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Throw the big one back, then go get your trophy

By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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When he initially set the hook and cried “fish on,” I thought Auburn’s Dale Milam was snagged. We were drifting quickly downstream and the rod was so doubled over that it seemed impossible that he was hooked into a fish.
Then I noticed his line streaking toward the center of the river!
The rod started bucking then, too, and line whizzed off his reel at an alarming rate. So quickly, in fact, that I had to fire up the boat and chase the leviathan — which was streaking upstream at such speed that it would have emptied his reel in a few short seconds.
After an epic battle on the light gear, I hefted the beast over the side. Milam’s giant striper pulled the BogaGrip’s scale down to 40 pounds! After a quick photo session, the huge hen was back in the water and off to complete her spawning mission.
Let ‘em go!
Some folks would have considered us crazy for letting that fish go… but it’s actually crazy not to. In this day and age of declining fisheries, big females like Milam’s striper (and their genetic material) are much too valuable to be killed. Instead, consider turning them loose and, if you really want a mount, go with a fiberglass replica.
Get it mounted
The replica trend is the big thing in fish taxidermy these days. You can have a model of your big catch made up and, if you get the length and girth measurements and some good close-up photos, a skilled taxidermist can make an exact copy of your fish.
The replica thing is pretty cool — not only do you not have to kill the fish to get a mount of it, but they also look better than skin mounts and last forever. Skin mounts start to look like bad science projects over time as they dry out and the rats get to them — and they can also start to smell as oil leaches out of the skin. All you really need to do to keep a glass mount looking good is dust it occasionally.
Documentation
To allow the taxidermist to make as good a copy of your fish as possible, take care to get a few broadside shots of it with a digital camera. Lay the fish on its side in shallow water and be sure to zoom in as close as you can while still keeping the entire subject in the frame.
It’s helpful to put something like a fishing rod or ruler next to the fish for scale. You may also want to take close-up pictures of any distinguishing features the fish may have and it’s always good idea to get a zoomed-in shot or two of its head.
Next, measure the fish’s length and girth. If you don’t have a tape measure, stretch a piece of fishing line from its nose to tail and then use another one to get the girth. When you get home, you can measure those lengths of line to get accurate dimensions of your catch.
The weight of your fish isn’t as important in the mounting process but it can be helpful. The best way to safely get a weight on a fish that’s to be released is to use a soft mesh musky-style cradle and a BogaGrip or digital scale. However, if weighing the fish is going to cause it too much harm, don’t worry about it.
Choosing a taxidermist
There are zillions of outfits out there making fish replicas and you have to do a little homework before you commit to buying one. Generally speaking, you can expect to pay $12 to $18 an inch for a mount. Be wary of people who will mount a fish for a lot less than the going rate — there’s usually a good reason that they’re less expensive.
There are sometimes hidden costs that you need to know about as well. Be sure to ask what the shipping and handling rates are before you sign a contract… some companies will stick you with serious shipping fees that can almost double the price of your fish.
Also, ask about turn-around time. Most good taxidermists are booked out for months or even years, so be prepared to wait awhile before you get your trophy. It doesn’t hurt, either, to find out if the taxidermist guarantees his or her work and if they carry insurance. You can also check to see if the person you’re considering is licensed — in some states, taxidermists must be licensed through the state.
I know there are a lot of good taxidermists out there and I can’t list them all. However, I can vouch for a few. I’ve seen the fine work done by Luke Filmer of Blackwater Fish Replicas (www.blackwaterfishreplicas.com). Also, the folks at Advanced Taxidermy & Wildlife Design out of Southern California (www.advancedtaxidermy.com) do really nice work.
J.D. Richey is a 1986 Placer High graduate whose outdoors pieces have been published nationally. Find him online at www.fishwithjd.com.