"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July Trail Camera Photos

The Covert Camera was deployed for a week on a feeder in Sarasota County. The next generation of game animals is taking full advantage of the corn - as are the parents.

This fawn and doe were photographed numerous times.

Good picture of a doe. Would love to get some buck pictures. They tend to hang on the edges of the fields and ignore the corn.

Always plenty of hogs...

And more hogs...

I think I shot this one last night (story next week).

Hey, little guy!

And this puts a smile on my face. 2011's hatch of Osceolas. Young now, but it looks like a fair number have survived in this flock!!!

And then I got these photos and realized something was wrong.

The kind lady at Covert gave me the information to send it back under warranty.

Normally I'd gripe and complain, but this unit has been in the woods almost non-stop since last September on four different properties. It endured the coldest winter I can remember in FL. It didn't melt through one of the hottest April's and May's in recent years, and finally slogged through almost non-stop rain in June and early July. All of this while taking thousands of pictures and only one change of batteries.

Not too bad.

I can't wait to get it back. May just buy another.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Venison Parmesan

Now, before we start, know this - I am allergic to onions. I loathe mushrooms. And I am disgusted by slimy chunks of tomato. I strain even the most watery of spaghetti sauces to purge it of these offenders. So I’m not exactly an expert on what others may consider to be great-tasting – or authentic - Italian cuisine. I have, however, developed an easy recipe for Venison Parmesan that pleases me and most others who have tried it.

It’s worth a stab, promise.

4 Venison Cubed Steaks
2 Eggs
Italian Bread Crumbs
Canola Oil
8 slices Mozzarella Cheese
Grated Parmesan-Romano Cheese
1 box Linguine or Thin Spaghetti noodles
1 large jar Ragu spaghetti sauce
Salt, pepper, garlic salt
1 9X13 Aluminum Foil Tray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Follow the instructions on the box of pasta – cook, drain, and set aside. Slowly heat spaghetti sauce and add half a cup of grated Parmesan-Romano cheese.

Soak cubed steaks in icy water for 30 minutes to an hour to eliminate blood and game taste. Pat dry and season with salt, pepper, and garlic salt. Toss in flour, dip in an egg wash, and then coat well with Italian bread crumbs.

Heat canola oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until the oil reaches 365 degrees - or there about. Cook each side of the steak until golden brown, about a minute and a half a side. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to soak up excess oil.

Place cooked linguine in an aluminum tray sprayed with Pam. Arrange fried cube steaks on the pasta and top each cutlet with two slices of mozzarella cheese. Add the jar of spaghetti sauce and complement with generous shakes of grated Parmesan-Romano cheese.

Cover with foil and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the mozzarella is melted and bubbly. The sauce bakes into the venison and brings the dish together.

When compared to fine Italian dining, this may be Chef-Boy-R-Dee, but it is quick, easy and a delicious recipe to try with venison.

And, of course, you can always goop it up with nasty vegetables and fungus!


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Deer Plans & Scouting - Lake Panasoffkee WMA Special Opportunity Hunt

I stood at the gate staring down into the swamp. I wouldn’t be able to drive my truck any further. The road into the dark was steep – a rough ride back up on bike. Bikes didn’t matter, though. I didn’t have one with me. Middle of July, I wasn’t about to walk into that skeeter pit.

This is going to be a tough hunt, I thought.

I pulled a Lake Panasoffkee Special Opportunity Archery permit for 12/1-12/4. With twins on the way in September, my chances of driving far and wide for deer appeared awfully grim, so I made a desperate tag grab for anything close to home. Luckily, it all panned out, and I may salvage part of this season.

The FWC markets Special Opportunity Hunts as the opportunity to hunt “large areas with lots of game and low hunter quotas and (that) provide excellent opportunities to bag trophy deer, wild hogs, quail, wild turkeys or doves.”

