When Calvin Gomes stuffed his first pheasant some 30 years ago, he learned from his mentor that it wasn't close to being in proper proportion.
A hunter for most of his life, Gomes had to learn how to properly stuff an animal after it had been killed. Now he's developed his skills to become a professional taxidermist.
Gomes, 53, placed second in an open-division contest sponsored by the California Taxidermy Association this year and was recently commissioned to provide stuffed birds at the Maidu Interpretive Center in Roseville.
"He's learned new techniques and really improved on his work," said Johnny DeRossett, a friend from Oakdale who taught Gomes the tricks of the trade 30 years ago. "He's kind of my protégé."
Gomes has stuffed animals ranging from deer to buffalo to ducks. He has a big buffalo head on the wall to greet anyone who walks in his front door in west Lodi. He also has a pair of deer on his living room wall.
Despite the nation's bad economic times, hunters seem to make taxidermy a top financial priority, Gomes said.
"People will spend their last dollar to have a deer mounted," he added.
However, Gomes prefers stuffing wood ducks to any other creatures. He hunts them frequently in the Delta.
A Galt High School graduate, Gomes learned to hunt from his father, who had a 45-acre ranch off Liberty Road.
"I think I was 12 years old when my dad showed me how to shoot a shotgun," he said. "I shot a dove, and I got hooked on it."
Gomes was a welder and butcher (including employment with the former Goehring Meat Co.) before working 21 years for Anheuser-Busch on Stockton's Waterloo Road.
Taxidermy was a hobby for many years, but several of Gomes' friends said he was good enough to do it professionally. Now he's semi-retired, but he'll take on taxidermy and home inspection jobs to keep him busy.
While duck hunting, Gomes uses a special technique — studying individual birds' habits as they come close by to greet other ducks. He observes how the bird lands on a tree, and how it takes off and fluffs its feathers. He incorporates their mannerisms when he mounts them.
How to stuff a duckHere are some of the steps to make a duck look lifelike:
— Skin the bird from the top of the chest to the anal cavity, five or six inches.
— Remove the skin around the body.
— Separate the joint between the thigh and leg.
— Separate the wing bones from the body.
— Wash the bird with dish soap and a bacteria-fighting substance.
— Rinse the bird to get the blood and oils off the feathers.
— Place the skin in Coleman lantern fuel, also known as white gas. That takes the water out of the feathers.
— Rinse again with cold water. Add dried Borax soap to skin and feathers.
— Blow out the soap with an air compressor. That makes the feathers fluff up.
— Put the skin on a pre-manufactured mannequin and then sew the bird back up.
Source: Calvin Gomes
DeRossett said attention to detail is Gomes' greatest asset when it comes to the taxidermy business.
While he spends more of his time in the Delta, Gomes and his wife, Pansy, own property in the Idaho panhandle that borders a national forest. He'll hunt bigger game there.
He still prefers ducks to larger animals because it takes 40 hours to mount a buffalo's head. However, it still takes time — six hours — to stuff a bird. It takes detailed wiring to replace the bones if you break a wing when you shoot a bird, and it takes hours to sew the body back together, he said.
Gomes said he shoots only drakes, leaving females alone because they are needed to reproduce. They'll find a new mate whenever their male partner is shot down, Gomes said.
While he is hardened emotionally to killing animals, it shakes Gomes up if he doesn't kill them on the first shot because he doesn't want them to suffer.
"If I don't kill it when I shoot it — I don't care how long you do it, you still get that feeling," he said.
If he believes an animal is far enough away that he may not kill him on a single gunshot, Gomes won't shoot at all.
Gomes' wife, Pansy, is a registered nurse at Kaiser Hospital. He has two grown children and two grandchildren.