Let me start out by saying I love to fish! In fact, I want to mount everything I catch. My taxidermy bill was getting to high for fish and I knew I had to do something about that. I started thinking that if I can mount game animals, why not try to mount my own fish. Fish taxidermy and mounts are much different than big game, so I studied up on the process and ordered the Research Mannikin video, which was extremely helpful. I also invested in an airbrush, paint and forms.
There are so many steps to mounting a fish. I always like to try and use every real body part I can from the fish, which saves money by not having to order artificial heads.
Step-by-Step Instructions to Mounting a Rainbow Trout
STEP 1---Color Guide
The first steps when you catch a fish you want mount is to take several color photographs of it while it is fresh. The longer you wait, the more the color will fade. These photos will serve as a guide later when you are painting the mount. If you're unable to take your own pictures, you can reference pictures online or in other photos.
You will need to take accurate measurements of the fish, which can be done while in the field or once you arrive home. Using a cloth measuring tape or seamstress tape is best to get the most accurate size. Measure around the thickest part of the belly and measure the total length. Round off to the nearest whole number.
Think about how you want it facing on the wall and that will determine what side you will start skinning. Skin right down the middle of the fish and carefully start peeling back the skin. It’s very thin so it's important to be very careful so you don't cause damage. When you reach the dorsal fin on the fish’s back, use sharp scissors to clip the fin at the base, leaving it attached to the skin; Do the same with all other fins. You will need to cut off the adipose fin and just rebuild one later.
Using the scissors, clip the bone behind the gill. Skin as far as you can go, then you should be able to separate the head from the body. The head should remain attached to the skin.
Clean out the skull, removing all surplus meat, remove the eyes, tongue and gills. Remove the bone so you can get into the brain cavity. Scrape off all the meat and fat off the skin. Make sure to do this on a clean surface because even the tiniest pebble can put a hole in the skin if you scrape over it. If you’re going to use an artificial head, you can just cut the head off.
Wash the skin in cool water and Dawn dish soap. It's good to let it soak for about an hour, then rinse well. It’s now time to degrease the skin. Lay it flat and shake table salt (doesn’t matter if it’s iodized or not) all over the skin on both sides. Roll it up in newspaper, put it in a plastic bag and set it in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours.
When refrigeration is done, remove and rinse off all the salt. It’s always good to soak it in cold water for about an hour to rehydrate before working with it.
While your fish is soaking, paint the form all white. Lay a towel down to put the fish on, remove from the water and rub Borax on the inside of skin. This helps preserve the skin so it won’t decay and helps to kill the odor.
Take the form and rub hide paste on one side at a time while putting your fish over the form, this will help not make such a big mess! You will need to build up the base of the fins and all the cartilage that was cut off using mache. The most important part here is to not over stretch your hide when you’re pulling it around the form, since this will loosen your scale. I made this mistake with my first fish.
It’s fine that the skin doesn’t touch together on the bag; you will have gap. You are now ready to staple the skin on the backside using a staple gun. I prefer using the 13mm ceiling tile staples the best; they are very sharp and don’t cause the skin to bunch. Leave at least 2” from the tail not stapled, so you can build it up with mache.
Smooth the skin, trying to get any bubbles out. Cut some strips of cardboard, and set behind each fin and spread the fins to their natural shape, anchoring it on either side with a bobby pin. Let it dry.
For the back seam where the staples are, you will need to fill that gap. Rub Magic Smooth in the gap and then apply clear adhesive cocking. Spread it out and make it smooth. Go ahead and put the eyes in; you’ll have to build up the eye socket with clay. After the fish dries, it’s good to put Tiff Fin on all the fins which helps protect them from splitting.
Now comes to what is perhaps the most important step of all. A poor mount with a first class paint job will appear more realistic than an amazing mount with a horrible paint job. Additionally, fish can change color with UV light over time.
I had never used an airbrush to paint before, so paper was my friend for a while before I actually started to paint the fish. It's important to practice some and get used to how the airbrush works before starting on the fish. Once I start painting the fish, I always start on the backside before spraying the side that will be visible.
For best results wipe the body with lacquer thinner, then spray the entire fish with Super Fish Sealer. Now it’s time to paint. Use a light color base all over the body--I used the color chrome. Then I used super hide white to spray the belly and under the jaw. Make pepper markings on the lower jaw and nose, which is best done with gauze. Use white pearl all over entire body, dark green down the back and shimmering gold over the green. I repeat that step a couple times. Rub a little antique gold oil paint stick over the back. When painting, it's all about layering colors...don’t expect to get the color you want with one spray. I use a lot of shimmering colors to make it look as realistic as possible, but it really depends on what your fish looks like, as to what colors you should use.
Color list for a rainbow trout:
Candy Apple Red
Oil Paint Stick- Antique Gold
When you're halfway done, apply a coat of gloss. Let it dry, then start painting again. Make sure to paint the fins. Making the spots was very hard for me; on my first fish, the spots where awful. I made a slight improvement on the second one though.
Learning the airbrush and using different needles for different size sprays definitely takes time and experience to master. This year I ordered a single action airbrush, so we will see how it goes. After you’re finished with painting, spray with the gloss finish. You can clean the eyes off with a Q-tip and lacquer thinner. Let it dry completely and your mount is finished.
The best part, picking a spot to display your catch!
Follow Kelly Cohen's adventures on Instagram at @kellycohen4202.