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October 25, 2001

The Real Skinny on Taxidermy

Release mounts let you relive piscatorial battles without killing fish.

Hours have passed under Mexico's hot summer sun, and it looks like the first day of your fishing vacation has turned out to be a bust. Suddenly a dark shape materializes behind the strip bait skipping along on the right short. "Pez vela, pez vela!" shouts the captain, and you move to the rod just in time to see the sail lift its nose and take the strip. You ease the lever back to free-spool, give the fish a three count and push the lever back to strike, and you're hooked up.

After a dizzying display of aerobatics, the 100-plus-pound Pacific sail swims dutifully to the boat. Adrenaline pumps through your body as you watch the mate grab the leader and bring the fish alongside. The captain jumps down from the flybridge and asks if you'd like to have the beautiful fish mounted. It's your first sail, and since you've always wanted a trophy fish for the office wall, the gaff goes in and the fish comes aboard.
This scenario occurs repeatedly on boats of every nationality. A tourist on vacation gets in some fishing time and ends up killing a billfish for a mount. At first glance it seems like a totally logical thing to do. Why not come home with some bragging rights and impressive proof of your catch? You've paid the high price tag for a fishing vacation and all the extra expenses that go along with it, so why should you deprive yourself of this one thing you've wanted for so long?

The answer is quite simple: You shouldn't.

But at the same time, you should know that getting a top-quality mount for home or office doesn't have to cost any fish its life. In fact, over 90 percent of the mounts made today don't have any parts from an actual fish.

Skin Mounts
Most taxidermists can offer three different types of mounts: skin mount, mold mount or a replica mount. The skin mount is exactly what its name implies: A fish's skin is removed, treated for preservation and stretched over a mold fitted with the fish's bill, fins and teeth (if applicable). While you can still find plenty of taxidermists willing to do skin mounts, many have stopped doing them altogether or cut back on the number they will do for a variety of reasons.

"The switch to replica mounts has a lot to do with time. Preparing a skin mount can be a very time-consuming process. My sons won't even touch a skin-mount job any more, and I don't have anyone else here trained to do it," says Bob Harris of Saltwater Taxidermy in Houston, Texas. "Replica mounts are quicker to make, more durable and ship much easier," he says. "I have not done a skin mount of a billfish so far this year, and I do 750 to 1,000 billfish a year. If I only did skin mounts, I probably could only do 200 to 300 fish a year."
Skin mounts also lack the durability of replica mounts, since advances in preserving fish skins hasn't really changed much since Al Pflueger perfected the process over 30 years ago. "On the old skin mounts the skins would come away from the body. The body materials would swell and shrink, separating from the skin, but that was prior to the foam bodies we use today," says Bill Allen of J.T. Reese Taxidermy in Fort Lauderdale, which still specializes in skin mounts. Today you can expect a typical skin mount to last 15 to 30 years if kept indoors and out of the sun.

One of the main reasons most people opt for a skin mount is to get as much of their actual fish on the wall as possible. "Some people like to know that the fish on their wall is the actual fish they caught," says Bucky Flowers, owner of Skins and Scales in Naples, Florida. "But if you skin-mount fish with tiny scales [like billfish and tuna], you can't get the skin perfectly smooth and you have to use filler to smooth everything out." So while you may technically have a skin mount, it usually ends up being covered with filler and paint anyway.

Mold Mounts
The exact mold process offers you an alternative to a skin mount, while still ensuring an exact replica of the fish you caught. This method involves making a plaster mold from the fish and then using the mold to make a replica from fiberglass. Unfortunately, you can't use a live fish to make a mold, and it can be pretty difficult as well as very expensive to make molds for large fish like blue marlin or sharks.

"Once you start the molding process you can't stop and take breaks in the middle," says Harris. "You also have to have skilled people to help lift and pose the fish. It took five men 35 hours to make the last mold we did of a 600-pound blue," says Harris.

"We still have to make molds from fish," says Mike Kirkhart, vice president of the National Taxidermy Association and owner of New Wave Taxidermy in Stuart, Florida. "But right now we only really have to do it for world record-size or unusual fish that we don't have a mount for. For instance, I just had a customer bring in a black grouper that weighed over 100 pounds, and since there aren't any molds that even come close to a grouper that size, we're going to make a mold from it," says Kirkhart. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. "If you've done your homework and caught a world record, killing that fish and making a mold is sacrificing one to save the others - because once we have a mold, no one has to kill fish in that size range again," says Kirkhart.

Replicas: The Right Choice
Bag limits, season closures, size restrictions and the growing trend toward catch-and-release all add up to the fact that anglers are releasing more fish. With fewer fish coming back to the dock, the number of trophies mounted by anglers has dropped off proportionately, but it doesn't have to be that way. "Our industry has slowed way down due to catch-and-release," says Kirkhart, "but now anglers are rapidly coming around to the fact that we can make replica mounts that are more accurate in every detail than the real skin mounts of the past. Now you can get a beautiful mount that will last forever and still feel like a hero after letting your fish go, and the resource isn't being destroyed in your wake."

