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Taxidermy and tragedy

Each time John Kosec's mother, Gretl, opened her freezer, she had no idea what would be staring at her. There were ducks. There were fish. There were squirrels. All frozen, all mixed in with her vegetables.

The critters came mostly from the Mississippi River bottoms in Hastings, where her son spent as much time as he could. What was he doing with them? At the youthful age of 12, he was beginning his career as a taxidermist.

He loved the outdoors and wanted everything mounted.

"I just started tearing into it myself," he said from his home just south of Hastings.

Thirty-eight years later, Kosec is still keeping animals in freezers. The workshop off the back of his home is full of freezers, packed with frozen walleyes. Birds are all over the place. Three black bears are frozen in time. The only difference now is that the animals come from his customers, and not from his weekends on the river bottoms. Since 1985, Kosec has been best known as John from John's Outdoors and John's Taxidermy.

It was 23 years ago that he opened his outdoors store here. The store closed in 2002 after the outdoors retail business became saturated with big box stores and online sales. But the closing of the retail store came with a new opportunity for Kosec, the chance to do taxidermy full time with no distractions. When the outdoors store closed, he built the shop at his house and has been doing nothing but taxidermy since.

"My personal belief is that John has probably never been happier than he is now," said Corey Waller, a former employee of Kosec's and a close friend.

Waller remembers the old days with fond memories. For six years, he was the store manager for Kosec.

Among the fondest memories for Waller were the two-duck days. During certain times of the year, Kosec would mount two ducks a day. With ducks being among the most labor intensive animals to mount, two-duck days were stressful for Kosec.

"If it was a two-duck day, you didn't even go in back and talk to him," Waller said.

For a lot of guys in Hastings, John's Outdoors had become a coffee club of sorts. Instead of stopping at the bar for some suds after work, guys would stop in to see what was biting, or to at least hear some stories and check in. Different rules applied, though, if it were a two-duck day.

"Dean Truax, every day after work, he'd come in," Waller said. "I'd see him start going to the back to talk to John and I'd say, 'Hey, it's a two-duck day.'

"He'd turn around. He wouldn't even go back there. The regulars, they knew what a two-duck day was."

Between those days when he was 12 and occupying his mother's freezer and now, Kosec has led a fun life, full of stories, tragedy, love and the outdoors.

After high school here in Hastings, Kosec enrolled in college for a semester, but by the time the fall came around and the ducks started to fly, his mind was elsewhere. Plus, the job outlook at the time wasn't the best, helping make his decision to leave college even easier.

And then there was Patty Berg. He had met her in high school and they had an on-again, off-again thing for a while. Well, it came back on and it stuck. They were married 30 years ago this year.

"When I married her, I was hauling beer," Kosec said. "I figured since I was getting married, I'd better find a good job. What better job than hauling beer?"

Patty was with her husband on the scariest day of his life, a nice day in Trempealeau, Wis., during the summer of 2004. John and Patty were on a boating trip with friends, and had parked in a marina. John was helping a friend work on his boat when gas fumes in the engine compartment ignited. Kosec was basically blown from the boat and landed on the dock. His face, arms and hair were on fire. He raced 20 feet down the dock and jumped into the water.

"I didn't have very far to go, but you wouldn't believe the amount of things that go through a guy's head," Kosec said.

He stayed under the water until the burning stopped, then he surfaced. He eventually ended up at Regions Hospital for the burns. Turns out, that jump in the Mississippi River was the perfect thing to do. In fact, when he has a tan there's no evidence of the burns at all.

"After going up to Regions and seeing the photos of the kids up there, I felt like I stubbed my toe," he said. "That was sad, seeing all that."

Life soon got back to normal for Kosec. Normal, of course, is a relative term. For Kosec, normal is spending a day combing the hair of a caribou, or cleaning bear eyeballs. But it's a job he loves.

"I can sit back and see what I've accomplished when I'm done for the day," he said.

Kosec also gets to be a little bit of everything at his shop, from a welder to a craftsman to an artist with a paintbrush.

He gets to see wonderful animals come through his door, and he gets their stories from the excited outdoorsman who harvested the creature. Don Latch of Hastings brought in an enormous buck from near Red Wing. A Boone and Crockett Club record rack from near Welch was brought to Kosec. And then there was a grizzly bear from Russia that found its way to Hastings.

"That had to be the most beautiful animal I have ever seen," he said. "The fur on that thing was 10 inches long."

Kosec estimates he mounts 125 fish a year and does 150 big-game mounts. Add in some birds here and there, and the guy stays plenty busy.

He sees trends based on weather, fishing conditions and the economy. Five years ago, for example, he would see 50 to 75 crappies come in during a winter from Red Lake, which had seen an explosion of trophy crappies emerge when the walleye population was decimated by overfishing. Last year, he didn't see a single crappie from Red Lake.

Regardless of the animal, the work he does is appreciated by the outdoorsmen who frequent his business, according to Waller.

"I look at my mounts at home, and 10 years after they were mounted, they look like they're brand new," he said. "He's mastered the art. There's nobody better that I've seen."

Kosec has several of his own animals still mounted in his showroom south of Hastings. But, should you go into his house, don't expect to see any of his fish on the walls. There are only two animals in the house - and neither of them are fish he caught.

"My wife gets the house, and I get the shop," he said. "Actually, there are two fish in there. They're hers."