For many hunters and fishers, the dark days of winter are spent working on projects and pursuing other interests far removed from the previous season's tally of hunting and fishing outings.
Some of those trips resulted in trophy fish or animals, many of which go beyond the photo album to a life-size mount made possible by a taxidermist.
And while the challenge of catching that bruiser king salmon or taking a trophy brown bear may occur in the summer and fall, the real work in recreating the prize comes in the winter for taxidermists.
"In the winter it usually gets quiet enough to get something done," said Mike Dinkel, owner of American Trophy Taxidermy. "We're getting down to business now for the rest of the winter."
While Dinkel offers game and bird mounts, he specializes in fish and sees a variety come through his Sterling Highway shop in the summer.
"Things really get going around the third week of June," Dinkel said. "We spend the summer skinning the fish and booking orders and basically work the winter doing it." He added that around 80 percent of his business comes from Outside anglers.
Many of his local clients will stop by in the winter as well.
"We do get a few people who come by in the winter with a big lake trout or rainbow," said Dinkel, who has been in Soldotna for 14 years. "Or it's a fish that's been in the freezer all winter that someone decides they want to mount."
Bird taxidermist Rick Richardson works at his trade in Aldridges Soldotna shop.
Photos by Steven Merritt
Anglers who seek a trophy mount with Dinkel generally have three options: A skin mount, a fiberglass reproduction or a realistic woodcarving.
He said anglers' reasons for seeking a mount are sometimes as varied as the fish themselves.
"Many genuinely want to have a bit of that experience that takes them back," Dinkel said. "They escape for a second and remember that trip they went on with their son or dad. Those are the most rewarding."
Farther up the Sterling Highway, Caribou Unlimited Taxidermist owner Ron Aldridge said he hits the ground running around the end of September to catch up on his business of big-game mounts. It's a switching of hats of sorts for Aldridge, who guides anglers on the Kenai River in the summer as well as bear hunters in various locations in the spring and fall.
"We pretty much work a year behind," Aldridge said. "I tell everyone that it will take a year to get their animal back. We spend at least seven months out of the year working full time (in the shop), and the rest is guiding.
"We could work in here seven days a week in the winter and that's basically what we do," said Aldridge, who is joined in the shop by bird taxidermist Rick Richardson.
Aldridge handles an assortment of Alaska big-game animals from bears to bison. He also works on mounts of exotic game animals from Africa and recently finishing a life-size mount of a male lion taken in the spring by a peninsula hunter.
"The African animals are a challenge -- they have so much detail with their thinner hair," Aldridge said. "There are so many different kinds -- I have lots of reference books."
Caribou are probably his most popular mount, Aldridge said, adding that in any given season around 20 to 30 shoulder mounts are shipped out. Moose trophies vary, he said.
"The number of moose mounts we get depends on the season," Aldridge said. "It varies. We may do anywhere from six to 15. They're just so big -- and sometimes too ugly as far as some of the hunters' wives are concerned. We usually do more horn mounts."
He added that his favorite animal is the bear.
"Bears fascinate me," Aldridge said. "I've been guiding for 20 years and have gotten to know them pretty well."
The art of taxidermy lies in recreating detail, a task often made difficult in Alaska animals.
"Animals up here have so much hair, it's hard to get the detail," Aldridge said. "When you compare a Sitka black tail deer to a whitetail from Texas, it's amazing. They (black tails) are so thick."
Aldridge said his seasonal work offers up the best of both worlds in dealing with animals. Plus, he's got his own winter project like everyone else: He's rebuilding his 1951 PA-18 Super Cub.
"In the summer and fall, I get to be around people catching fish and taking animals, and I get to be outdoors," Aldridge said. "And when I work inside in the winter I still get to be around animals. Plus, that plane is keeping me busy. It's a great life."
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