Much of this is done in conjunction with other agencies, in this case the Southwest Florida Water Management District commonly known as “SwiftMud.” You pay for the privilege to hunt here. Pay to apply, pay if you are successfully drawn and want the hunt. It is difficult to draw a tag. This is the first time I have been successful. You can apply for as many hunts as you want to help up your odds. I applied for three. Drew Lake P; am currently on the waiting list for two Green Swamp West deer hunts. One hunt I’m 353rd in line. The other, 435th. So I’m feeling pretty lucky about what I did get, especially since this hunt has a limit of 20 hunters.

But, wow, now the work starts. Lake Panasoffkee WMA is nearly 9000 acres of floodplain forest. From Google Earth you can see the land is mostly swamp and wetlands with scrub and flatwood habitat on the northern end of the property. With a large equestrian camp on the premises and being part of the Great Florida Bird Trail, I am assuming the roads and paths – 26 miles total - will be easy to travel.

The greatest trouble with hunting swamp like this is figuring where to set up. For starters, there’s no telling how much water will be standing come December. I betting not as much as there is now – and that makes scouting difficult, as well. All it takes, though, is a hurricane or tropical storm to fill up those bottoms through most of the season. Next, swamps – at least those from my experience – lack many of the funnels and edge territory that one would normally queue on when setting up a stand. Scouting from the sky doesn’t help a whole lot. Also, I’ve not found much in my research about the property.

And to top it off, it’s an archery hunt with a four-point on an antler rule. Really limiting my odds, people.

Ideally, in a swamp like this, I’d find a promising locale, hang a lock-on, and pour corn 'til it shined through the canopy. Of course, I’d probably end up with a whole lot of hogs and not many deer. And it's illegal on public land anyhow.

Hunting in the swamp is much different than hunting broken and mixed terrain. I could sit and percolate on this hunt for a while and makes desperate guesses and assumptions of how it’ll play out, but it’s just going to take shoe leather. Look for some oaks, old rub lines and trails. It's standard issue scouting, just much more difficult to know where to start.

I’ve signed up for a tough hunt, no doubt.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Deer Plans & Scouting - Half Moon WMA

Whoever checks the sign-in sheets at Half Moon WMA and Lake Panasoffkee WMA probably wondered what kind of lunatic this Nance fellow is who claimed to be scouting at noon in the middle of July. I pulled deer quota tags for both of these lands, and I’d never set a toe on either. This was going to be a project.

Scouting Florida’s WMA’s is challenging, especially those open only to quota hunts. State hunters are lucky to have access to so much land, but if all you have are the rules and regulations yet no real kind of plan, you could be in for a trying time. Most quota hunts last only a handful of days, and the best lands are difficult to pull. So, consistently drawing a hunt from one year to the next is tough and doesn’t exactly help with any sort of institutional knowledge.

And I use the term “access” very loosely. To prevent damage to environmentally sensitive lands, the FWC keeps vehicle traffic on most public lands to a minimum during the offseason. While I’d much rather scout from the comfort of the A/C, that wasn’t going to happen. These places allow scouting days – but they are a day prior to the hunt. I need more time than that.

So, a plan. I drew the tags; that was the hard part. I drew general gun quota for Half Moon in November and a Special Opportunity Archery Hunt for Lake P in December (talk about more in the next post). I had a general sense of where the properties were, but was absolutely delighted to discover their entrances just a few miles apart. While scouting, I can kill two birds with one stone.

The next step was to explore Google Earth and other aerial sources. Immediately, one can tell there’s a major difference in terrain between the two. The solid dark green of Lake P meant swamp. The patchy landscape of Half Moon revealed more edge territory – and I suspected at first glance, more deer.

So I was in Homosassa this last weekend and decided to take a little detour on the way home and put my eyes on these places, get a feel for how far they were from the house, and get a better feel for the place itself. I probably should have taken a bike with me, but I needed to be back in Lakeland for a party.

I loved Half Moon on sight. I’d long heard it to be a popular WMA with a successful deer program. From what I understand, this property is one reason the FWC switched to non-transferable permits. People in the area would have family and friends apply for tags each year then transfer them to hunters. The FWC got suspicious when the same folks kept showing up year after year to hunt what would otherwise be a difficult draw.

