An early morning hunt with Eric Souders feels more like a stroll through an art gallery. His eyes are constantly searching the landscape and combing the wooded areas or fields for natural beauty. Where others might just see a crooked branch, Souders, a competitive taxidermist, sees a perfect landing spot for his grouse.
The 22-year-old Columbus High graduate has been hunting and rebuilding water fowl and other animals for years. But this past Saturday, Souders claimed his first Masters win in the Nebraska State Taxidermy Association Show in Grand Island.
Souders, a student at University of Nebraska at Omaha, won the Water Fowl category. He’s been involved in competitive taxidermy since 2004, but Souder’s learned the trade many years before in the shop of his father Scott Souders.
He said his dad’s interest helped peak his own.
“It just started by working with my dad,” Souders said. “He taught me everything I know.”
The father-son duo often hunt or fish and then bring the day’s finds back to the shop for further inspection.
Souders said not every outing produces a bird or fish worth bringing back to life.
“My dad and I like to look for oddities,” Souders said. “Or we look for more mature birds rather than the young 1- or 2-year-old ones.”
Even when the Souderses find an aged and rare bird, chances are they’ll simply get it into a freezer and leave it for a few years, because with their hobby turning into a part-time business, they simply have too many other birds to get to.
Souders’ Masters-winning Pintail Mallard Cross actually came from a hunt in November 2007. The Souderses were just a few miles north of Columbus when Scott spotted the sparse fowl. Eric remembers the day, not just because his dad shot down a rare cross breed between a Pintail and Mallard, but also because it was the last hunt Rio, the family’s black labrador retriever, ever went on.
“I remember everything about that hunt,” Souders said. “That’s why the (Pintail Mallard Cross) is a special bird for me.”
He started work on the Cross several weeks before the June 27 competition. Souders said he put the finishing touches on the bird the night before the competition.
As expected, the process of rebuilding a dead animal is extensive and time consuming.
When Souders begins to prepare a bird to be displayed, he starts by skinning it. He then takes the skin and runs it through a special wheel to remove all the meat.
Souders has to be extremely careful when using the wheel.
“You run the skin on the degreasing wheel and sometimes that wheel will grab the skin and rip it in half,” Souders said.
After removing the meat from the skin, Souders will start to clean the wings and the feet. He then prepares the bird for a warm water bath to cut all the grease. This step is repeated twice more. During the soak, Souders is careful to wash out the bullet holes in an effort to get the bird clean. It is then placed in a tumbler to get rid of the excess moisture. Souders then uses an air compressor to get all the air out of it before putting the bird back together. This entire process takes about 24 hours and is done over a one- or two-day span. Souders then waits two weeks before working on feet and other parts of the bird before mounting it.
With the downtime, Souders can start to work on the background for his bird. It is his favorite part of the taxidermy process.
“I love the artistic side of it because it’s not just dead animals,” Souders said. “I really consider it to be art. When I was younger I always liked to draw, so I think I have a good eye for it.”
Souders chose a snowy backdrop for the Pintail Mallard Cross in an effort to recapture how things were that November day.
“You want to make something pop and be visibly attractive,” Souders said. “That’s kind of what I try to do with that stuff so you just walk in and you see it, and it just pops. All of that artistic composition that goes into it really helps you out.”
Nebraska’s taxidermy competition is broken into several divisions. Beginners start in the Amateur division, where it is broken in to age groups with age 18 as the divider. After two wins at Amateur then an entrant is put in the Professional division. Finally, a select few winners from Professional are bumped to the Masters division.
The scoring is based on a scale of 100 points. Anyone scoring in the 90-100 range is given first place, but the highest scorer of the group is awarded category winner.
Like all first-time entrants, Souders started at the bottom, but unlike most he blazed his way to the Masters group in a relatively short time of six years. Souders has won Water Fowl in four of those six years, with one win coming in Amateurs, two in Professional and now one in Masters.
Not surprisingly, the taxidermy competition spawns friendships and rivalries. Souders said his fellow taxidermists were slow to accept him.
“There’s some tension there,” Souders said. “These older guys did not like being beat by some kid. They wouldn’t even talk to me. But now that I am a little older, I’ve been able to build a few relationships.”
Even though Souders won the Masters division at a young age, there is still plenty for the taxidermist to accomplish. His sights are now set on best in show, which is the highest point total among all the category winners. Souders also wants to compete in the World Taxidermy Championships, but he doesn’t think he’s ready yet.
“The winners of the world show will blink at you,” Souders said. “There is nothing wrong with them. There will be 250 birds in this category and there will be six perfect birds.”
At the Worlds, Souders can set out to accomplish his final objective. Every competitor has someone they try to emulate and eventually pass. Souders wants an opportunity to at least match his dad. Scott placed first at the World Taxidermy Championships in Water Fowl in 1985 and 1986, not coincidentally Eric’s favorite category.
“(Scott) was a big deal back in his day,” Souders said. “He’s over the whole competition thing. He doesn’t need his ego stroked anymore.”
However Scott Souders isn’t above ribbing his son.
“Sometimes he jokes around, calls me big shot and stuff,” Souders said with a laugh.
But with his first opportunity at matching his dad’s accomplishments at least a year away, Souders will spend his time helping prepare birds for clients and finishing up his last year of school.
In the fall though, Souders will be out hunting each weekend and during the week when he can sneak away from class. Perhaps he will come across the bird that may win best in show for 2013.