Experience, artistry and expertise power Craig’s Gunsmoke Taxidermy

Dean Malitzia, owner of Gunsmoke Taxidermy, stands next to a wall of completed mounts. He said he's noticed a dip in the quality of some of the big game animals harvested this year, but the elk that have come into his shop are looking pretty good and on par with previous years.
Dean Malitzia/Courtesy photo

Dean Malitizia, owner of Gunsmoke Taxidermy, discovered he was attracted to taxidermy as a young kid. The profession combines the techniques of preservation, knowledge of biology and an artistic skill to create a beautiful and life-like mount.

“It’s something I’ve always had an interest in since I was young. My Mom would open the freezer and there’d be a dead squirrel in there,” Malitzia said with a laugh as he recalled his mom’s exclamations. 

Malitzia grew up in southeast Minnesota, but eventually moved to Northwest Colorado to work as a hunting guide. After completing the taxidermy coursework, he started a part-time business.

As he sharpened his skills, the business expanded. Now, Gunsmoke Taxidermy, located five miles north of Craig on Colorado Highway 13, has been his full-time job for the past 26 years.

This hunting season has been one of Malitzia’s busiest since the early 2000s. However, he has noticed a change in the overall quality of the animals this year.

“We did have a couple of dry years, which does affect antler growth,” he said. “This year, we did have good moisture, but, I think, with the deer and antelope I’ve seen a little decline in the quality of the animals. The numbers are still there, but the quality is down.”   

However, Malitzia has also noticed the elk have been on par compared to other years.

“The elk are doing good,” he said. “(We) have had some really nice elk come in this year.”

Due to fewer trophy animals being harvested, Malitzia has seen a corresponding change in the type of mounts too.

“I did do a lot of European mounts this year, and that has to do with the quality, again,” he said.

The process of creating a beautiful shoulder mount requires several steps. First, the animal has to be “caped out,” or skinned from the shoulder all the way to the base of the skull. From there, removing the hide from around the skull is a delicate process that can take a few hours, depending on the animal.

At this point, Malitzia will salt the hide to preserve it until he is ready to create the mount. When ready, the hide is placed in a “rehydration pickle,” which is a tub that holds a liquid that helps allow the hide to be worked on further.

Once rehydrated, the inside of the hide is “fleshed out,” or worked over by a dull metal wheel blade and wire wheel to remove any remaining bits of muscle and other contamination. This process thins the hide, which makes it more pliable and ready to absorb the tanning solution.

After fleshing, the tanning process binds the fur to the hide and keeps it from falling out. Malitzia prefers to perform this critical step himself. Next, the hide is put in a tumbler with sawdust to remove moisture and make it even more pliable. Finally, the hide is sewn in place over the polyurethane form, made to the specific measurements of the animal.

Malitzia then uses his artistic skills to finish the mount. After the antlers, life-like eyes are key to a quality product.

“That’s when you do the fine work, to get the eyes to look just right. I want them to look very life-like,” he said. “I get many guys that’ll say, ‘Man, that elk’s ready to blink at me.’ That’s where I want to get every mount.”

From August to December, Malitzia works 12 hour days, seven days a week. When summer arrives, Malitzia and his wife pack up and hand deliver about 25-30 trophy elk mounts to customers throughout the U.S. These deliveries serve as a well-deserved vacation and a chance to explore the nation’s history, especially Civil War battle sites.  

After 26 years of hard work with his hands, arthritis is setting in, and retirement from the the work he loves could be just a few years away.

“I’m very blessed to have a job that I like; it’s not like I’m coming to work,” Malitzia said. “I look forward to coming to work every day.”

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