Serving the Vermont Champlain Valley Area for 32 Years

Tuesday August 22, 2006 Edition

Ernie Bragg Preserves Outdoor Memories

By Mike Cameron

One of the most respected aspects of outdoor lore is the ability and work of a dedicated taxidermist. Middlebury's Ernie "Butch" Bragg is that kind of professional. As he indicates in the mission statement of his business, "Bragg's Taxidermy started with a dream several years ago. A close friend of mine taught me how to mount my own white-tail buck back in the early 90's in his shop. The gentleman moved to Florida in 1995 and I bought his equipment with the hopes of having my own shop." "I became a hobbyist in 1997 after attending the Rinehart Supply Company's two day work shop in Albany N.Y. and from then on, I've been hooked on Taxidermy," Ernie recalls.

Perhaps Bragg's ability as a Master Level Taxidermist was spawned from his original abilities as a highly skilled and certified welder with over three decades of experience. For those who know the trade, experienced welding professionals are worth their weight in gold. Well, the same could be said of experienced professional taxidermists. It would not be a stretch to say that Ernie is well on his way to a second career by consolidating and combining his many skills and talents. "This is something that I can continue after I retire," Butch explains.

The taxidermy business has evolved from ancient times and the profession has its own culture, language and trade secrets all shared by men and women who wish to preserve the craft's own cultural heritage. Let's call them the "tricks of the trade". The more tricks you can master the better your performance will be and thus the better your end results will appear.

A visit with Ernie Bragg in his basement studio is initially a little confusing and overwhelming to the uninitiated. To those who have enjoyed the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing since their youth it's a different story. The memories of hunting, fishing and trapping come flooding back. That big brook trout that we still could be enjoying every day, that charging wild boar that was taken with a hand gun, the big buck that didn't get away, the ducks, geese, pheasants and partridge, muskrats and that big blanket beaver that just barely fit in the pack basket are all part of outdoor lore and can be preserved for a lifetime by a skilled professional taxidermist.

Bragg has enjoyed hunting and fishing since his youth. His grandfather helped him to "catch the hunting and fishing bug" and now many years since the older gentleman's passing, the memories remain. Like any of us who have been blessed with an outdoor mentor at an early age, we continue to hold them close every time we step into the woods or water on opening day. Ernie's grandfather Milton Miller would be justly proud of what he had begun when his grandson was a teen. "Youth Day is very important," Bragg believes, referring to the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife's special hunting seasons for youngsters as long as they are accompanied by a licensed adult and have completed a Hunter Safety Course. "The heritage has to be passed on or it will pass away with time," Butch says and like many of us who love the outdoors it is a part of who we are. Sharing the lore and the ethics of sound outdoor practices especially with youth is very important and will continue to be, Butch strongly believes.

Bragg went about his craft with an open mind and a willingness to work into being the professional he is now. " Since the mid 90's I thought it was important to attend yearly state competitions for the Connecticut Association of Taxidermists, now known as the New England Association of Taxidermists (NEAT). Attending the New York Association was also important and I was fortunate enough to win many important ribbons."

At the National Association of Taxidermists in 1998, Bragg made his presence known by attending seminars and competing at the highest levels in his craft. In 2004 he took a second place for a white tail deer mount. In 2005, Bragg won first place at NEAT with Best of Category in the Professional Division for another exquisitely prepared white tail deer head mount. To demonstrate how far Bragg has honed his craft in a decade of diligent effort he is now only 3-points away from an award of excellence in the Masters Division of the National Taxidermists Association. Ernie also serves on the board of directors at NEAT.

Bragg's very first inclination that he might like to try taxidermy was when he answered an ad for a correspondence course in an outdoor magazine. "I saw the ad and decided to give it a shot and completed the course," he remembers with a little twinkle in his eye. Perhaps he knew back then that bigger things were in store for him in the not too distant future.

Butch also credits legendary taxidermist Pete LaJoy whom he met early on in his career, with giving him the necessary tips and pointers that have helped him evolve as a taxidermist. "Pete is one of the most well respected in the trade and in the opinion of many, myself included, Pete LaJoy is one of the best taxidermists to be found anywhere," LaJoy's work is admired world-wide for its intricate detail and perfection.

Having Butch take one through the process of mounting a deer head is a quick lesson in biology, natural history, anatomy and white tail deer lore. Bragg's ability to explain why a contest judge might not like what he sees or the degree of difficulty that must be encountered when a mount is judged is a testament to the evolution that the white tail deer has endured. It is also a testament to Bragg's constant study of the animal and what it is capable of doing to survive. He has dozens of close-up-macro-zoom photographs of deer eyes, muzzles, ears and head photographs from front back and side known in the trade as References. References of other animals, large and small also help to assist Bragg in achieving the precision of the final look. The future looks bright for Butch Bragg's second career he has three key things going for him: work ethic, skill and his ability to make friends.

But this brief explanation of some of the many aspects of preparing a competition grade mount only scratches the surface. Here is a for instance: A not commonly known, yet very interesting, aspect of deer biology has to do with the animals ability see forward while browsing near ground level. Ernie explained that when a deer lowers his or her head to browse their eye pupils remain level. We will let you, the reader, consider the possible consequences of such ability and then you will get an even better understanding of why deer can be so elusive and have remained so since prehistoric times.

To see some of Butch's work, check with the folks at Vermont Field Sports in Middlebury where some of his work hangs on the wall. Rod Bourdeau owner and operator of Bordeau Motors in East Middlebury is a life long white tail deer hunter. Rod employed Butch's services to mount a beautiful buck that he shot this past year. He is an ardent supporter of Bragg's work. "Butch has done three heads for me and every one was beyond my expectations. One deer has scars on his nose and Butch made the mount look great including the intricate details of each of the original scars. His incredible attention to detail is what sets him apart," Bourdeau explained.

Hunting season is almost here and that big buck or bear is out there somewhere. If you are able to score Ernie can make that trophy last; looking almost real for many generations to come.