By Dale Wills
While working as a full-time captain, I was involved in one experience where a guest wanted to mount a blue marlin. Unfortunately, the big fish never made it into the angler’s house. We were fishing off the North Drop of the Virgin Islands, and a blue marlin over 400 pounds, closer to 500 pounds, was released, and in no time, the taxidermist received an order.
Fast forward 10 months, and I get a call, “Holy Sh*&! A semi-truck just backed into my driveway, and I can’t find a wall in my house big enough for it.” I couldn’t help but chuckle, but at the same time, I thought how unfortunate he was. Let this be a lesson to anyone who is keen on a large pelagic mount, figure out where you are going to put it in advance, and it might also be a good idea to run it by your wife. In my friend’s case, he donated the beautiful replica to one of his favorite restaurants.
Gone are the days of taxidermy agents visiting docks in late afternoons to pick up a fresh catch. Skin mounts, as they are known, use the exterior of the actual fish and require meticulous work to preserve and replicate. Some artists continue the tradition, but like everything else, technology has changed the industry and for the better. Composite fish mounts are far superior in regard to anatomical perfection, with reduced costs, faster turnaround times and more encouragement to anglers to release game fish unharmed.
Most companies charge according to the length of the fish, and a good shop can authenticate the mount by including any distinct markings to make your fish true to life. In the end, mounts are all about remembering the story. Having a life-sized mount made of your fish is awesome, but as you read, it’s not the only option available, and not everyone has enough wall space for 500 pounds of blue marlin.
King Sailfish Mounts owner Ray Douglas of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was one of the first to pioneer fiberglass fish cast from molds as a substitute for using the actual fish. His debut occurred at the Miami International Boat Show in 1994. Today, life-size fiberglass fish mounts continue to make up the majority of his and other taxidermy orders. This modern-day production process starts with a pre-molded casting of a fish that has the appropriate dimensions and size of the customer’s specified catch. When ordering a fish mount, length, girth and weight measurements, as well as color photographs, will help the artists achieve the exact color patterns of your particular fish.
“For people trying to save space with a larger fish, we offer a few alternatives, including a half mount, which is half the width of the actual fish providing a lower profile on a wall. With billfish, another popular alternative is a head or shoulder mount, which can save substantial space,” says Douglas. In addition, tail and bill mounts are also an option for larger pelagics. Bill mounts can be displayed in a variety of ways. It’s common to see the base of a marlin bill chrome plated and the catch details engraved on the lustrous metal.
Another cool option is a horizontal display of the bill supported on a custom wood base. Unlike a trophy on the wall, bill mounts can be handled and passed around to get a real sense of just how large the fish was. Also, don’t forget about displaying your marlin’s tail. Showcasing just the tail may seem a little less impactful but it successfully shows off the magnitude of your trophy and leaves plenty of room for imagination.
Gray Taxidermy in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, is arguably the largest marine taxidermist in the world. At their 70,000-square-foot facility with its hallmark 27-foot blue marlin that can be seen from I-95, General Manager Bill Dobbelear explained to us that a growing trend is the request to create a natural environment for the trophy. Using composite material, artists can fashion almost anything an angler can imagine with rich beauty and realism. From a predator fish chasing bait or busting out of a wave crest to a seascape with coral reef, sea fans and sand, the options are truly endless. A custom creation can also save valuable wall space by being displayed on a table or the floor.
Another benefit of modern fish mounts is that they can be duplicated for multiple trophies from the same fish. A few years ago, the crew from the Legacy weighed in a Texas state record blue marlin during the Bastante John Uhr Memorial Billfish Tournament. From that fish a total of six head mounts were purchased for each crew member and another full-size replica was purchased for a local restaurant.
In comparison to ordering a release mount, some crew members and artists have discovered various ways to memorialize a great catch using actual parts of the fish. Not just the bill or a tail, but also the bones. Last fall while fishing in the Dominican Republic on the Eight Eights, we hooked a small blue in the tail, and it eventually died during the fight. I grabbed a fillet knife and carefully removed the dorsal. I eventually cleaned the bones, following simple internet instructions.
Taking the idea one step further, I designed a base with the help of Release Marine and added a small bronze plaque engraved with the details of the catch. Happy with the result and now equipped with the experience to create more trophies, the project has evolved as part of the inspiration for the Champion’s Cup. In the end, whoever wins the Big Blue division will have the opportunity for InTheBite to create a one-of-a-kind trophy from their winning fish. So the next time you harvest a marlin you may want to consider doing something similar.
No Bones About It
Another art form that’s growing in popularity is assembling the head or entire skeleton of your fish. Dave Kustra of Dakus Bones in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has been creating natural fish bone articulations for over 20 years. He prides his work as museum quality, capturing the beauty and detail of fish osteology and nature itself. One look and you can only imagine the artistry, knowledge and precision needed to produce such high-quality artifacts. Dakus accepts commissions on an individual basis and consults with each client as to what they want and how they want to display it. Kustra tells us he can create everything from a full fish skeleton to skulls, bills, tails or jaws. Displays of his work range from swordfish skulls suspended from ceilings to full wahoo skeletons resting on a tabletop mount.
“Ultimately, it is my passion to create near biologically perfect articulated fish that are as individual and unique as the angler and story that accompanies it. Unlike mammal skulls that become naturally fused together, a fish skull may have more than 100 individual and independent bones,” Dakus says. If you are interested in a head mount, Kustra recommends cutting the fish behind the pectoral fins, wrapping in a wet towel and keeping the trophy frozen on ice while making arrangements for delivery. Depending on the size of the fish you can expect a six- to eight-month turnaround time.
