For every animal hanging from the walls of Carl Lewis’ shop in rural York County, there is a story.
He points to a mounted English pheasant with pride, telling you how he killed it with a stone when he was 12 years old.
Bucks, bears and elk adorn the walls or stand on the floor. He’s been to Idaho to hunt elk, Canada to hunt bear, and some of the mounted bucks he found much closer to home, hunting throughout South Carolina.
About the only thing you won’t hear is how he and Davy Crockett killed themselves a bear when they were only 3. But if you press Lewis, he could probably spin a fanciful tall tale of hunting with Davy, as he is an accomplished bow hunter.
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There are a lot of stories about fish in the shop too.
There is a huge, ominous Northern pike, ready to snap at your fingers. There are bass and bream caught in Lewis’ own pond. A chum and pink salmon swim side by side, resting after a hard swim to reach their spawning grounds.
There are even a couple of brightly colored triggerfish. They seem out of place, as their natural habitat is thousands of miles distant in tropical and subtropical oceans.
For every hunting or fishing tale there is another story – what it took to bring the specimens home and then transform them into trophy- and ribbon-winning taxidermy efforts. They are so lifelike that the eyes seem to follow you as you wander the shop.
And these are not even Lewis’ best efforts. His finest examples are on display at his house, just up the gravel road from his shop.
Lewis can’t remember a time when he wasn’t hunting or fishing. But the 56-year-old account manager at Ajax Rolled Ring & Machine Co. in York remembers his first taxidermy effort – the English pheasant. He said it smelled so bad after a few days that his mother made him get some help and do it over correctly.
“This is a stress reliever for me,” he said, explaining that he can spend three or four hours at his shop nightly.
Sometimes he is working on animals or fish brought to him by others. He estimates that he has done as many as 1,000 deer heads and another 50 bears as a part-time taxidermist.
Often, though, he is working on his own competition pieces.
Lewis has been competing since 2008 when he won a S.C. contest with a brook trout.
There is a big difference between commercial and competition taxidermy, said Sam Feemster of Sharon, a retired taxidermist and one of Lewis’ mentors.
“The difference is time and patience,” Feemster said. “Good taxidermy is making Mother Nature look better.”
Feemster said Lewis does well because of his painting skills and “his imagination, his ability to put things together.”
Lewis recently won the best fish category in the Big Rock Sports show in Graham, N.C. The show attracted many of the region’s best taxidermists. Big Rock Sports is an outdoor wholesaler.
His winning entry is the chum salmon he caught while fishing at Prince of Wales Island in Alaska last July.
“That was a fight,” he said of landing the big fish.
He had the chum and a pink salmon frozen and shipped home. He made a mold of the fish and then went to work.
He downloaded just about every picture of the salmon he could find on the Internet. To win, every detail has to be correct, he said. Lewis then spent hours painting the chum and the pink salmon in their spawning colors.
The chum and the pink salmon also won in the Georgia state contest recently, taking first-place ribbons and the best-of-show award.
“It takes something out of the ordinary to win,” he said.
He hopes to enter a national competition in May.
Lewis is not resting on the reputation the chum and pink salmon are earning him.
He already has plans for his next competition piece.
He wants to do a 12-inch dragon seahorse – a bizarre, prehistoric-looking creature that is definitely out of the ordinary. Its habitat is waters off southern Australia. The seahorse is protected by fishing law, so Lewis will be working from a pre-existing mold when he turns his imagination loose.
“It’s a passion I have. I’ll never quit,” he said.