Graphite Replicas

By Patricia Strutz - December 1, 2006
The Fish That Keeps Getting Away...
I was spending the week fishing on Lake of the Woods in Ontario, Canada. My boat partner was my husband, Jim Behm. For those readers who are not familiar with me-let me introduce myself...I'm one of those addicted "muskyheads" that pound the water for hours on end and are happy when we see one fish follow our lure.

I've caught hundreds of muskies over the years, but had yet to catch my true "fish-of-a-lifetime." That all changed recently. Up "in the bush" I caught, photographed and released a 54.5" long musky with huge 30" girth. That puts her in the 50# range. An unbelievable fish. An incredible fish. And she's still swimming around up there, waiting for one of you to take a cast.

Even though she was a legal fish, I had no intentions of keeping her. Part of the joy of fishing for me is watching them swim away. I know where she lives, and I'll be back. With an ever increasing amount of fishing pressure on our waters, advances in the world of taxidermy have certainly helped our fishery. Catch and release proponents , this scribbler included, strongly advocate graphite replicas as an alternative to a skin mount. Replicas have come a long way since their humble beginnings and are becoming more socially accepted and encouraged for fish of all species.

Then and Now...
Fish replicas have been produced since the early 1900's for natural history museums. In those early years, plaster and mache compounds were used since fiberglass was not invented yet. These materials did not hold up over the years. When new types of resins were introduced they were used to make artificial parts in skin mounts to overcome some problematic areas in certain species.

Ron and son Rick Lax of Conover, Wisconsin, were key to the origin of graphite replicas-they are especially noted for their work with muskies . About 15 years ago the Laxes had the opportunity to re-mount the world record tiger musky caught by John Knobla in 1919. Rick Lax explains, "We soaked it all down to the original skin, put a new form in it, and molded the fish. That's what really got us started in making the mold replicas ourselves. Before that, you could buy only limited styles of casts from taxidermy supply houses. Catch and release was not nearly as prevalent as it is today. Because of my dad's reputation for mounting big fish we were still getting in lots of 53", 54", 40 # fish. My father's vision of the trend this industry has taken has paid off because we were able to make a lot of molds for all the catch and release hunters today. Right now it would be difficult to produce your own molds because so many anglers are releasing their fish."

Advances in the quality of replicas over the past 20 years have been numerous. Years ago the choices were limited and oftentimes the end result looked artificial. Today's replicas feature a variety of action poses-from natural, swimming styles to "S" or reverse curve poses. Paint detail, especially accentuating the scales, has improved greatly. Open, flared gills are now offered. How is this all accomplished?

The Process...
Today, many taxidermists still buy casts (the blank fish model) from taxidermy supply houses. The Laxes have personally created over 80 different musky molds. Rick Lax walks us through the evolution. "We started with nice specimens-no scars, scales in excellent condition, etc. We would then decide what position to pose the fish. We only used one fish for one mold because after that the detail wasn't good enough. We would mount him first since it was easier to handle that way. That was one of our big secrets to success in making quality molds. To make the mold we'd put a separating fence halfway around the fish for the seam. Then we'd pour silicone rubber over the side of the fish. It would set up in 20 minutes. That's the inside of the mold. Next we'd do the fiberglass outer shell over the rubber. We'd flip it over, and do the other side the same way. Then we'd drill holes around the fish and bolt the two sides together. Next, we'd take the fence and the bolts out separating the two sides and the fish comes out. We'd re-attach the two sides and leave a breather hole on top. When we create a cast, we pour in a high-tech plastic or fiberglass and then rotate it. This sets up in about six minutes. It's hollow, like an eggshell, 1/8" -1/4" thick for strength and detail."

"There's a lot of money tied up in making the molds but we've poured hundreds of replicas from a single master mold. We made our head molds separately so we can customize different sized heads to different bodies. An inch can be gained or lost by adjusting the head accordingly. The largest head mold we have was from a 57" fish. From the tip of the lower jaw to her gill plate was 15". That's huge! The teeth are sculpted and the eyes are set and painted. Even though we generally work in stages on a group of fish, we are constantly reflecting back to each particular customer's photos and desires. My dad always said, "We make them one at a time, just like Ranger boats!"

"The flexible fins are also cast separately. It takes some time to assemble all these parts since each customer has their preference of head position, pose, etc. We study their photos many times throughout the process. Once we have the cast assembled the artistry of painting begins. First we apply the base coat. Spotted fish are generally very light, fish from stained waters tend to be very dark, and so forth. We use lacquer paints which dry quickly. We then truly customize the fish by painting their markings. We are very precise-right down to the spots on the cheeks and the fins. We finish it off with a thick clear coat so it looks shiny and wet."

Girth size can be adjusted by simply adding in or taking out pieces in the casts. Cosmetic touch-ups are also a possibility. For example, if the photograph shows the fish had scars from spawning or splits in the fin from the net, the customer may choose to replicate their catch exactly or they may alter it to be more cosmetically appealing.

Photo and Measurement Tips...
For an accurate replication of your catch, be sure to take several good photographs of the fish from different angles. A sideview photo will show the patterns, but take a close head shot and girth photograph, too. Turn off your flash and try to stay out of the sunlight as to not wash out the markings. A precise length measurement is mandatory. Take other measurements only if you can do so without jeopardizing the health of the fish. For the girth measurement, be sure to put the tape around the biggest area on the fish. Girth measurements can be easily taken when the fish is still comfortable in a deep net or cradle in the water.

Why Choose a Replica?
The advantages over a skin mount are numerous. Skin mounts are more prone to deterioration over time. Replicas are much less susceptible to fading or discoloration. When accidents happen, touch up repairs on broken replicas are much easier for the taxidermist to manage. Replicas only require basic dusting and cleaning with Windex. Since they are relatively smooth, they are much easier to dust than skin mounts are since scales nurture dust buildup.

With increased size limits on many waters, replicas ensure anglers will have something to remember their largest catch and release-even if it falls under the lake's legal size limit.

My personal reason? The pure emotional pleasure it brings me to watch that fish swim away, knowing I've allowed another angler the chance to catch their fish-of-a-lifetime. This emotional and conservational factor is important to many anglers and it certainly will help maintain a quality fishery for future generations. I look forward to enjoying my graphite replica, anticipating yet another encounter with "my big girl."

Author Patricia Strutz
Patricia Strutz
Patricia Strutz, "A Blond and Her Boat", is a musky fishing zealot whose energy and enthusiasm for the sport is contagious. Her true passion is row trolling for 'skies in late fall. She offers traditional casting packages, too. Strutz also works with other pro's to offer group fishing trips to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. Check out the WOW! Women on the Water page for complete details. Patricia especially enjoys teaching other women how to hunt muskies. She is an outdoor writer,co-inventor of the Sea-View Marine Shield, instructional DVD host, and may be booked to give presentations on musky fishing to interested groups. www.ablondandherboat.com