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We Build A Fish!

From the water to your wall in 10 toxic hours.

January 1, 2004
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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.

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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?

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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.

FAKING IT

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.

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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

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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.

10,000 FISH UNDER THE SEA

Of course, even some fiberglass fish look dead. Back at New Wave, Kirkhart shows me a competitor’s fish. The mouth is just a solid wall of fiberglass, the eyes plain black. And that’s not all-this fish’s scales are misplaced and the coloration is wrong. All things you might not notice, that is until you put it next to one of Kirkhart’s.

Kirkhart became a world taxidermy champ not just by creating anatomically correct fish, but because he started doing things other artists didn’t-or couldn’t. He created detailed latex mouth molds (one area many artists simply ignore), painted veins in the eyes, made fins translucent, and put the fish in action poses. In the 1970s, these were revolutionary concepts. Today, they’re still unique and impressive.

With some 10,000 fish to his credit, Kirkhart has perfected techniques to bring a fish to life. For him, the real artistry begins with the trimming of excess fiberglass. This requires knowing the lines of the fish and the angle of the fins-and of course having a steady hand with the saw. Dust flies everywhere as I grind away, transforming rough edges into smooth fish skin. As the soundtrack moves to Pink Floyd, Kirkhart guides my grinding, showing me where it’s okay to take artistic license (around the edges of the dorsal fin) and what would be wrong (not grinding the tailfin deep enough).

We cut holes for the eyes, glass circles handmade in Germany and painted with Kirkhart’s special technique. To do it, I airbrush blue paint around the black pupil, then dab on silver with a brush, giving the eye a speckled look, full of depth and expression. Teeth-grains of sand-are held in place with wood glue. We slide in the mouth, glue on additional fins, and sand the entire thing. It’s at this point, holding an eye in my hand, that the fumes catch up with me once again and I’m back to the head-this time to revisit lunch.

COLOR COATED

Painting is, if not the most important, at least the most visible step. A good painter can make a decent fish look like art. I am not a good painter.

After recovering outside, I bring the fish into the paint room. I cover it with silver (“That’s $160 a gallon,” says Kirkhart. “Don’t drop it,”), which will shine through some of the later coats. That is, if someone who knows what he’s doing does it. In my hands the acrylic paint goes on gloppy and uneven.

Color is a tricky thing to capture, especially because fish turn their pigments on and off like a light switch, going from bright green to a silvery blue at the drop of a fin. In other words, the replica may not look the way the fish looked when it’s caught. “We paint the fish the colors we like them to be,” says Kirkhart, “not necessarily the way we found them.”

My sailfish quickly comes to life as I spray a deep cobalt on the back and fins and edge them in an intense black, allowing the blue to pop. Under Kirkhart’s guidance, I spray purple highlights and the requisite black spots on the dorsal fin, amber on the side, pink on the tongue, then the telltale baby blue bars. Then the whole thing gets clear coated, making it shiny and dramatic, like it’s just been plucked from the depths.

Kirkhart’s assessment? “It came out nicely,” he says. But it’s not entirely the work of my own hand. Like a father who doesn’t want his son’s science project to fail, he’s stepped in and corrected some of my uneven grinding and unsteady airbrushing. “Painting wasn’t your, uh, strong point,” says Kirkhart.

But it looks good to me and I’m psyched. When people ask, I may tell them about an epic battle in the Stream off Palm Beach. Just me and the fish. Okay, I may not have caught it, but I did build it-and that’s almost as good.

Contact New Wave Taxidermy 3101 SE Slater St., Stuart, FL 34997 772/283-7270, www.newwavetaxidermy.com

8 SIGNS OF A GOOD FAKE: A work of art or a piece of work?

[1] The eyes should seem alive and be on both sides of the fish.

[2] The internal parts of the mouth should be finely detailed all the way down to the throat. Look for a pink tongue and a gradation of colors that get darker deeper in.

[3] The pose should be natural and lifelike for that particular species. The fish should look as sinuous as it would in the water, not stiff.

[4] If the fins on the species are thin, and most are, they should also be thin and translucent on the mount. You should be able to see your hand behind it.

[5] Seams must not be visible.

[6] If the fish has teeth, they should be separate, not all in one piece.

[7] The fish’s skin should not be smooth. You should almost be able to count the scales, and even see details in them.

[8] Gills should stand out, as if the fish were still breathing. Gills should also be thin and have coloring on their insides.

KEEPER OF THE FLAME

In the hands of a great artist, a fiberglass fish can look exactly like one from the sea…or like something otherworldly. Artist Todd Michael Guevara, aka The Fish Man, prefers the latter, dressing his creations in 1950s-style hotrod flames.

Guevara’s not an angler, but he does have an eye for fish. “It’s all about their shape,” he says. “Then, too, I love the juxtaposition of flames on something from the water.” An artist and musician, he started painting fiery waves of orange, black, purple, and yellow on fish in 1989 just for himself, but people kept buying them. So five years ago he slapped some of his creations on the side of his RV, which is now a rolling billboard, and hit the road. He’s displayed his art everywhere from motorcycle rallies to boat shows.

Guevara creates his fish from scratch, but it’s the paint job that makes them special. He shapes the flame pattern with fine pinstriping tape, covering the area with an opaque white, then applying and blending three flame colors. By the time he’s done, each fish will have had up to 60 coats of paint. A Guevara sailfish of about the same size as the realistic one we made with MIke Kirkhart costs about $950. If you can stand the heat of his hot colors, check out his work at www.thefishman.net or call 949/472-8633.

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