What good is a trophy fish if the only one who sees it is you and whoever else is onboard when you catch it? To hell with personal satisfaction, you want the world to see what you've done. But that's not going to happen. No more showing off your prize at the dock, kneeling next to it for photos, and having it stuffed for the living room. No, in these days of catch-and-release, both you and the fish go back to where you came from-with only memories to accompany you. That is, unless you have a duplicate fish made from resin, glass, and paint.
Don't groan, fiberglass fish aren't just for your local Red Lobster anymore. Faux fins have gone mainstream, with fiberglass replicas replacing real skin as the way to celebrate your skill without depleting the seas. Today they account for as much as 80 percent of all fish mounts-a percentage likely to keep growing. Anglers are learning that not only does a fiberglass fish last forever, it also makes a better-looking trophy.
To find out about the artistry that goes into fiberglass mounts, we searched for America's best marine taxidermist (yes, it's still considered taxidermy). Although there are lots of fish in this sea, there's only one who professionals speak about in revered, almost hushed tones: Mike Kirkhart. He's a three-time champion craftsman who revolutionized the fiberglass fish from his shop, New Wave Taxidermy, in Stuart, Florida. He's the master, so I hopped a plane and headed south to try to be like Mike.
Taxidermists agree that fish are the hardest creatures to recreate. A deer or a bird needs only minor touching up to look like it did in the wild. But when a fish dies, it loses most of its pigment, so the taxidermist needs to color the entire thing. That means knowing each species and being an exceptional paint mixer and painter-whether the mount is skin or fiberglass.
Kirkhart, however, works only in fiberglass. The inside of his workshop looks like a cross between Disney World and Dr. Seuss. Overhead are marine beasts of all sizes, colors, and states of completion. There's an unpainted hammerhead shark, a dazzling sailfish, a small grouper, and a huge blue marlin that could crush unsuspecting humans below. Upstairs, more than 1,500 molds-labeled with species name and size-hang in rows, packed in tight like a closet with too many suits. Send in a photo and the measurements and weight of a fish, and Kirkhart will most likely find a matching mold in his collection.
To call the 47-year-old Kirkhart passionate about his work would be an understatement. He's known he wanted to be a taxidermist from the age of 8, and as a 20-something he spurned partying in favor of making molds until the wee hours. And it's paid off, as the numerous awards that line his office walls attest to. Yeah, Mike's good. But what about me?
Kirkhart and I decide that I should start my apprenticeship on a 50" sailfish, a process that takes about 10 hours of labor and costs $600 if you released the fish, but $700 if you brought it home. After finding the mold, I wax and buff both sides and fill in tiny divots with clay. Then I spray the halves with a water-based coating that keeps the resin and fiberglass from sticking to the molds. I fill an old milk carton with resin, and Kirkhart adds a dab of catalyst to the gooey mix of what will become the outer gel coat. From now on, the clock is ticking, leaving me only a few minutes to spread the glop before it "goes off" and hardens. You have to be fast, yet exceedingly careful, trying to fill in the scales and tiny fin ridges on each half of the mold.