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Leaping Brown Trout

(Salmo trutta)

The following text gives an overview and insight into the planning, challenges and thought processes that went into creating this very unique mount. The images taken of this project are detailed and close up to demonstrate the high level of macro detail that can be achieved.

A unique piece such as this is complex and time consuming to produce. It also requires considerable non-studio time in the consultation and planning stage; therefore the costs involved in such a project are commensurate with the time and skill involved. We are happy to explore ideas on this type of project with genuinely interested clients, who understand and appreciate what is involved, but a casual quote is not possible for this type of work.


Getting out of the cultural rut

Most UK clients, in our experience, opt for the “traditional” presentation for their fish. Here in the UK, there seems to be a sort of unspoken, subconscious loyalty to it. The “stuffed fish in a bowed glass case” borders on a cliché in UK fishing circles, because it appears in almost every sphere of angling influence, from books, sporting hotels, club houses and fishing shops to the very healthy trade in antique and “old world” fishing memorabilia. The bow fronted case is imprinted onto the anglers’ subconscious at every stage. The net effect of this is that even if a client has never considered taxidermy before, they will almost invariably default to this style of presentation, as if it is the only option to be had, when these days the options are actually almost unlimited.

This is borne out by the fact that in Europe and most other countries that have fish taxidermy in the angling culture, you will rarely see a glass case of any sort for a fish, much less one with specially bent glass, gold lettering, rolling acres of grasses, reeds, moss, gravel and sand with the back wall painted in public toilet blue! I am not a hater of the past masters, and masters they were. Far from it, in fact most of the fish I do go in bowed cases of my own style and design. I just feel strongly that we do not need to stay in a cultural rut with fish taxidermy. I am sure that were the likes of Coopers, Homer et al around today, they would be at the forefront of developing new methods and techniques of mounting and presenting fish.

It may also be because few taxidermists today either can or will do fish taxidermy, and the options offered by those of us who do, tend to gravitate to this traditional style of presentation. There is also the matter of cost; high quality fish taxidermy is not cheap, due to the high level of skill required to do it well.


The project

Occasionally, we are approached by a client who is looking for something different from the norm and who has their own vision or idea for a mount. This project was inspired by just such a client and I was excited to receive the commission to undertake it.  The client had caught a stunning 8lb Wild Loch Brown Trout in the far North West of Scotland and expressed his desire to do the fish real justice and present it as he remembered it, a dynamic fighting fish. This project was as far away from the norm as it gets for fish taxidermy.

 

The Brief

  • To capture the explosive action of a beautifully marked 8lb Wild Scottish Brown Trout, as it leaps out of the water, taking a fly (lure) on a length of leader.
  • The piece to be able to rotate through 360to be viewed from any angle.
  • The mount to be cased.


The research

If we were to produce this commission, I wanted the piece to be as realistic as possible, technically, anatomaically and artistically. With that in mind, I undertook some research to allow me to formulate my ideas from a base of solid knowledge, rather than vain hope and guesswork. I began by studying images and footage of trout leaping out of the water, to gain an understanding of how they leap when taking a fly or lure.

I had to think what was going to be feasible to make the mount look plausible when viewed from every angle and not appear awkward or unnatural. The bottom line was that it would have to look absolutely right, and believable, or it wouldn’t work.
I drew up some initial sketches and ideas, based on my observations, and came up with a pose for the fish which I hoped would show not only the action and explosive nature of a trout taking a fly, but also the grace and beauty of such a stunning specimen.

The fish itself would prove an interesting challenge, given the brief, but how to create the water effect and place the fish to look completely plausible from any angle with no wires, glass rods or visible means of support, other than the water, required testing some theories and ideas to see what would finally work.
I wanted to understand how water behaves when a fish explodes through the surface. Guessing, for a piece like this, would be absolute folly, so I spent some time tracking down videos and images of leaping fish and freeze framing to understand more clearly what exactly is going on in the apparent chaos of the moment. I also researched artificial water splash effects, created by various means, but most of those I looked at appeared to me to look very unrealistic and contrived, with little resemblance to what actually happens in the scenario I had to create. I wanted the fish seamlessly emerging from the water, forming a natural arc, with its caudal fin about to leave the water and its head just beginning to turn back to re enter the water.  Cutting up flat bits of clear plastic sheet, bending then dribbling them with clear resin, would not be the answer to create a truly realistic water effect. It had to be designed, modelled, sculpted and fitted to blend exactly and sympathetically with the water reacting to and with the fish.

