Fish Restoration

About restoration of badly mounted fish

We are increasingly approached by clients who have had fish mounted by practitioners who unfortunately, all too often, have neither the ability, experience nor the honesty to admit that they are totally unqualified to handle the complexity of a fish mount.  This very often leaves the client with what is essentially little more than an appalling excuse for a stuffed fish, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to its former incarnation.  Due to the  huge amount of extra work required to do it, restoring a badly mounted fish will invariably be far more costly than having it mounted from scratch.

Pike (Esox Lucius)

The Pike is our largest strictly native predatory freshwater fish. They regularly attain well over 35lbs and there are records of fish being caught to over 45lbs. Pike angling in years gone by was mainly an exercise in vermin control and most were killed. In these more enlightened times, pike are more appreciated and understood for their vital role as an apex predator in the health of our waterways, eating diseased, dead and weaker fish. Pike fishing too is now a niche angling sport in itself and there are many waters dedicated to pike angling.

Pike Restoration

The pike in the galleries here was originally mounted sometime in the early to mid 1990`s (Fig. 1). It was caught and released, but unfortunately found dead in the water, some days afterwards (Fig. 2) and retrieved because it was such a large example at 42” (1.07 metres, weight unknown). It came to us to be fully restored in around 2012.

The following images and text are intended to show just some of the work required to fully restore a badly mounted fish. The full restoration of this pike was a long and complex process and this article is to illustrate and explain the work required to achieve a complete restoration of a fish ruined by bad taxidermy. It does not show the full process of how we did it and we have omitted the technical and process stages of the work. Figs. 1, 3, 4, 5 & 6 shows the pike exactly as it came to us, and demonstrate clearly the results of “going cheap” or giving a fish to a “have a go merchant”.

The issues

On assessing the fish, prior to beginning any work, it was clear that the initial preparation was very rudimentary.  The fish had been very badly skinned and had not been fully fleshed inside to remove every trace of muscle and tissue. The fins had not been and treated and cleaned and Figs. 3, 4 & 6 show the gross shrinkage and the pinched, warped shape, caused by inadequate skin preparation and little or no degreasing of the skin.

The head of the fish has hardly been cleaned at all and this is clear in Fig. 4. which shows the underside of the head (operculum) which is not only grossly distorted from shrinkage, but is discoloured and has grease (brown goo) running from the un-removed flesh which is effectively rotting inside the head.

Unless the skin of a fish is fully cleaned of all tissue and thoroughly degreased in strong solvents, prior to being treated to preserve it, the grease will always leach out, sometimes years later. The skin had been mounted using the most basic of methods, filling the skin with sawdust and/or sand and allowing it to dry over time. The skin has pulled tight and shrivelled, particularly on the fins and the underside and the head has warped into a strange head down attitude.
Lastly the paint job…the fish was inexplicably painted in gloss battle ship grey, with a few white spots splattered about on it and the fins painted orange with some black stripes applied. There had been no attempt to even try to paint this fish to look like a real pike and delineate the scales or actual colours of a living pike.
The restoration

To explain restoration work on previously mounted fish, I would use the analogy of restoring an old house. It needs to be completely stripped back to the bare basics, as it is often not possible to assess the degree of the problem until the work has begun. This is why it can be so very costly to rectify if it is to be done professionally and thoroughly.  I have shown just a tiny selection of images of some parts of the work done to complete this restoration.

Much like with old houses, each fish restoration is unique, and will require different solutions to sort out the issues it has. For this particular example the problems were about as bad as it gets.

In cases like this the work must be broken down into components of work, so I began by removing all the fins and the head. The huge head of a pike is its main feature, with its massive mouth and banks of teeth visible inside its mouth, even when it is almost fully closed. The original head was beyond repair so I carefully removed all the teeth from the original head (Figs. 12 & 14) and produced a cast of the head of another pike (Figs. 10 &11). The cast head was then stripped down and using the original teeth, I completely recreated the mouth of the pike in the cast head.

The eye setting on the pike is critical to the look of it and correct eye alignment is achieved only by study of live Pike. Shoving a glass eye in any old way is common, but ruins the mount.
The head is then fine sculpted and modelled. Utilising the original teeth in this way means a lot of extra work, but you can see from the completion images (Figs. 23-26) that the result is well worth the extra work. Without it the head would not look natural or real and the main feature of a pike would be absent.

The fins of the pike, like the head, were shrivelled, falling apart and beyond re-use on the restored mount. To rectify this we produced a full replacement set of 7 cast pike fins to replace them. This included the huge caudal fin, which is another prominent feature on a pike.

Main body
The main body of the Pike was basically full of sawdust, unstable and smelly. It had to be fully stripped of the previous paint job (Figs. 7, 8 & 9).  It then required major work to degrease it and stabilise the skin, so it could be reinforced and, where necessary, remodelled and recontoured to deal with its lumpy distorted and unnatural shape.

Once all the restored parts had been fully finished, the various components (head, body and fins) had to be reassembled to recreate the Pike to its correct anatomy. The fully restored and reassembled mount is then fine modelled and sealed in preparation for the painting.

The Pike is a fish of very complex and subtle colouration. They are often just painted leaf green with a few white spots applied. But restoring the complex markings and colouration of a large pike, to accurately portray it, takes many hours of detailed painting. I regard the pike as one of the more difficult fish to paint. No two pike are remotely the same in terms of colouration and markings, so care must be taken to be faithful where possible to the original fish. In this case I had to ask the client to explain the colouration and look up images of fish which showed the closest resemblance to how he recalled the fish. I then looked up more images and we used these as base reference to repaint the fish. Painting the pike took something around 30 hours all told.

Case and Presentation
The client required the restored pike to be mounted in a case and opted for a traditional bow fronted case with internal habitat setting and gold lettering to recall the details of the fish. Traditionally the lettering would give the weight and the person who caught it, but this one carries only the species name and location.

The case was large at 52” long by 22” high. This required the bowed glass to be specially commissioned for this piece of work.

Our bow fronted cases are built to our own unique design; they are not copies of cases produced by the master fish taxidermists of old, such as Coopers or W.F. Homer et al. They are a step up in terms of build quality and sophistication of design. Our cases feature the following specification:

  • All Bow fronted cases are made in our studio.
  • All load bearing construction joints are glued and screwed (not nailed).
  • Glass: 4mm clear float annealed bow (size to suit fish).
  • Cases are stained to requirements and lacquered or waxed.
  • All glazed facets are held in with a fine wooden moulded beading with mitred corners.
  • Habitat work is designed to be accurate to the species depicted or as specified by the client.
  • We can produce bow fronted cases in solid oak or other hardwoods if required.

The entire restoration of this Pike, including the construction of the case took towards 100 hours to complete.
This completed mount consists of the following components.

  • 42” female Pike Fully restored and painted.
  • Bespoke built 52” x 22” Bow fronted case, stained and lacquered.
  • Internal habitat work.
  • Gold lettering.