READING, Minn. — Anyone wanting to learn how to preserve a prized fish or do their own deer mount these days need only look to YouTube videos and the wealth of information on the Internet to gain the knowledge they need to at least attempt the task.
That wasn’t the case when Jim Slocum was a kid.
The self-professed nature lover grew up in the outdoors, and hunting and fishing were among his favorite activities. It wasn’t so much the fun of the sport, but the intrigue Slocum had in seeing wild animals up close that fueled his interest.
“(Taxidermy) was pretty much what I wanted to do my whole life,” he said. “I like animals. I like to look at them more than anything. I think that drove my passion to go hunting, and it just kind of went from there.”
At the age of 12, Slocum first attempted to preserve a 2-pound walleye he’d caught. He got more practice when his friends brought him their fish and wildlife.
The walleye “looked OK,” Slocum said of the finished project. Now, as an experienced taxidermist with a much more critical eye, he admits, “The paint job looked pretty bad … but I was pretty proud of it.”
Slocum followed tips from a book offered through Outdoor Life back then to learn the art of taxidermy.
“I followed that and messed some stuff up, but some turned out,” he shared, noting it was too expensive for him to hire a taxidermist as a kid, and — at the time — local taxidermists weren’t too keen on sharing their secrets to creating a masterpiece worthy of displaying on the living room wall.
“People today are more helpful because (the information) is available on the internet,” Slocum said.
While that 2-pound walleye was the start of Slocum’s childhood hobby, he soon moved on to other species including fox, deer and wood ducks.
“I trapped a lot of fox in junior high and high school; I have 50 or 60 that I have tanned,” Slocum said. “I did a deer head for my buddy and one for me, and it just started from there.”
In 1994, Slocum attended Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, where he completed a nine-month taxidermy program and diploma.
“I came back and started a taxidermy business in Mom and Dad’s garage,” Slocum said, adding that the garage was divided into two workspaces — one for his budding business and the other for his dad’s woodworking.
For about the first five years, Slocum earned extra income by working alongside a fur buyer in Luverne during the winters. His job was to skin the animals that were purchased from hunters.
About 20 years ago, Slocum moved into a new building in Reading that — at the time — offered ample room for growth. In addition to having a workspace, his shop also has a small gallery showcasing some of his work, as well as a walk-in freezer and two large chest freezers to store customers’ projects until he can get to them.
Currently, customers have about a two-year wait to get their pieces back.
Building a reputation for quality
In the early years of his career, Slocum competed in a lot of taxidermy shows in Minnesota and Iowa. The shows offered him a chance to be critiqued on his work, to learn from others through various seminars and to earn some hardware and name recognition.
It isn’t just individual customers who come from Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota that keep Slocum busy. Back when Scheels built its new store in Sioux Falls, Slocum was hired to do the small mammals, birds and many of the large animals displayed there.
“One of their managers called me and after that, their corporate people got ahold of me and that’s who I go through now,” Slocum said. Scheels’ corporate office is in Fargo and Slocum did a display for them that includes a bison.
“Most of the stuff I do is for new stores,” Slocum said. “I have to do a brown bear and a shoulder-mount white-tail for the Sioux Falls store coming up shortly.”
He now has some of his work on display in eight Scheels stores, including Rochester in Minnesota, Sioux Falls, Fargo, Lincoln, Nebraska, Missoula, Montana, two stores in Colorado and one in Texas.
Slocum has done taxidermy for a wide variety of displays, and has done some unusual animals during his career.
“I have done African (species) and from New Zealand,” he said. “I don’t target that stuff, but if it’s a regular customer, I’ll do it.”
In his gallery, Slocum has a timberwolf, black bear, turkey, deer, pronghorn antelope and a couple of fish species displayed, but he has also done life-size moose, bison and muskox, as well as mountain lions.
“There’s probably not too much I haven’t done,” he said.
In late October, Slocum was busy getting all of the deer head mounts completed that he took in following the 2019 white-tail hunting season. Once they were done, he was going to move on to the brown bear and some other large animals he has waiting in the freezer.
“I do work in groups — I do a whole bunch of deer and a whole bunch of fish,” Slocum said, adding that his fish projects are all skin mounts — he doesn’t work in replicas.
Slocum also doesn’t have employees, preferring to do the work himself.
“I want it to look a certain way, so I don’t really go that route,” he said. When he does need help getting a larger animal, such as a moose, on a mount, he asks for help from a nearby business.
Looking back on his career, Slocum said he still enjoys what he does every day.
“It’s been a really good business and it’s fun,” he said. “I like doing it — that’s the main thing.”