After reviewing my sketches and proposals for the mount, the client gave us the go ahead and sent over the fish for work to begin.

 

 

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Skin or cast

Although I am reasonably experienced and competent at skin mounts of fish, for this project it would be out of the question, mainly for reasons of compatibility of materials and longevity of the finished mount. Attaching a skin mount to a resin water effect by only its tail presents issues to do with bond strength and stability over time, therefore a cast (replica) would be the only sensible way forward. Also, I wanted the trout to have its mouth wide open with the gill covers also open, showing the whole of the anatomy of the mouth; tongue, gill rakers, and the fine blood red gill filaments inside. To reproduce this fine level of detail accurately is not viable in a skin mount, as shrinkage over time and leaching out of fish oil is an issue (many old and poorly prepared fish mounts suffer from this problem).

 

Production of the trout

To make the casting of the trout required the production of a series of silicone rubber moulds. Making a single sided mould over the flaccid corpse of a dead fish, lying flat is fairly straightforward. Moulding a complete fish, in a dynamic action position required considerable forward planning and preparation to make it work. The completed casting of the fish must be equally well detailed on every aspect, no matter which way it is looked at. To this end, I did a few dummy runs with other shop bought trout, to test the ideas and method, before embarking on the clients’ irreplaceable specimen. Making the mould over the main torso of the fish took several days to complete.

 

Fins (Pectoral and pelvic)

When a trout (or any fish) leaps clear out of the water, each fin behaves differently, as it is acted upon by different forces and effects; gravity, “G” force, the water and the fish itself as it moves them. Simply casting a fin would leave it looking unnatural and stiff, therefore careful attention had to be paid to the various reference photos and clips of leaping fish I had collected, so that they could be positioned sympathetically to the proposed position, before moulding each one separately.

The dorsal, caudal and anal fins were incorporated into the body casting, but the same considerations applied with them, especially the Caudal (tail) fin, as this fin is the main “thruster” of a trout and the one which drives it clear of the water, so its position and shape would be critical, as it would also serve to support the completed piece on the water effect.
In all I made 16 moulds for the trout, each with between 2 and 4 components.  A four component mould consist of the two silicone surface detail moulds from both sides of the item being moulded and a support or “mother mould” to keep the shape of the rubber mould.

 

Fabrication

There are several media that can be used to cast a fish model from a mould, including polyester (fibreglass), epoxy, polyurethane and acrylic resins. I chose to use polyurethane, acrylic and Polyester resins to cast the various components of the trout.  Each casting medium has particular properties which lend it to a specific component part for strength, colour or texture. I cast the fins in polyester and the main torso in polyurethane resin; the gill filaments were cast in acrylic. Once I had cast the main body and cleaned it up for accurate fitting, I mounted the torso of the fish on a work stand so I could rotate it to any angle or attitude, to allow me easy access to work on any delicate parts and take the necessary time and care.

 

The head

The head of the trout and the inside of the mouth were the most complex parts to recreate. The inside of the mouth alone comprising of 10 individually cast parts, all of which had to be finished, then fitted together to make the tongue, gill rakes and gill filaments (Image 24-27). All the cast parts come out from their mould very rough with “flashing” and mould lines from where the casting material has escaped at the joints in the moulds. Each component needs to be carefully ground off, cleaned up, shaped and textured to match its original before they can all be accurately aligned, assembled and glued together to create the internal anatomy of the mouth. The anatomy of the inside of a fish mouth is complex and detailed to mould, but it is necessary if the mouth is to be anatomically correct. On a piece such as this, there was no room for compromise or it would spoil the rest of the piece.  There are four gill rakes on each side of the inside of the mouth, extending back from the tongue to support the gill filaments and the fit has to be very exact inside the head. The casting of the inner surfaces of the head had to be as detailed and accurate as the outside of the head, as the viewer can look deep into the mouth and throat and see out through the open gill covers (operculum).