I’d never been too keen on general gun hunts, mostly because I don’t want a bullet hole in me. Still, word had gotten around that this was a fantastic place to hunt. I felt remiss that I had yet to see or hunt the property. So when the time came to apply for tags, I decided to go the rifle route. One, because the hunt I applied for was right in the middle of the rut. Two, I already knew where I wanted to hunt for primitive seasons. If I didn’t score on Half Moon, so be it. Turns out it was my lucky year.

The property is 9,480 acres of the most ecologically varied landscape I’ve set foot on. There are 20 different natural communities on this property, from marshes and swamps to scrub, flatwoods, and beautiful mesic hammocks, hosting quite the diversity of wild life. The Withlacoochee River runs its western border and improved pastures of bahia grass hearken back to the old days of cattle ranching.

Now, I didn’t walk too far in, but my initial impression about there being a lot of deer seemed correct. I found a pile of tracks near the equestrian trails by the entrance. The place just felt whitetail-ish. And the good folks from the FWC had the harvest report on the kiosk. Over 5 weekend hunts last year – 2 general gun, 2 archery, 1 muzzleloader - hunters took 66 deer, 37 of which were antlered bucks that had to have at least 3 points on one antler. Not shabby.

Then Dad ran across the Recreation Master Plan for Half Moon that excited me even more. They have estimated the deer density to be around 60 animals per square mile. That’s a high number. In addition, the plan claims that “Hunting is consistent across the property with no ‘hot spots.’”

I’ve almost made it sound too easy. I’d be a real nincompoop if I couldn’t kill a buck here, huh! I’ll probably opt for the ground blind option in the white oaks – it is important to have a couple back up plans, too, if fellow hunters get too friendly.

The edge territory from the varying ecosystems is probably the reason for the high deer population. With the variety of browse, it’s easy to grow and hold more deer than a location with a widespread, consistent ecosystem. It’s always a handy thing to keep in mind when you are looking for a new lease or place to hunt. If the land appears broken and patchy, odds are there are plenty of deer. Add a major river to the mix and you have a right fine piece of deer land.

So, Half Moon, rifle season, November 11-13. I’m jacked. Much more so than I thought I’d be. But there is still a ton of work to be done. I’m going back in a couple of weeks with the bike but even then it’ll be a haul. Heck, the check station is a mile deep into the property. Gonna have to put the pedal to the metal. An opportunity like this deserves a little extra sweat, though.

If anyone has any advice on hunting here, let a brother know!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Economics of Acorns on Deer Hunting

Acorns dictate deer movement in autumn. Even as the pre-rut and rut starts, does will be seeking acorns while bucks will be seeking does. They are a deer’s comfort food. When the mast is heavy, deer habitually abandon other crops, food plots and feeders. They love acorns that much. When the harvest is low – you’d better find what they are feeding on and quick. It’s all very frustrating, and when combined with vagaries of weather, hunting pressure, moon phases - well, it just makes you more thankful when you’ve succeeded in taking a nice buck.

I hit a wall the last two years hunting Florida. The oak hammock I bowhunted in Manatee County was devoid of deer activity, and I now believe the variances in the acorn crop to be the reason. While the hunts were disappointments, they have proved excellent case studies on boom and bust years for acorns.

Once upon a time, this particular strip of woods was a haven for game movement. Three nice bucks were harvested in consecutive years, and many more spikes and young deer passed through unharmed. Does and hogs were expected to be seen during each sit. They’d wander out of the swamp to feed on the water oak acorns in the evening before meandering into a palmetto flat for the night. The mornings were the reverse. It was essentially a buffet between rest and play. During these years, one could reasonably describe the acorn crop as normal.

The last two years? Something happened. The deer more or less vanished. Sure, there were tracks, and Dad did kill a young piebald in 2009 from my stand, but by and large this honeyhole lost its sweetness. I could run through the whole history of hunting excuses, but I find final fault in the weird acorn drops during these times.

