer that forms on the water surface on them.
Moose Skull In My Normal Skull Stock Pot = Problem
For particularly large skulls like moose, or multiple skulls at once, I’ve added a large Behrens oval steet tub (planters bin) to my tool bag. It’s galvanized and water tight, and works surprisingly well for boiling large skulls. That tub over a double-burner Camp Chef Ranger stove has proven very helpful for boiling, and the peroxide process (more on that later).
Moose Skull Boiling in Behrens Tub = Problem Solved
Step 5A: Cleaning Antlered or Non-Antlered Skulls.
After hours of boiling, you’ll see any flesh tenderize and pull away from the skull. When I see the film over the brow of the nose pulling away on it’s own, that’s a good sign it’s ready. I’ll pull the skull out, set it in a plastic meat tray, and start pulling all the meat away. The flesh should pull away easily. It takes a little time, and tools like dental picks, a small stiff wire brush, and forceps help remove the nasal cavity tissues, brain (if not done in the field), and scrape away any tough cartilage.
I’ve also used a small household power washer to get the bulk of the tissue free. It’s very effective. Some people will use a power washer before they even boil, but I’ve never bothered. Just like a good stew, tender meat breaks apart and comes off easily.
Power Washing Aoudad After Horn Removal
I do take my time at this step, and you’ll find some of the tissue around the ear canals and back of the skull to be the most time consuming, but it nearly all comes off.
After all the meat is cleaned off, I’ll make a judgement call on whether or not another de-greasing boil is needed in fresh water and soap. If your fingers are greasy after removing the flesh, that’s a good sign another cycle may be in order.
Make sure to set aside any teeth that came free and clean them along with everything else for re-assembly later.
Step 5B – Cleaning Horned Skulls.
Horned species like Pronghorn or rams like Aoudad require an additional cleaning step to remove the tissues that connect the outer horn sheath to their bone cores.
Pronghorn are unique in that their horns are made of hair, and they actually shed those outer sheaths, and regrow them. To remove the outer sheaths, you’ll want to boil the entire skull and horns, mostly submerged. After about a half hour, you can pull the outer sheaths easily off, and set them aside and continue boiling the skull. You have to keep a close eye on pronghorn horns though – over boiling the horns will turn them to hairy mush. I start checking at 20 minutes, then every 5-10 after. Once the outer sheath is off, you can slice the membrane vertically, then peel it right off the core, and replace the entire skull back into the pot to keep boiling.
Initial Horn Removal Pronghorn Boil – Note Horns Mostly Submerged
Pronghorn Horn Sheaths Removed. Connective Tissue Remains on Bone Cores
For hard horned animals like the aoudad ram pictured here, you don’t boil the outer horns that are a hard keratin material, rather you have to beat or slough them off. Some people will boil and then get a rubber mallet out, beating them with shearing blows while still warm to get them to separate from their bonding membrane. They can be stubborn. The other method and the one I opted for involved boiling the skull, but not the horns, cleaning the bulk of tissue off the skull, then setting in a meat tray with a little water, and wrapping the whole thing in a black plastic bag and letting it decay. A little heat will speed up the process, but I just left it in the garage, checking periodically. The moisture and heat will let the membrane that connects the outer horns to the bone base decay and rot until you can pull them right off. Using a thin, sharp knife like the Buck Paklite Caper to slice through that membrane as far up under the horn as you can will help speed it up. It took mine a few months on this ram, but once ready they came right off. It doesn’t smell great, but that’s bacteria working for you and a quick power wash gets the decay off, and final cleaning removes all odors.
Rubber Mallet Aiding Removal of Aoudad Horns After Months of Black Bag Decay
Aoudad Horn Coming Off and Revealing Inner Bone Core
Aoudad Skull with Horns Removed and Cores Exposed After The Decay Method
Once horns are off, I’ll rinse them out, then fill them with powdered Borax. You can find it in most groceries stores in the detergent isle. The boric acid acts as a preservative, and the powder itself as a dessicant, drawing out moisture and odor.
We’ll break here for now, and pick up next week with rest of the process. Have a good weekend out there, and maybe some luck in the field….
Dad’s and My First Javelina