Advanced Taxidermy

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Even Better than the Real Thing

Taxidermists Shawn Galea and James McGregor are the Henry Moores of Muskies, the Picassos of Pickerel. So when will they finally get some respect?

Then you'd begin to wonder if it wouldn't be better to release the pike so your grandkids can go out and catch one like it themselves. It becomes a coin toss - release the fish, or keep it as a once in a lifetime trophy? Your hand shakes as you reach deep into the landing net to unhook the 50-inch pike that just inhaled your spinner bait. In your mind you can picture yourself telling your grandchildren about this day, as you sit in front of the fire, your mounted fish staring down from your den wall.

Now you can have your cake and eat it too, thanks to tremendously lifelike fiberglass replicas. Rather than killing the big fish and having it mounted, you can get a fiberglass replica made instead. The fish lives to spawn again, and your fiberglass replica looks so much better than a traditionally mounted fish you'd swear it was alive.

Fibreglasses reproductions of trophy fish aren't new, but they have come a long way since the first replica fish began appearing on den walls just over a decade ago. Shawn Galea and James McGregor, who won Advanced Taxidermy and Wildlife Design in Toronto, built their reputation as pioneers of fiberglass reproductions, which might be better described as three dimensional wildlife art. Still in their min-20's Galea and McGregor are considered among the world's top taxidermists, having won world championship award status.

"It's not about sitting around in some dingy basement with cotton balls and formaldehyde," jokes Galea. "When we started into taxidermy 11 years ago the standard technique for fish was mounting dried skin on a Styrofoam form, using various fillers to fill in the cracks. These mounts looked great at first, but over time they'd all begin to shrink, crack and fade. The heads were the worst. So we began experimenting with casting replica heads, which we would still mount on a traditional skin bodies.

The fish heads looked great, but sooner or later the rest of the fish would still fade and crack. That led to making replicas of the entire fish."

Although there were a few early disappointments and false starts, it didn't take long for Galea and McGregor to develop their technique. Before long they became winning awards in taxidermy competitions.

Although Galea and McGregor now enjoy judging these competitions they have competed in, they have won over 30 top awards in competition including first place finishes, best of class, and best of show, and are two of only a few "master" qualified in the world.

These impressive credentials have led to their appointment as official taxidermists for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters' record fish registry, and have led to some other unusual projects. The Royal Ontario Museum commissioned Galea and McGregor to create a fibreglasses reproduction of a 200 pound coelacanth - a prehistoric fish thought to be extinct until one was caught of the coast of Madagascar. Galea and McGregor's replica mounts have also been used to mimic real fish and animals in feature films produced by Walt Disney, Columbia and Paramount.

While Galea and McGregor enjoy joking about their lifelike imitations, the reality is that their replica mounts truly do look more real than a traditional skin mount. Replicas are also far more durable than traditional mounted fish, and being more flexible are less prone to accidental damage. Real fish skins are partially composed of fats and oils, which are impossible to completely remove. Over time these oils lead to shrinking, which can distort the shape of the fish. The fins and gill covers become brittle and frequently crack. Eventually, the skin begins to fade as these natural oils work their way to the surface. At some point most of us have seen some trophy walleyes that are hung in the local tackle store or watering hole for so long its skin has discolored and fins cracked to the point some are missing entirely. The once proud fish looks like more like a big rotten banana. Replica mounts escape this fate by removing the problem-causing skin from the equation entirely.

"The other nice thing about reproductions is that you don't have to actually kill the fish," notes Galea. "That's obviously a big plus, especially for anglers fishing in remote locations where they might not be able to get the fish out, or people fishing in fly-in lodges where trophies are protected by slot limits or no-harvest policies."

Most anglers recognize that the ultimate size a fish will attain is influenced largely by genetics. Being able to realize a trophy to spawn again helps insure that future generations will also have the opportunity to catch big fish in the same lake or river.

"We take hours to paint each piece," said Galea. "We paint each individual scale by hand - one at a time."It takes a while, but painting the scales individually is the only way to exactly reproduce a customer's particular fish. Not everybody notices, but the guy who does really appreciate it."