Let’s start with 2009. It was hot - very hot - during September and October. But beyond this, the water oaks had very few acorns on the branches. Still, I believed the area would still hold deer thanks to the abundance of browse and intersection of trails. History was on my side, I thought.

In six hunts and dozens of hours in the stand, I saw one doe with a pair of yearlings who fed on shrubs and grasses. Occasionally I’d hear a splash of a large animal in the creek, but it could have easily been hogs. The only buck rubs I discovered were from the previous year. The deer had shifted out during hunting hours - as did the swine and turkey – and it took me too long to realize this. I had no plan to overcome it.

2010 was the exact opposite – except for my failure to identify an alternate location to set up. September and October were unseasonably cool – not cold, but with low enough humidity, Florida would call it cool. Acorns of all varieties fell early and kept falling through the hunts. They plunked in the creek at a constant rate. Honestly, I can’t recall a bumper crop quite like it, though 2007 came real close.

Once more, I had a single run-in with deer over six hunts – two does that fed under my stand until they were spooked by a gobbler. I convinced myself that since I was rolling over acorns like marbles on the way to the stand, eventually they’d come out to catch an arrow.

Both seasons were described by the local biologists as off years. The game harvest was dramatically down and staff reported fewer daytime sightings of deer. So it wasn’t just me suffering. I will atone to the fact that I didn’t do enough to make these successful years – had no tricks up my sleeve, no contingency plans, no ace in the hole. I placed one stand based on past experience fully expecting to cart more venison out of that hammock.

So what should I have done? This is all conjecture since there’s no way to go back in time to correct my mistakes and enforce my hypotheses. But it was a learning experience when I started researching acorns and deer movement. Several theories correlate with my woes.

Let’s start with the economics of the acorn crop. When they are plentiful, deer simply don’t have to travel far to eat. Deer hunters rely on deer movement for success whether bucks are chasing food or love. And if does aren’t moving far and wide seeking sustenance, a buck won’t be either.

It makes perfect sense. If fresh hot wings and Hooters Girls were dropped off at the Ol’ Bachelor Pad everyday, there’d be no reason to risk DUI’s and public embarrassment to run down to the local bar or club. Food and sex drive competition. In years with a normal acorn crop and a healthy deer – and hog – population, deer get on their hooves in a hurry to hit hammocks and other feeding stations.

Not so much when there’s a boom year. The pressure to compete for food and sex amongst deer directly leads to hunter success, whether it involves inspiring animals to travel further or leave their beds early during daylight hours. If an animal doesn’t have to move ten feet for a belly-full, hunters are in trouble.

The deer are somewhere, though. The quick answer is to hunt bedding areas. That’s going to be difficult in most parts of Florida and the South. The land – with its swamps and planted pines and cypress heads - is too thick to penetrate without making a holy racket getting in and out. Deer do it easily. It’s not impossible to kill a buck in these conditions, but not always the best strategy, either.

One thing I have started thinking about and focusing on is what kind of acorns deer prefer. This is a project in motion but worth merit to study, in my opinion. Florida is home to 19 species of oak tree, split into two main categories of red and white oaks. The water oaks I hunted are of the red variety. Red oak acorns are bitterer in taste than the whites, and I’ve long heard and read that deer prefer the whites when available. Advanced scouting and knowledge of different trees is really important. As the season progresses, different species of oaks will drop their seeds – it’s worth paying attention to what the game prefers.

In 2010, with the plethora of acorns available, the deer reportedly hung around live oaks – those majestic, moss-draped trees of the white variety. The deer had such an overwhelming variety of food they literally ignored water oaks and went with the sweeter brand.

This is mostly anecdotal evidence talking, but a plausible hypothesis that probably explains some of the dead air where I was. Dad reported more deer than I at his stand of live oaks. He wasn’t exactly trampled by whitetail, either, because - as told above - a ton of acorns inhibits deer movement regardless how much they like one species over another. But, it made his set-up more attractive to action. It’s not a perfect solution but something to consider in years of a massive acorn bumper crop.

