We all like to memorialize special fish. One caught on a trip to an exotic locale, an unusual catch or a truly outstanding trophy fish. Most take photos from every angle, post them on Facebook and send in the citation “pink sheet” so we can get a congratulatory proclamation from the governor, suitable for framing.
Others want to go one step further and have a mount made that can be hung on a wall. I recently talked to Dan Ervin, owner of the Dog Island Art Works in Bogue, N.C., that specializes in fish mounts and reproductions. But how did Ervin, a former school teacher, turn into a fish taxidermist? Laughing, Ervin said, “I always have been skinning fish. I grew up a fisherman.”
For Ervin it was a great combination of two loves – art and fishing. “The two have always been very close to my heart,” Ervin said, “so I took the leap and decided to make that my livelihood. I kind of worked to support my fishing habit.”
Ervin described several options: mounts made from the actual skin of the fish; molded reproductions from an actual fish; and reproductions from only pictures, measurements, and fading memories.
Ervin added that pictures are priceless. “If you can get a couple of photographs and a couple of close-ups and different angles, it’s great, it always helps, especially on a fish like a speckled trout where the markings are different from fish to fish.”
Ervin suggests putting your fish on ice, or even freezing it and bringing it to him. That’s when the artist takes over.
“I’m going to take the skin off, remove every bit of flesh, because that’s what holds the oils which will deteriorate in the future,” Ervin said. “We’re going to tan and preserve that skin, and the head and the fins and then carve a foam form.
“At this point, I have a fish that’s absolutely flat and it’s very thin, and gray, and lifeless. There’s not much left to the skin when you remove all the flesh. Then after we preserve the skin, it will still be in a damp form, and then we will adhere it to the foam form – and once that dries, that’s when the coloration begins.
“Traditionally what a lot of taxidermists do is just use an airbrush,” Ervin added, “but with that you don’t get the depth that you need with just an airbrush, and so I use hand paints, powders, charcoals, watercolors, oils and I do use an airbrush. But I use it sparingly, because we really want to create that depth and realism that every single scale has.”
Finally, the skin mount is sealed with a lacquer-based or epoxy sealer to give that desired high gloss “wet” look like it just came out of the water, and then mounted on a board, or tree stump or other natural habitat for effect.
If it is longevity and detail you want, Ervin suggests a reproduction mount. “Reproductions are molded directly off a newly dead fish, and then fiberglass is made into that mold, so you have all the detail of the freshest fish in a reproduction,” Ervin said. “We are basically using the process they use to make fiberglass boats. So now it comes in as a white ‘canvas,’ and that’s where it really takes a lot of effort to get the depth and realism. I spend a lot more time coloring a reproduction, but it pays off.”