* I was a dental technician in my early working years, and was able to apply many of the skill sets I was taught in those years, to this exacting part of the project. Even given that, it took me many hours to do it.

 

The eyes

Take some time to look carefully at most fish taxidermy, especially in the UK, and you will see that the eyes of the fish, more often than not, look like those of a dead fish on a slab; flat, lifeless and pointlessly staring at nothing.

Trout, particularly the larger ones, are highly predatory and have incredibly good eyesight. They can roll their eyes independently of each other if necessary, to look in any direction, even behind them.  Look at a live trout, directly from the front and it will look directly back at you (Image 20).  If a trout is to be displayed as if leaping out of the water, taking a fly, its’ eyes would be angled looking forward directly at the fly when it breaks the surface. I wanted to give that forward looking focused cant or angle to the eyes, characteristic of a hunting predator.

 

Water effect

Water is the natural realm of a trout, but occasionally and momentarily, it will leave it and become airborne as it attempts to catch a small fish or insect, at or on the surface. Most of the time, only the head and mouth with break surface, but sometimes the trout will launch itself at great velocity, its entire body leaving the water.  My challenge was to create that momentary chaos of fish and water and have it look natural and “flowing”. It is obviously impossible to predict exactly the way water will behave in those conditions, however, that does not excuse simply making it up as one goes along in the vain hope it might look ok.  Studying the photos and footage helped me to understand far better the dynamics involved and therefore, when sculpting and modelling the water effect, I was better educated on what I needed to do and how it should look.  Sculpting and modelling the effect allowed me the time to make it an exact fit with the fish. The water was also to support the weight of the whole fish, so it had to be not just aesthetically pleasing, but also practically strong enough as well.

The completed “pattern” for the effect was finalised, prepared and then, like the fish, moulded in a number of sections over several days. The clear resin casting of the water effect took several attempts to get it exactly as I wanted it. Casting a large and very irregularly shaped volume of clear resin can be something of a black art, as its behaviour whilst setting can give results that are far away from the desired one. Eventually however, I achieved a clean, clear casting with good surface detail that was perfect for the trout (Image 22 & 23 are close ups of the water effect).

 

Painting the Trout

Most fish mounts are only painted on one side. The back (the bit you don’t see) is effectively the access to do all of the work, and will look nothing like the lovely fish you should see on the display side. The fish you see in a case or on a board is, in reality, only half a fish. Most cased fish are rod straight, so the painting process, whilst still labour intensive and involved, when done well, is relatively straightforward on a practical level.

Painting an entire fish is a very different proposition, as the level of attention and detail required is an order of magnitude greater than on a standard mount. Add to that an open mouth, with the fish set in a very steep curvature, and the painting becomes a challenge on many levels, artistically and practically. Accurately hand painting thousands of tiny scales, on the inside curve of the trout, presented quite a challenge to my dexterity.  Fish painting involves slowly building on a base colour and methodically adding tones and patterns, switching between a fine sable brush for scale tipping and fine markings, to a super fine airbrush for the fine blending and subtle changes in colour and tone.  I photographed the fish, prior to any work on it, closely from every angle to try to capture the colouration and markings and, without this reference, it would be just about impossible to paint it. Detailed study of the photographic reference of the original fish is vital when painting it to have even a hope of getting it right. From scratch it took me something over a week (40 plus hours) to paint the fish.

 

Completion

Once painted and finished, the completed trout was very carefully bonded to the clear resin casting of the water effect. To finish the piece, I took a small length of leader (fishing line) and tied on a fly with a half blood knot and fitted the fly in the “scissors” or maxillary. The line I then drew back to behind the trout and fixed it before using some thickened resin to put some fine water droplets along the line and on the fly. The whole completed piece then set into a recessed oak base and placed in its glass case for collection by the client.

This project comprises of the following components:

  • The Trout
  • The water effect.
  • The base unit for the piece to sit in.
  • The glass case with Oak surround.

 

THIS MOUNT IS A COMMISSIONED PIECE AND IS NOT FOR SALE.