If you choose to release your fish, you have two options for a mount: a sculptured mount or the use of an existing mold to create a replica. If you have a photograph and the basic dimensions of the fish (length and girth), some taxidermists can sculpt a fish to match your measurements, make a mold from the sculpture and then cast a fiberglass replica from that mold. "We sometimes make sculptures," says Kirkhart, "and they are impeccable - you couldn't make one better if you had the fish." It does cost more to have a fish sculpted, however, generally two to three times more than a replica mount made from an existing mold.

"Today we have the capacity to make beautiful release mounts without killing a fish," says Kirkhart, and it's in that direction the industry has turned. Most saltwater taxidermists now use existing molds to create 90 percent or more of the mounts they produce. But just because these replicas aren't made from real fish doesn't mean that quality workmanship or realism suffer in any way. "Contrary to popular belief, we don't just go back in the warehouse and pull a mount off the shelf," says Flowers. From casting to finished mount, more than 20 hours of skilled labor go into the production of a high-quality replica mount.

What to Look For
You should be aware that the quality of mounts can vary significantly from one taxidermist to another. And it's not always just a matter of price that differentiates a good mount from a poor one. "There are a lot of taxidermists out there, and the quality ranges from A to Z. But that means that the market is very competitive, so you can still get a high-quality mount at a reasonable price," says Lisa Robertson of King Sailfish Mounts in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Kirkhart agrees and says price shopping in the taxidermy field is "like comparing prices between apples and doughnuts. The bulk of mounts out there today are the 'banana billfish' - the same stretched-out pose we've been stuck with since the '60s. We try to get the fish to look like it's still in its environment. That way, it becomes more than just a mount - it becomes a work of art. Fish do a lot of cool things like turning and twisting when they jump, and we try to capture that action in our mounts. The life of every creature is in its eye, and it's important that we get the eyes right, so we use handmade glass eyes to obtain the realism we are after. A good mount should be very aesthetic and make people say, 'Wow!' when they see it."

"The painting is the most important part of the mount," says Robertson. "You shouldn't have any paint flaking off or have any seams showing, and the mount should be solid ... built to last a lifetime."

You don't want to see any paint drips or runs, and the colors shouldn't look artificially bold. Coloration should mimic exactly the colors normally found in the species or match the unique colors displayed by your actual fish. A good color photograph can help the taxidermist customize the mount to match your fish.

Buyer Beware
The taxidermy business hasn't always enjoyed the best reputation. As with any business that contains a good number of mom-and-pop operations and serves a closely knit community like the saltwater fishing world, a few unscrupulous businesses can definitely spoil the industry's reputation in a hurry. Overcharging and unusually long lag times before delivery have plagued the business for years, but since many shops have made a concerted effort to help police their own industry, things have been changing for the better.

The main problem today stems from overseas agents and captains who quote tourists a price for the taxidermy alone without informing them that additional shipping and handling charges could double the price. "It's a bait-and-switch," says Kirkhart. "They'll just rattle off a basic price, and then the customer gets stuck with all these additional charges."

"When you end up having a fish mounted there are lots of other costs," says Bill Gray of Gray's Taxidermy in Pompano Beach, Florida, one the largest taxidermists in the country. "It's very bold on our contract that shipping and crating is extra, and it's very common for a fish to double in price before it winds up at your door in Michigan or California."

Gray says the majority of complaints come from customers who've been "lax in what he's signing. You don't have anyone to blame but yourself if you sign the contract. We don't accept contracts until we review them and then acknowledge them with the customer. We don't stand behind an over-exuberant captain," says Gray.
Since captains and agents can get a sizable commission for each mount sold, some tend to be overzealous when it comes to taking a fish for mounting. And it's much easier to convince you to have the fish mounted once you've killed it. "It's amazing the amount of pressure some of these guys will put on people," says Harris. "There shouldn't be any pressure at all - you should just take a photo."

"Just be careful when you are out of the country," says Robertson. "Since there's already a beautiful mount here in the States, there's really no need to kill a fish."

Robertson also suggests checking references and visiting taxidermists in your area before you go on your trip to take a look at their work and find out if they have experience with saltwater mounts. "Anyone who has been in business for a while will have references you can check. You should also avoid places that will switch prices for you over the phone," she says.

"Since most everyone's using fiberglass replicas these days, we all have the capability to do good, quality work. There's some fabulous artistry out there, and if you do your homework you'll find it," says Kirkhart. Try to attend boat or taxidermy shows in your area or pick up a copy of Breakthrough magazine (800-783-7266), a taxidermy trade publication that features most of the top artists in the country.

Whomever you choose to mount your fish, make sure they subscribe to the same motto that Kirkhart uses in his business: "Catch for the thrill, release for the future, and mount for the memory."