Turkey Hunting photo
Photo by Ghaeme Teague

It’s the last day of the season and you’ve got a gobbler worthy of the wall in your sights. But before you pull the trigger—and especially before you drop the $300 to $600 it’ll cost for a quality turkey mount—heed the advice of Jeff McHugh.

An award-winning taxidermist, McHugh seems to make dead gobblers spring back to life. But he’s not a miracle worker. “When a hunter brings me a beat-up tom, there’s only so much I can do,” he says. “I may tell him to find another bird…or another taxidermist.” Below McHugh offers six tips that will help you give your taxidermist the best possible raw material to work with.

[1] Halt the Strut
Shooting a strutting turkey is the surest way to destroy feathers, especially tail feathers. “If your bird is strutting within easy gun range, cluck sharply on a call,” McHugh suggests. “The gobbler will pop out of strut and raise his head, giving you a ­perfect shot at its stretched-out neck. Pull the trigger right now, and you won’t ruffle any feathers.”

[2] Stop the Flop
Turkeys, when shot, often flop violently, losing feathers as they flail. To avoid this, McHugh gets to the bird quickly and stops the thrashing. “I grab both legs in one hand, lift the gobbler into the air, and hold him away from my body. Or I get him on his side and kneel on a wing to immobilize it.” A word to the wise: “Wear gloves, and be very careful of the spurs.”

[3] Carry Out
“Gamebags save your arms on a long walk out, but they wreak havoc on feathers,” McHugh warns. Instead, tote your bird by holding its legs and draping it over your shoulder. Be sure to wrap fluorescent orange flagging material around its legs so other hunters don’t mistake you for a bird.

[4] Hurry Up
If you’re near a taxidermist, get the gobbler to his shop as soon as possible. This way, he gets to skin a fresh bird, and you get the meat immediately.

[5] Cool It
Can’t get to a taxidermist pronto? Gut the tom to cool the carcass. “Cover the under­side of the tail with cardboard or paper to protect it from blood and entrails. Then pack the cavity with ice and slip the bird headfirst into an unsealed plastic garbage bag.” Kept out of the sun, your trophy can be stored like this for six to 12 hours, depending on conditions.

[6] Freeze It
Here’s how to buy some time on an extended trip: After gutting your turkey, cut off the tail (which the taxidermist will remove anyway) by placing the bird on its back, lifting the fan, and slicing just above the fleshy knob that holds the tail feathers. Lay the tail flat against the carcass so it won’t get bent, then slide everything in a garbage bag and freeze it for the trip home.