‘A wild hair’ led taxidermist to open his own local studio

BOTETOURT – Trophy Keepers Taxidermy and Wildlife Studio’s been open just over a year in the shop owners John and Shari Roberts built themselves at their home near Springwood. But they are far from novices when it comes to mounting trophies—fish and fur.

John’s experience dates to when he was a high school lad in Alaska—and for another 25 years as a professional taxidermist, fishing and hunting guide in those Alaskan wilds that many outdoorsmen aspire to visit or call home.

Since moving to Virginia 14 years ago, he’s continued to do some mounts for friends and acquaintances, but when Shari started getting interested in the work, they decided it was time to open a full-time studio. That was the beginning of Trophy Keepers.

Their taxidermy studio is literally a stone’s throw from their secluded home on Cedar Lane. The home looks across a pasture at part of Timber Ridge and the yard at times becomes its own live wildlife studio.

Shari and John Roberts with buck and doe mounts that greet customers at Trophy Keepers Taxidermy and Wildlife Studio.- Herald Photos/Ed McCoy
Shari and John Roberts with buck and doe mounts that greet customers at Trophy Keepers Taxidermy and Wildlife Studio.- Herald Photos/Ed McCoy

“I started taxidermy work two years before I finished high school,” John explained. After high school and doing a little college and taxidermy work, John said he had an acquaintance with a small taxidermy business. He went to work for the man and pretty soon the shop was doing more and more work until the business grew to be the largest taxidermy studio in Alaska.

John managed the studio until he said he “got a wild hair and hung out my own shingle.”

“Fish was what I liked to do best—you have to do everything, but fish are the hardest to do,” he explained. There are no feathers or fur to hide the imperfections, he added.

A portion of their new studio is dedicated to mounting fish. John estimates an average fish requires 10-12 different paint mixes to get the colors right. A row of paint bottles lines a small shelf in that area of the shop where work on a striper and largemouth bass is under way. His main tool once the fish skins are stretched onto a form is the small airbrush that is laying on the work bench.

In the summer and fall, John said he did a lot of guiding and outfitting in Alaska, and in the winter and spring he worked up the mounts.

His clients came from around the world and included some well-known people.

John’s parents left Alaska and returned to the Appalachian Mountains—Botetourt in particular—and a decade later and after visiting the area, John said, “I decided to shovel less snow and endure less 50-60 below (zero) weather.”

Shari, who grew up in the Lynchburg area, had some interest in John’s taxidermy work. “He tricked me into hunting and fishing, then we had all this fur and hide left,” she added. “I enjoy hunting and fishing, and I was really interested in the taxidermy.”

She got her start boiling skulls for European mounts—a style where only the deer skull and antlers are mounted. Then, she took some college classes on taxidermy, and attended technical seminars and conventions.

They both noted there are always new and innovative techniques in the field—but they also emphasized that they don’t take shortcuts.

As an example, they tan the cape of every deer they mount. “We tan the hides here,” John explained while pointing to the electric fleshing tool in an area of the shop that can be curtained off. “Every deer we do is actually tanned. It’s permanently preserved so it will last a lifetime. Preservatives just don’t do that.”

His years of experience helps them solve problems for customers, too. “We’ve had stuff come in that’s been mishandled, and we haven’t lost one yet,” John said. “It only takes a couple of days for the hide to start deteriorating. We have experience enough to try to save them.”

John and Shari have done a lot of restoration work, too. From deer heads to mounted fish, they’re able “freshen them up” or do total restorations.

John had a picture of a smallmouth bass he’d restored for a customer—the fins and tail had been broken, the color faded; it was in poor shape. After he was done, it looked like a new mount for a customer who not only wanted to remember the bass, but also the occasion when she caught the bass.

“We can put tines back on and you’ll never know it,” John added.

While he and Shari like doing deer, squirrels and other mounts (“She does deer heads better than I do,” John said), it’s recreating a fish that John finds the most rewarding—and he can do skin mounts or recreations. “If you ate that 24-inch rainbow and are having second thoughts, we can do a replica of it; or if you have a picture, we can use that,” John explained.

“We can work side-by-side on the same mount, and even get along, so we can turn out a quality deer head,” John continued.

A big part of taxidermy is the sculpting that starts with the form—whether it’s a deer head or a trophy fish; even with squirrels. “The form is just the base,” John said. “To make it as life-like as possible, you have to have knowledge of animal anatomy and an eye for it.”

There are a lot of steps in the process, and it requires a chemist, designer and artist rolled into one person—and you have to get your hands dirty skinning, fleshing and prepping before a hide goes on a form. Then, there’s the detail work to finish the mount.

When the Robertses built the studio, they included a set of double doors so they can accept just about any size animal (“Maybe not an elephant,” Shari noted); but they aren’t set up to do migratory birds (that takes a different class of licensing and paperwork).

Moose and elk are welcome, though. In fact, a 60-inch set of moose antlers that hangs in the shop serves as the inspiration for the Trophy Keepers business logo—a moose. The antlers hung on a woodshed in Alaska.

Trophy Keepers is a member of the Virginia Taxidermy Association and can be reached by phone (473-3469) or email (trophykeeperstaxidermy@yahoo.com. There’s also a website: www.trophykeepers.com

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