2009 was a different problem. No acorns were anywhere. White or red. In Georgia and other southern states where you can focus early in the season on persimmons, crab apples, and honey locusts for deer activity, South Florida is loaded with different food sources and browse and little of the aforementioned plants.

Food plots and feeders mitigate this problem on private properties but is not even a consideration on public lands. Finding game trails is about the best you can do without having one active source to clue in on. The inside edge of that swamp I spoke of earlier was the place to be with its cover, water, and supply of large, broad-leafed, tender green plants. (It’s worth noting the importance of this water source in what is largely sandy, scrub habitat.) They will also feed on younger blackberry bushes and muscadine vines.

None of these sources, though, concentrate deer numbers like acorns. You’d think that with a shortage of acorns, that competition and traveling I espoused as so important in the beginning would come into play, but, for some reason, without at least an average harvest, they don’t even seem to entertain the game.

Without a time machine, it is impossible to say whether I would have tagged out with these adjustments. And an arborist, I am not. But after these last two seasons with limited time to hunt and failure to do well in the time allotted, it’ll be worth ironing out some wrinkles in my knowledge and learn more about the importance of acorns – and other food sources - on deer habits.

At least then I can stop completely blaming acorns if things go awry.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Preparing for Hot Weather Deer Hunts

I hear it all the time from Southern hunters.

“I’d bowhunt, but it’s so hot!”

And they are correct. Toss in the occasional thunderstorm and Amazonian herds of mosquitoes, and yes, comfort in September and early October woods can be right scarce – to speak nothing of the August deer seasons now established in Florida and long recognized in the souls of South Carolina rifle hunters. Plus, most southern states have seasons that last nearly six months – why waste time sweating and swatting when the weather will be more accommodating come November?

Still, deer hunting these months is not a lost cause. In many regions of the South, with its varied and often irregular rut dates and durations, this time of the year is excellent for hanging trophy antlers on the wall.

A lot of press goes into how to scout deer and how to shoot deer, but let’s explore the things we must consider in order to simmer silently and comfortably on a stand ready to whack a big buck as it slinks from the swamps to feed in the heat and humidity of late summer and early autumn.

Dress Smarter

Ditch the cotton. Lose the $12 Wal-Mart camo T-Shirt. Purge the Hanes socks and tighty-whities. If you’ve ever read about mountain climbing or alpine hunting, you may have noticed the mantra, “cotton kills.” Cotton absorbs moisture. In cooler climates this can lead to hypothermia. In warmer temps, overheating.

Perspiration is the body’s means for self-cooling. As that cotton T-shirt soaks in sweat, it traps against the body keeping you hot. Also, it gets heavier. I’m not saying you’ll pass out like a July football player, but you’ll be far more uncomfortable than if you’d switched up fabrics.

The best outfit I’ve tried is Under Armor Hot Weather gear. While not exactly flattering for this beer-bellied physique, these tight-fitting garments excel at keeping the natural self-cooling system humming by rapidly pulling sweat from your skin outwards. As a result, the slightest tickle of wind feels like a cold compress on your chest. Though they can be pricy, these outfits unquestionably work.

So, what else do I don to complete this ensemble? How does a pair of board shorts grab you? Bathing suits are lightweight, and most have plenty of pockets to store flashlights, wallets, keys, tracking tape and whatever else, allowing you to ditch that heavy backpack or fanny pack. Some board shorts even come in pretty floral patterns that’d be excellent if your stand was in the middle of a hibiscus hedge. So, I top these layers with a lightweight, Mossy Oak screen ghillie suit of some sort. Bug Tamers are fine, too. Rubber boots with polypropylene socks complete the hoofwear.

Scent Control

Really, in these conditions there’s not much you can do to eliminate odor. Your best strategy, as always, is playing the wind. We could get into all kinds of different theories about hunting high from stands or low from blinds, but the fact is, it is hot this time of the year; you are going to sweat, smell and leave smell. But, you can reduce some of this impact.

