Rodney Harper has waited 25 years for this.
The owner of Harper’s Pure Country Taxidermy in Damascus was named National Champion at the National Taxidermist Association competition in Springdale on July 16-19. The 43rd annual event, the competition is held in a different city each year.
"When it’s close we try to hit it," Harper said. "You have to do something elaborate in competition. You have to wow your peers that are the judges. It’s an achievement. I’ve been after that national champion title for so long I didn’t think I was ever going to get it."
The piece that won him the title is a fish that appears to be splashing out of the water with a lure in its mouth. Harper’s son, Jared, 16, caught the fish used in the piece, called, appropriately, "The Splash."
"Look at the back of it. There’s not a seam on that fish," Harper said, admiring his work. He is judged in the master’s category, and judges look at how close the piece comes to the original, he said.
Jared also won the youth championship at the national competition for a fish he mounted.
"I was pretty excited," he said. "It was the first time I went to the NTA."
Harper also took "The Splash" to the Southern Regional Taxidermy Championship in April, which is comprised of the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. He won the master’s division there as well. He also received an award from Breakthrough magazine, which will feature the fish in an issue later this year.
"This stuff is like a fine painting to sportsmen and women. It’s as close to the real thing as they can get," he said.
Harper has been the Arkansas state champion several times, he said. He is a certified judge and presents seminars on taxidermy.
"We do all kinds of stuff — turkeys, bobcats, deer," he said of his shop. "I do more fish than anything. Fish and deer. I get fish from all over the country. I get fish from people from Virginia, Texas, even France. We’ve been fortunate. It’s year-round. There’s never a slow period."
He believes whether a trophy is a kid’s first deer or a first duck or a prize fish, each one has a story behind it and each one goes out his door with a personal touch.
He was also fortunate enough to mount the largest bass ever caught in the state, however, the fish is not certified by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, he noted. Harper explained the fisherman who caught it was going to bring it to him for mounting, but then the Game and Fish Commission found out he caught it without a license and took it away from him. The fisherman ended up going to court, but Harper still got to mount the fish for the Game and Fish Commission and made several replicas.
Harper said he got his start in taxidermy after he got out of the Navy. A man was teaching classes at a community college, and he decided to learn.
"He said, ‘I’ll teach you the basics, and what you do from there is up to you.’"
(Staff writer Rachel Parker Dickerson can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)