Talk about buck fever.
Klaus Lebrecht has cradled some of the biggest and most famous trophy deer antlers in whitetail lore. Bucks like the incredible Minnesota Monarch — a world-record 39-point rack found near Ely in 1989. Or the eye-popping James Jordon Buck, a brute taken in Wisconsin in 1914 but still wowing hunters as one of the most famous whitetails ever.
A hunter, Lebrecht has never bagged a world-class deer himself, but he works with them daily as a renowned taxidermist and maker of antler reproductions. His replicas — virtually impossible to distinguish from the real thing — are admired nationwide by visitors of many outdoor stores, including Cabela's, Gander Mountain and Bass Pro Shops.
"Would I love to shoot a giant deer? Yeah,'' said Lebrecht, 54, of New Richmond, Wis., 20 minutes east of Stillwater. "But I'm not obsessed with getting a record-book deer. I find joy working with these as pieces of art. I feel privileged.''
Lebrecht will bring some of his work, including the Minnesota Monarch and the Ghost Buck, a rare albino deer with a huge rack found in Wisconsin, to the Minnesota Deer Classic this weekend in Blaine, the show's new home. Lebrecht remembers when he first brought his replicas of 15 of the greatest whitetails to the show years ago.
"You couldn't get to our booth,'' he said. "It was packed. It was the first time people had seen those heads.''
Now, he said, people have seen some of the big whitetail racks at those outdoor stores and elsewhere. "It doesn't have the wow-power it used to,'' he said.
Still, business for Lebrecht's Antlers by Klaus, one of a handful of companies that make antler reproductions, is booming. And hunters still come to inspect the massive antlers — and dream.
For Lebrecht, it all started about 30 years ago, when his interest in the outdoors led to taxidermy. Antler reproductions were in their infancy, and Lebrecht was intrigued. He paid a fellow to teach him how to make the replicas by casting a mold of the real antlers and then pouring a liquid plastic into the mold.
"After six months, I was about to throw in the towel because I just couldn't make them look real,'' Lebrecht said. "They always looked fake — shiny and plasticky.'' He continued to experiment with various plastics, settling on a polyurethane resin.
"Finally we got there with that realistic look,'' he said. "We got work all over the U.S. and Canada, and we were off to the races.'' Besides outdoor stores, he sells reproductions to taxidermists, archery shops, corporate businesses and individuals. The reproductions cost from $250 to $5,000 or more.
Lebrecht often makes reproductions of trophy antlers purchased by a handful of antler collectors. In addition to cash, those collectors usually provide the seller a reproduction of the rack, too. His faux antlers can be mounted with the hides of other deer to create lifelike shoulder mounts or even full-body mounts. Lebrecht gets most of his hides from a supplier in Canada. In Wisconsin, albino deer are protected, so the hide for the Ghost Buck came from a game farm in Kentucky.
Meanwhile, many outdoor stores are turning to antler reproductions because of the high cost of buying real antlers, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, Lebrecht said. He said he'll be doing antler reproductions for new stores Cabela's is building around the United States and Canada.
The key to a realistic reproduction is the paint job, he said.
"A lot of guys can do the mold and create the cast, but most guys can't paint them to get that realistic look. That's what sets us apart,'' he said.
Lebrecht paints all the antlers himself, up to 500 a year. "I work an average of 12 to 14 hours a day,'' he said.
How real-looking are the fake antlers?
"If you don't tell people, most of the time they don't know they are reproductions,'' Lebrecht said.
He's put real antlers on a table alongside his reproductions, allowing people to pick them up and inspect them, and half can't tell real from fake, he said. "If I put them on a table 2 or 3 feet away, there would be no way you could tell.''