One, only wear your hunting clothes when you are hunting. Not when opening gates or jacking around camp waiting for the gates to open. Not when you take your midday siesta or visit the local Greasy Spoon for lunch. Don’t let it collect all that foreign smell. Keep your clothes fresh and clean for the walk into the woods. Some people go a step further and won’t dress until arriving at their stand, but I prefer to keep deer hunting a passion or pastime, not a neurotic breakdown.

Two, buy and use scent control products. Again, they aren’t perfect but they help - undoubtedly so, in my mind. When you return to camp from the field, hang everything you hunt in from a branch or someplace in the wind and give it a good rinse with scent killer, especially around the collars, armpits and crotch areas of your outfits. If you ever pass a Dodge on a WMA with hunting gear strewn through the brush like you’d see after a Topeka tornado, odds are I’m close by.

Also, look for my solar shower, speaking of neurotic breakdowns. Yes, I’ve been known to bring a shower, towels, scentless soap and shampoo for a rinse before I return for the evening sit. Finish this off with a dash of scentless deodorant.

Scent suits are an obvious, easier solution, and I do believe they work for at least a period of time, but mine is unmercifully heavy in temps over 70 degrees. Since I acquired mine, new designs have become available that supposedly are more comfortable in warmer climates. And they are expensive.

Controlling your scent during warm spells is not just important for sitting in the stand, it's also crucial for keeping your hunting area fresh. Deer will identify when a smelly hunter has been crusing their turf. Bet on it.

Bug Control

Possibly the most aggravating aspect of deer hunting in warm weather is the mosquitoes - solving their pestilence is often subject of debate and anecdote. Not sure if I’ve told this story before, but once when I was younger and Bug Tamers and Therma-Cells were yet undeveloped technology, I was so frustrated by a swarm of Manatee County bloodsuckers that I took a can of aerosol OFF!, a lighter and blow-torched the flock (getting all this kids?). Obviously this did nothing to help me kill a deer, but it was gratifying.

These days I’m using a Therma-Cell. Others gripe, believing the “scentless” repellant will alert deer. My answer is to hunt a stand where wind direction is not going to be a problem. Slapping and cursing at skeeters is going to do as much to wake up the woods as anything. In the eight years since I’ve employed this device, I’ve arrowed several deer and been approached archery close by hogs, coyotes, and a black bear - some of the best noses in the woods. I’ve just not seen any evidence that it spooks deer, provided you are hunting the wind properly.

OFF! and other DEET-based products work, but stink to high heaven, and do nothing to deter the incessant buzzing around your eyes and ears. Bug Tamers will also prevent welts and encephalitis, but you’ll have this same problem, not to mention rows of mosquitoes sitting along your arms like dove on a powerline. Inevitably, a few will creep up your facemask which is just shy of waterboarding, in my opinion.

Hot and buggy may not be your ideal image of deer hunting, but early Fall is a fantastic time to kill a deer. Until you hoist that new stand complete with A/C and fridge for cold drinks, this is about the best you can do.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Homosassa Scallop Report 2011

The majority of the scallops in the Hernando/Citrus County area appear to be off Chassahowtizka Point and south. Reports from Ozello and Crystal River are grim, and only scattered scallops around the Bird Rack and out of the mouth of the Homosassa. This reflects the FWC’s reports of fewer clams in this area with higher numbers down towards Hernando. They are usually pretty accurate about such things.

Opening weekend we hit five gallons – so half the limit for the number of folks on board. We started off in deeper water off Chazz, but decided to head towards the Bird Rack so the ladies could swim. The scalloping was decent, just nothing to write home about. If you aren’t finding 2 or 3 in a group, something is amiss.

And that’s how it was that Saturday. Pick up a few here and there. Stop and check a half-dozen spots. Just couldn’t find the homerun holes.

