DAMASCUS — Rodney Harper compared winning his latest honor as a taxidermist to that of a baseball team winning the World Series.
“This is as good as it gets,” Harper said with a smile.
Harper, 46, won the 2014 National Champion award for a warm-water-fish skin mount at the 43rd annual National Taxidermists Association Convention and Competition held July 16-19 in Springdale.
“I’ve been showing mounts for more than 20 years,” said Harper, who has been a taxidermist for 25 years. “It’s taken me that long to win a national championship. They just don’t give them away.”
Harper, who competes at the master’s level, won the honor with a 3-pound largemouth bass that his 16-year-old son, Jared, caught on Bull Shoals Lake.
“They don’t judge on the size of the fish but on how well it is put back together … as God created it,” said Harper, who is certified by the national association. “This fish looks as good as it did when Jared caught it.”
Harper said he called the mounted fish “The Splash” because it appears to be splashing out of the water, complete with a lure in its mouth. Jared makes the lures that he and his father use at Harper’s Pure Country Taxidermy in Damascus.
Harper, who is vice president of the Arkansas Taxidermists Association, said organizers of this year’s national tournament asked him to come up and do a seminar, he said.
“We decided to go and take some of our mounts [for competition],” he said. “We did very well.
“I almost didn’t compete. I’ve been so busy with the business, I didn’t know if I would have the time to get things together. It was my wife, Donna, that convinced me to enter.”
Harper said he is one of only 17 certified taxidermists in the state and one of only 102 certified in fish taxidermy in the nation. A taxidermist can be certified in four categories: mammals, fish, birds and reptiles.
Jared, who is a junior at Greenbrier High School, won several awards in the youth division of the national show, including the Safari Club International Youth Award; the TWN Industries Horizon Youth Award; the Paasche’s People’s Choice Youth Award; and the Bill Webb Memorial Youth Award. He won with the mount of a 4-pound bass that he caught on Bull Shoals Lake.
“I was pretty proud,” Jared said.
Although Jared is learning the taxidermy business from his father, he hopes to become a marine biologist.
Harper has won other awards with “The Splash,” including the Southern Regional Taxidermy Championship in April. Prior to that, he had won Best Fish trophies in each of the states in the region — Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.
He also won the 2014 Judge’s Choice Best of Show Award from Breakthrough magazine and will be featured in a future edition of the publication.
Harper said next year’s national competition will be held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“Since it’s so close, we will probably go to that one,” he said, adding that the competition is held in a different city each year.
Harper grew up in Thayer, Missouri, and joined the Navy right after graduating from high school. He served 6 1/2 years in the Navy, including four years aboard the USS Independence (CV-62) aircraft carrier during Operation Desert Shield.
It was while he was stationed at Millington, Tennessee, that he became interested in taxidermy.
“An older gentleman was giving night classes in taxidermy at a community college there, and I signed up for them,” he said. “He told us, ‘Folks, I can teach you the basics, and what you do with it from here is your own business.’”
Harper said he has built up his business over the past 25 years. The Harpers lived in Beebe before moving to Damascus about three years ago. Donna Harper works for the Greenbrier School District.
Rodney Harper said the next level of competition will be the world show.
The 2015 World Taxidermy and Fish Carving Championship will be held May 5-9, 2015, in Springfield, Missouri.
“That’s close,” Harper said of the location. “You have to get your mind right to compete in it. My plan is to go, if I can get everything going right. I will have to evaluate it very carefully.”
But he will have to create a new fish mount, as “The Splash” is now retired.
“That fish has won five state titles, a regional title and now a national title,” Harper said. “I’ll have to take something fresh.”