"With standard pain if you want green you just paint green," adds Galea. "If we want part of a fish to look green we layer about seven colors. This doesn't just give us green, but the exact, correct green for the customer's particular fish. Layering also gives the mount depth and sense of transparency, which makes it look more lifelike."

The process of having a replica mount made begins with you boating that big fish. Take lots of photos - both from a distance, with yourself in the shot, and close up showing the fish's unique markings. Then measure the length and girth at the greatest point then release the fish.

Galea and McGregor use one of approximately 600 molds they have created to make a replica the same size as your fish. Galea explains that every replica mount is an original since the information you provide is then used to customize your trophy. As the raw blank is removed from its mold, the fiberglass is still somewhat flexible.

"While it's still soft we shape it," says McGregor. "It's like plastic surgery. We can enlarge some parts, shrink other parts, and otherwise finish the blank to exactly match the fish in the customer's photos."

After the blank is shaped the fin work beings. The fins on a replica are made out of flexible polyester resins, which resist cracking. The work starts on the eyes, gills and mouth. Rather than the bland, unfinished look of conventional fish, reproductions allow for tremendous mouth detail, including teeth, tongue, gill rakers and more.

But despite the attention to detail Galea and McGregor pay in the creation of the blank, from the beginning stages of molding to the final stages of painting, each and every process must be mastered for quality finished product.

To ensure the most accurate coloration possible, Galea and McGregor have studies live fish for more than 11 years and maintained a reference library with thousands of photographs showing minute detail of color, for and texture. In addition, their shop houses a 500-gallon aquarium which allows them to study color patterns of live fish.

"We take hours to paint each piece," said Galea. "We paint each individual scale by hand - one at a time."It takes a while, but painting the scales individually is the only way to exactly reproduce a customer's particular fish. Not everybody notices, but the guy who does really appreciate it."

The second secret to stellar artistry is the type of paints used.

"With standard pain if you want green you just paint green," adds Galea. "If we want part of a fish to look green we layer about seven colors. This doesn't just give us green, but the exact, correct green for the customer's particular fish. Layering also gives the mount depth and sense of transparency, which makes it look more lifelike."

Finally you need to decide how you want your fish displayed. Beyond the standard board plaque or driftwood, you can have your catch-of-a-lifetime poised on synthetic marble or apparently free-swimming in a magnificent diorama representing its natural habitat.

It is these 3-D mounts that have launched Galea and McGregor into a class of their own.

Perhaps the most famed piece, Midnight Rise, features a six pound largemouth bass literally floating in the security of a weed bed over a rock and sand bottom. The bass is supported by a single metal weed that comes in contact with the fish's tail. Other works include a beautiful oak coffee table with the glass top and sides, showcasing three trophy rainbow trout, or a similar table that encases a monster northern pike attacking a hooked Arctic grayling.

While the price of these no-holds-barred works can run can vary depending on spices and display, they reflect a tremendous amount of highly skilled labor. The customer receives two or three replica fish rather than just one, each beautifully mounted in a piece of hand-made oak or teak furniture.

"We remind our customers that each replica fish mount really is an original piece of three-dimensional art," says McGregor. "It's not like they're buying a limited edition print and we just crank them of an assembly line. Each mount is an original work, and it's unique, one-of-a-kind piece."

This doesn't mean that replica mounts are beyond reach to the average angler.

"Pricing a reproduction is a bit like pricing a car," explains McGregor. "It depends on what you want. Options like finishing the fish on all sides, suspending it on a weed or positioning it in a mahogany display case add to the price, just the same way as air conditioning, power windows and CD players all add to the cost of a car.

"A simple replica costs about the same as a simple skin mount - for a bass that's about $250" adds Galea. "But the strength and durability of a replica make it possible to do more intricate work than you can do with a traditional mounted fish."

With mounting pressure of Canada's fish population, the opportunity to enjoy a reasonably-priced trophy reproduction of your big catch hanging on the recreations room wall, while knowing the fish is still out there spawning up more of its kind, hold obvious appeal.

Take closer look next time you see a nice mounted fish. As replicas catch on with anglers, chances are you'll see more of them in the future. Maybe our most endangered species of all are the rotten old bananas with cracked fins. That's fine by me.

September/October 1997 Bob Izumi's Real Outdoors

By John Curran

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