Last Saturday of Fourth of July Weekend was different. THP and I immediately went amidst the crowds off Chazz Point in 5-6 foot of water.

We smoked them. With just two of us, we could only legally fill 4 gallons. We had three in about 40 minutes. I worked one sandy patch and just cleaned up. Then the tide started coming in and we took a break in the boat.

Had we stayed in the water, we probably would have limited out. Unfortunately, that incoming tide silted the water and the increased depth made finding the clams rather difficult.

And that has been that. My experiences have been pretty common, best I can tell. It’s not a complete skunk year. If you poke around and ask people, you’ll probably get pointed in a positive direction.

If you ask me, head off Chazz on an outgoing tide. If anyone else has any suggestions, feel free to leave them.

Best of Luck.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Alligator European Mounts: Interview with Matthew Beck of Legacy Skull Preservation Inc.

In April I visited with Matthew Beck of Legacy Skull Preservation Inc. in Weeki Wachee, FL. Mr. Beck specializes in European Mounts. He grabbed my attention a month or so prior in a blog post that featured a gator skull dipped in a grassy camo pattern.

I was hooked.

Like most other semi-successful hunters, I have a collection of skulls just sort of sitting around the house like you’d find in a den of cavemen. They were bleached the good old fashion way – in the sun, sitting in an ant pile. As I’ve come to learn, this is horrible.

So I had a skull from a 7ft gator taken on a hunt a couple years back doing nothing but collecting dust, teeth fallen out and kept in a cup. After describing to Mr. Beck the condition of the skull, its numerous glue jobs and what I had done to achieve its chalky white glow, it took convincing for him to accept this challenge to clean and dip it in the pattern of my choice. Nonetheless, accept it he did, and I am breathlessly excited to have it back to put on display.

More than this, though, it was a wonderful experience meeting with Mr. Beck in his shop. His work is remarkable, as his passion for this craft. His mounts are elegant and would stand out in any trophy room. As you’re about to learn, preparing European mounts takes patience and a great deal of talent.

I asked him if he’d take time from his schedule to accommodate an interview, and he kindly accepted.

IN: What are your Gator Hunting Plans for this summer?

MB: Both my wife and I drew permits. I’m going with a friend, and we are going to try to pull two alligators using his Gheenoe. Hopefully this will give us the opportunity to get into some areas that we would have trouble getting to with a bigger boat.

My wife and I are going to take my 14 year old niece to get her first alligator. This is probably the hunt that I’m most excited about. I would rather watch a kid take their first gator than take one myself. I try to take one of the kids in the family every year.

IN: Tell everyone about that Monster you have mounted in your house?

MB: I took the “Monster” at an undisclosed location. He was a little over 11 feet long. He was missing nearly 2 foot of his tail. I’ve had many guides and professional trappers tell me that he is the gator of a lifetime. He was the first alligator I ever took. I have a shoulder mount of him in my living room, and I smile every time I look at it.

IN: With those giant gator heads in your shop, what keeps you from laughing in disgust at people such as me who bring you inferior-sized skulls that’d been bleached in the sun?

MB: I understand that more than preserving skulls, I am preserving memories. I have many large and interesting skulls. A few of my personal favorites are a skull from an eight-foot alligator that my son took when he was 11, a skull from an alligator that my wife took, and a special four-point whitetail that I shot.

I would like to think that I have seen it all, but every year I get something in that I can’t believe. When people bring me a skull that they have tried to clean and failed, I try to give them an honest assessment of what I think I can do with it. Often times I can “fix” the problem and give back to them a presentable product. If the skull has been boiled or harsh chemicals applied the chances of getting it to look “acceptable” are greatly diminished. I hate to have a skull leave me looking poorly.

IN: How long have you been working on European Mounts – as a hobby and professionally - and what got you started?

MB: I started cleaning skulls professionally four years ago. I have been doing it as a hobby for myself and, reluctantly, for friends for much longer. After cleaning my first alligator skull for a friend I decided to start Legacy Skull Preservation Inc. I cleaned his skull because at the time we had a hard time finding anyone that could do an acceptable job.

