By Ben Johnson When Randy Bowe was 12 years old he wanted nothing more than his own shotgun to go hunting with. He scrimped and saved all summer long, making money the same way all kids do. Bowe mowed lawns and performed odd jobs, and by summer's end he had managed to save enough money to buy his very own 12-gauge Ithaca shotgun.
During that fall, he managed to shoot a wood duck which his parents took and mounted. They gave the mounted duck to him as a Christmas gift - a lasting reward for a summer of hard work.
His parents never anticipated that gift would plant the seeds for a hobby, career, and passion that would define Randy's adult life.
Bowe's Taxidermy is now in its 30th year. Bowe has spent over half of his life dedicated to stuffing, dressing, and mounting pretty much every creature and critter that calls Northern Minnesota home. It doesn’t matter if it’s big fish such as lake trout, walleye, and muskies or little fish such as sunfish, bluegills and crappies. Bowe does his fair share of woodland critters such as fox, squirrels and chipmunks, black and grizzly bears, birds, ducks, and pheasant - he's even mounted a hummingbird.
“People think [a hummingbird] would be easier because it's smaller,” Bowe said, laughing. “Trust me it's not,”
Today, Bowe is working on a batch of four lake trout. All of his work is done in batches to save time since the process of taxidermy has many steps.
This batch is almost done. He is using an airbrush to apply layers of dark green, gray and black base paint to the trout to cover up blemishes in each fish.
“It's not rocket science at this point,” Bowe said.
After he is done with the airbrush, he’ll use a smaller paint brush to touch up the fine details before mounting it.
Randy's large, 6-foot-5-inch frame is hunched over a work table as he waves his hand deftly over the big trout, slowly and carefully applying the base coat. Over the buzz of his air compressor he describes the process of taxidermy.
First, he meets with the customer and talks through how they want the animal to look. Fish are fairly simple, most of the time the customer just chooses whether the tail will point up or down or which side they want to display, Bowe said.
Other animals, like bears and deer, have many more options. The most common mounts are the head mount. For bears the most common type is the shoulder mount or rugs. For deer and moose it’s usually an antler mount. But numbering over 250 mounts a year, Bowe said he does more fish than any other species.
Next, he traces and measures the fish before making an incision from its tail to its gills and gutting it. It takes Bowe two to three hours to separate a trout's skin from its insides. Then, Bowe traces the trout and makes measurements to cut and carve a Styrofoam mold that the trout's skin will be sewn snugly around.
After the cardboard backing is pinned to the fins, the trout goes in the freeze dryer. This machine is a blue cylinder measuring three feet across and five-and-a-half-feet deep. It is kept at a temperature of 22 degrees below zero. The freezer dryer freezes the fish while simultaneously sucking out all of its moisture.
Dozens of animals reside in the freeze dryer at one time. Every two to three weeks Bowes takes them all out and weighs them. Once an animal has stopped losing weight it means that all of the moisture has been excavated from the animal, and the ready for Bowe to take it out and begin sewing, painting and dressing it for the mount. Lake trout can take up to six months in the freeze dryer.
Two showrooms filled with beautiful animals draped in blue, red, yellow and green ribbons at Bowe Taxidermy proves that over the years he has mastered his craft. Bowe has participated in taxidermy competitions across the U.S. throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, Bowe stopped competing about ten years ago.
“I felt like I had nothing more to prove,” Bowe said, who also had a growing list of customers to tend to and a desire to spend more time with his wife and daughter.
His years of experience and long resume of quality work allows Bowe to charge more than the average taxidermist. A sign above his desk reads, 'The Bitterness of Poor Quality Remains Long After the Sweetness of a Low Price is Forgotten.' Even after all these years, he has resisted adding help and expanding his business.
“Everything that leaves through my door has my name on it,” Bowe said. “I like to keep a handle on everything that goes on here.”