Marvin Gaye once sang, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing.” For most things in life, he was spot on (pleather, tofurkey and sugar substitutes immediately come to mind). But, when it comes to fish taxidermy, artificial mounts, called reproductions or “replicas,” are even better than the real thing. And they are the only real option for anglers who want to practice catch and release and have a trophy fish to hang on the wall of their office or den.
Replica fish-mounts are made from gel-coat resin and fiberglass. They are are completely artificial — no actual fish parts are used in their creation. However, to ensure the most accurate reproductions possible, replicas are forged from molds cast from real fish. A donor fish of a specific species and size is used to generate numerous fiberglass blanks, which are then sold to taxidermists. Blanks have no markings or color, hence the name. Therefore, a taxidermist or “fish artist” must entirely design and paint a fish onto the empty pallet, using only photos as references for the finished design.
Traditionally, an angler who wanted a wall-mounted fish had to keep his/her catch and provide the entire specimen to a taxidermist. A taxidermist would then skin the fish and stretch the skin over a Styrofoam mannequin to create a lifelike mount. These days, thanks to fiberglass replicas, anglers can preserve their fishing memories and conserve the fishery resource at the same time.
Fiberglass reproductions of trophy fish aren’t new, but they have come a long way since they were first introduced in the 1970s. Marine taxidermists used synthetic mounts almost exclusively for marlin, sailfish and other huge saltwater beasts. They soon realized that one 70-inch sailfish looked almost identical to any other 70-inch sailfish. Thus, a new industry was born as professional fish-stuffers began creating multiple reproductions from the same molds. Unfortunately, many of these disco-era replicas were anything but realistic (picture the cheesy decor from an old Red Lobster), and skin mounts remained the best option for anglers who truly wanted high-quality and accurate representations of their catches.
However, in the last 20 years or so, advancements in the fabrication of molds have led to higher-quality blanks, making it nearly impossible for the untrained eye to distinguish between a traditional mount and a fiberglass model. In fact, in the hands of a skilled artist, a replica can match, and often surpass, the vibrancy and beauty of its skin-mounted counterparts. Fiberglass mounts are also more durable and have greater longevity. Skin mounts, if not properly cared for, are susceptible to fading, cracking, chipped and broken fins, scale peeling and shrinking. Over time, a deteriorating skin-mount may more closely resemble something out of “The Walking Dead” than your once-prized catch. For these reasons alone, replicas have soared in popularity in recent years. Today they account for more than 90 percent of all fish mounts — a percentage likely to grow, particularly as catch and release has become the accepted practice among conservation-minded, fresh-water anglers.
Jeff Mourning is one of a handful of Colorado fish taxidermists who specialize in creating fiberglass reproductions. Mourning, who works out of his home studio in Littleton, says that his interest in taxidermy spawned out of his passion for art, fishing and a dissatisfaction with the status quo. “I fished a lot,” said Mourning. “I was literally on the water 265 days a year. Over the years, I had around 30 fish mounted, but I was never really happy with what I got back. I was also an artist, and I figured I could do a much better job.” And a much better job is exactly what Mourning did.
Since launching his company Fish Art Taxidermy full time in 1997, Mourning has reached the top of his field. He has earned a laundry list of accolades, including five world titles, five second-place world titles and 10 national titles — to name a few of his many accomplishments. Although Mourning still provides skin mounts to a number of his clients, much of his notoriety stems from his exceptional artistic talent at creating replica mounts, which might be better described as three-dimensional wildlife art. Mourning is truly a Piscatorial Picasso who, with an airbrush and surgical precision, can turn a fiberglass fish into a one-of-a-kind showpiece.
Throughout his career, Mourning has created replicas for nearly every size and species of fish. His taxidermy resume´ includes every salmon species, wolffish, dorado, wahoo, tarpin, rockfish, calico bass, red fish, speckled trout and every species of gar. His largest mount to date was an 11-foot black marlin. Mourning has also worked with clients from around the globe (a Norway museum once commissioned him to mount the world record Atlantic salmon). Fortunately for Colorado anglers, some of Mourning’s most exquisite gems are his brook trout, rainbows, browns, golden trout and cutthroat, which, he says, are his favorite species because of their unique coloration. “Our native ‘cutts’ really have good eye appeal because they get so pretty and red,” added Mourning.
More good news for local fisherman is that fiberglass blanks are readily available for most species and sizes of fish in Colorado (trout from 20-36 Inches, bass of all sizes and walleye up to 16 pounds are common). According to Mourning, replica mounts are also an excellent choice for big lake trout (aka Mackinaw). “I’d rather do a reproduction lake trout than a skin mount any day of the year,” said Mourning. “Lake trout are super greasy and are really messy to work with, which can cause problems. That’s why reproductions are always my preference for big Mackinaw.”
Anglers who want to get reproductions made of their trophy “Mack” or other fish need to photograph and measure their catches. That’s all a taxidermist like Mourning needs to select a blank and to create a lifelike replica. But Mourning emphasizes that it’s important for anglers to understand how reproduction mounts are created and to have realistic expectations. “Once I have photos and measurements, I will match the fish to a fiberglass blank as accurately as I can,” said Mourning. “On replicas, the girth of the fish is pretty much fixed, so customers need to be somewhat flexible. It’s also important to be open-minded and to realize that I match the painting as closely as I can to the actual fish. It’s impossible to match every spot, but I match the spot pattern, color and the phase the fish is in.”
So, what does it cost to turn a fish into fish art? Colorado taxidermists charge anywhere from $12 to $20 per inch for fiberglass replicas, which are slightly more expensive than comparable skin mounts. According to Mourning, when it comes to purchasing a replica mount, anglers get what they pay for. “With reproduction mounts, I’m essentially building a model of your fish and I’m going to paint it,” said Mourning. “Not everyone is an artist, and the most important thing is to make sure that you hire someone who has a good eye for reference and detail. The taxidermists who are really good at interpreting what they see in a picture and recreating it on a mount are obviously going to charge more for their services.”
With the proliferation of cell-phone and portable cameras nowadays, it’s never been easier to quickly photograph and safely release a trophy fish back into the water. So, the next time you catch that wall-hanger, consider a reproduction mount. You can brag about the one that didn’t get away — until you let it. Best of all, the fish will live to fight another day and you’ll have a one-of-a-kind piece of wildlife art to hang on your wall.
It’s true in most cases that there is nothing like the real thing, but when it comes to preserving the memory of your big catch, going faux with a fiberglass replica can’t be beat.
How to Photograph and Measure a Fish for a Reproduction Mount
When you land your next lunker, you’ll need to be prepared to photograph and measure your fish. Remember that seconds count when a fish is out of the water, so it’s important to work quickly and to return the fish as soon as possible.
1. Take two measurements of the fish. Begin by measuring the fish’s girth at the widest point. Then, measure the length of the fish from head to tail.
2. Take two to three photographs of the fish with a cell phone or digital camera. It’s important to photograph the fish’s coloration, spot pattern and any unusual markings.
3. Take a close-up of the fish’s head, and both wide and close-up shots of the fish’s body.
4. Keep in mind, the goal is to photograph the fish, not the fisherman. Make sure the sun is at the photographer’s back or use a flash to ensure the fish’s markings are well lit and are clearly displayed in the photos.
Story, photos and video by Jerry Neal. Neal is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online.