IN: Run us through the bare bones – ha! – process of treating a gator skull and what problems do you run into along the way? What is the typical time to complete one?

MB: The bare bones....skull humor!

Every skull is different but I will try to provide an overview. The first step is to remove all flesh, skin and tissue. Brain flushed out and excess flesh cut away. The skull is then ready for dermestid beetles or maceration.

Maceration is a bacterial bath that is maintained at an optimal temperature for the bacteria to break down and remove all flesh and tissue. This process takes 7 to 15 days.

The next step is to remove all grease. This is a process of time, temperature, and solution. The skulls are placed into a solution of cleaning agents and maintained at a constant temperature. The solution is changed frequently, sometimes as often as every day. This process can take 4 to 6 months depending on species, age, and condition of skull. The solution gently removes all grease and staining. It is a long, slow process but one that I find necessary to maintain the integrity of the bone and to keep delicate bone structures in place.

The next step is whitening. I use industrial strength Hydrogen Peroxide.

The final step is drying, articulating (gators tend to fall apart), gluing teeth back in and sealing with a museum grade sealant.

IN: What gave you the idea to dip skulls in camo paint?

MB: I can’t claim credit for it, but I don’t recall where I saw it first. It is becoming very popular. A skull that is dipped still needs to be thoroughly cleaned to insure that the film creates a permanent bond. At first I was not impressed with the idea of covering up my hard work as I take great pride in what I do. It was definitely something that had to grow on me. I will say that some of my favorite skulls are the ones dipped in camouflage that mimics an animal’s natural environment. An alligator dipped in the Boggy Vizon Marsh pattern is one of my favorites!

IN: What is the worst thing a client can do to a skull before he or she brings it to you?

MB: I certainly don’t want to give anyone any ideas. The best thing a customer can do is to follow the instructions of my website.

Treat the skull as if it were going to a traditional Taxidermist. The fresher the better - freeze it as soon as you can. Skulls left out to spoil stain and are difficult to get fully grease-free. Cut the head off well below the skull. I would rather have a little extra than have the back of the skull cut off. If they have any questions, give me a call - I will gladly walk them through the process so that they can get the best looking skull possible.

IN: How would you prefer a client to bring you a skull?

MB: My Website has directions on how to mail skulls directly to me. Please call before mailing. In some situations I’m able to pick up or meet a client in the Tampa Bay to help save them a little money.

IN: Since you are a professional chef, give us a gator recipe you enjoy.

MB: I’m still looking for the perfect recipe. My family enjoys it fried, ground and cooked on the grill.

Here are some general tips:
1. Ice down your Alligator as soon as possible, it is warm here and meat spoils quickly.
2. Clean and trim the meat thoroughly - remove all but the whitest meat.
3. Tenderize it all with a hand held needler or a fork.
4. Marinate in buttermilk or, our favorite, a little honey, orange juice and oil.
5. If you are frying, it is better to cut it into smaller pieces and cook quickly being careful not to overcook.
6. Ground gator can take the place of any ground beef just be aware that it is very lean.
7. An extra splash of Olive oil or ¼ stick of butter helps when you are cooking it.
8. Grill quickly and brush with extra marinate. Serve hot off the grill. Once it cools it loses all its charm.

Smaller pieces of alligator make a lovely Sesame “Chicken.” I make this without a recipe but will write it down. Next time I make it, I will share it with your readers. This will be a perfect excuse for you to invite me back.

Please visit Legacy Skull Preservation Inc. at www.Legacyskull.com. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail Matthew at mbeck@legacyskull.com. In addition to alligators, Mr. Beck will also mount deer, hogs, wild sheep, and variety of other game species. He has a gallery of unique skulls for sale you certainly will want to check out.

With Gator Season starting in a month, successful hunters will want to know ways to commemorate a first-rate hunt and preserve an awesome trophy.

I strongly recommend they get in touch with Matthew Beck.