The smell of the chemicals is already getting to me. I have on latex gloves and a respirator like I'm expecting weapons of mass destruction to hit Florida. Even so, my stomach feels a little queasy and I'm soon in the head looking at my breakfast for a second time. Back in the shop the gel coat has hardened, and Kirkhart inspects my work. "Inconsistent, but not bad for a first-timer," he says, somewhat encouragingly.
Next, I spread chopped up fiberglass into the molds with an air gun, covering each half of the fish and littering the floor with the straw-like material. As Bob Dylan blasts in the background, I get more resin, add more catalyst, and dab it in generous splotches over the chopped glass. As it cures, the purple resin turns green as it solidifies, and I lay in pieces of wood for the mounting bracket.
I then flip one heavy mold half onto the other and attach clamps all around. After an hour, the inside is dry, and with screwdrivers and wedges, we crack open the mold. Sure enough, inside is a sailfish-albeit a greenish-white albino one with an excess of fiberglass sticking out at the seam. It's feather light with scales and fins. I've created a fish.
SKINHEADS HAVE FEELINGS, TOO
Of course, some still think fiberglass is okay for boats, but not for fish. "Skin mounts are all about the angler's ego," says Kirkhart, who stopped doing them 10 years ago. "Fiberglass replicas are where art and ego come together."
To get another point of view, and some fresh air, I take a short drive down I-95 where Gray Taxidermy, in Pompano Beach, Florida, still mounts dead fish. Gray calls itself the world's largest marine taxidermist. Walking through their shop is like being in Kirkhart's-just on a larger scale. Kirkhart does maybe 100 fish a month, Gray does 1,000.
But skin mounts only account for 5 percent of Gray's business, and these are relegated to a tiny corner of the workshop. Most are here to be repaired, looking old and tired with skin peeling like a bad sunburn. One is a large-mouth bass mounted in 1970. Its fins are frayed, gills dry. Oils have seeped out of its head, causing streaks and bubbles, and its wide, O-shaped lips are cracked, as if it's crying out for help.
So little of an original fish is kept in a skin mount that it's hard to see why people covet them. The fish is gutted, the back half removed and replaced with fiberglass, and what's left is stretched over a Styrofoam mannequin to give it shape. With cold-water fish such as trout, salmon, and char, the heads shrink and leak oil so badly that many taxidermists give them fiberglass faces as well.
What's the payoff? Not much: The primer needed to preserve the fish's skin also dulls the colors, so details don't pop as on a fiberglass version-or on the live fish. And in a couple years they often start to deteriorate. "These things just don't last," says Rick, one of the craftsmen at Gray.
Even to my untrained eye, skin mounts don't have the same luster as their fiberglass counterparts. Rick shows me a sailfish skin mount and a fiberglass version hanging side by side. The skin mount's lateral lines are blurred and its tail drab. But its fiberglass sibling displays a proud muscularity, bright colors, kick to the tail, and depth to the eye. Now, that's my kind of fish.