The traditional Japanese technique called gyotaku is the art of nature printing and dates back as far as the 1700s. A basic concept where a fish is inked and an impression is made by either pressing a cloth or piece of paper on the fish. When the cloth or paper is lifted, the ink is transferred to the material, leaving a realistic image of the fish and its subtle details and textures. One of the best attributes of gyotaku is that it generally costs less than a traditional fish mount and can be refined as an elegant piece of art when framed. Several marine artists are involved with the art, including Dinah Bowman from Portland, Texas, who has been making fish impressions since the 1970s after traveling to Japan to learn the intricacies of the technique.
Bowman excels with fine details of her work by drawing reference from her education in marine biology and illustration. It’s this personal touch that separates her work from others. Bowman is well known in south Texas fishing circles and beyond. Most of the big Texas fish, such as giant bluefin tuna and record marlin, have been graced by Bowman performing gyotaku dockside. Bowman is inherently creative and for the past 20 years has painted abstract backgrounds behind the inked fish.
Another concept Bowman has been composing lately is the idea of capturing a family fishing trip with gyotaku and taking each family member’s catch and placing it on a single canvas to capture the story. Anyone can do this. All it takes is shipping your catch to Bowman’s studio or calling her in advance to meet you at the dock.
Artist Larry Rackley is another prominent fixture on the Gulf Coast tournament scene and offers various services for memorializing trophy fish including painting commissions, bill mounts, skull preservation and gyotaku. Rackley discussed the gyotaku art and explained it’s a little more involved than just rubbing paint on a fish and sticking a sheet on it. For those of you who want to try it yourself, be sure you are not using toxic paint if you intend to eat the fish. It also helps if the fish is semi-frozen to get a uniform transfer of the image. Be patient, as it may take a couple of attempts to achieve a satisfactory transfer.
Rackley says once the initial gyotaku procedure is performed he will touch up the image as needed. With gyotaku, you can also be selective on what you want to transfer. If space is an issue, you can pick out individual parts of the fish to transfer onto your canvas such as a tail or head profile.
DIY Trophy Bones
There are many trade secrets and learned methods the professionals have come to realize, but if you would like to clean your own bones, dorsal or otherwise, this is what has worked for me:
- Slowly cook the bones to remove flesh, gristle and other soft tissue. You can use a Crock-Pot or sous vide set up, aiming for a temperature of 165 to 180°F.
- Bones of various size and density can take different amounts of time to clean, so check every few hours to see how they’re doing.
- Scrub, pick and gently scrape away loosened meat and tissue.
- Soak overnight in soapy water, using a degreasing detergent such as Dawn.
- Rinse thoroughly and immerse in a three percent hydrogen peroxide solution for a few hours at minimum, removing the bones after they have achieved the level of whitening you desire.
Preparing a Trophy Catch for Gyotaku by Dinah Bowman
- Don’t gut your fish. It’s best to preserve the fish in its biological state.
- Press the pectoral fins against the fish’s body, then wrap in a damp towel.
- Freeze the fish.
- When ready to ship, wrap the frozen fish in newspaper.
- Place in a cardboard box. You can add dry ice if you want but it’s not necessary.
- Ship the parcel two-day priority.
Give Me the Bill (Rostrum)
Capt. Travis Dorland of Orange Beach, Alabama, has built a reputation as one of the finest artisans producing marlin bill trophies. What started out 10 years ago as a hobby preserving bony marlin bills for friends and family has now grown into a niche side business. Dorland is quick to point out that what is unique about his art is that he uses the actual bill of the fish, not a composite or a mold, but the bone that makes up the marlin bill. The process in a simplistic form involves removing all the cartilage and muscle from inside the marlin bill and then filling it with marine epoxy and capping it off with a polished aluminum plate.
His business is growing, and Dorland recommends anyone who wants to utilize his services remove the bill by severing the marlin right behind the eyes and freezing it prior to making shipping arrangements. Don’t be in a hurry, as Capt. Dorland is trying to score his own marlin during this summer’s Gulf tournament season, and you can expect your finished trophy to take 10 to 12 months before delivery. Dorland charges a flat rate of $1,500. He’s also starting to expand his trade into marlin tails, too.
Why Mounts Matter
Every fish mount, painting or work of art highlighting a trophy fish has a lasting memory associated with it. Our unique collections have an emotional value and tell something about who we are and where we’ve been. Not only do they portray specific catches, but more importantly, they portray the people, the places and the intimate details of the trip. No boundaries exist when it comes to selecting a way to memorialize a fishing trophy. Sometimes a picture is all you need, but when you want something extra special, there are a number of options that exist. Just remember to have a place for it and then be prepared to tell the story for years to come.
Worth a Mention
Fish Print Shop
With an extensive catalog of illustrations from renowned artists, including Val Kells, Diane Peebles, Joseph R. Tomelleri, Paul Vecsei, Daniel Driscoll and Dr. Lindsay Marshall, Fish Print Shop marks each print with a customizable stamp that typically notes the date and location of the catch, length of the fish and angler’s name.
Peter J. Art Gallery
Based in Newport Beach, California, Peter Jang specializes in nautical chart paintings, where he superimposes onto them carefully rendered pictures of boats, fish and landmarks. Imaginatively, Jang grinds up seashells to be mixed with paint to create the look of sand.
A master of many mediums, Mississippi’s Craig Brumfield not only creates stunning oil paintings, gyotaku and scrimshaw bills but uniquely uses eye sockets from blue marlin and swordfish as canvases for his art.