Sure, anyone on any given day can catch a trophy bass, but it takes a dedicated conservationist to resist the temptation of keeping that once-in-a-lifetime catch and taking it to the taxidermist.
It's not a cardinal sin to kill a big bass and have it "stuffed" for hanging on the wall of your den. But advancements in replica taxidermy make it possible — even preferable — to let that fish swim away.
For example, to be admitted to the Bassmaster Lunker Club, an angler must catch a largemouth bass weighing 10 or more pounds, or a smallmouth bass weighing 6 pounds or more. However, to have the photo of his big bass published in Bassmaster Magazine, the angler must also release the fish alive.
Increasingly, Lunker Club applicants are choosing to have replica mounts made to commemorate their achievements.
In the past, phony-looking fiberglass reproductions were the only option for anglers wanting to release their trophy fish. Now, catch-and-release advocates can have lifelike replicas made of their memorable catches.
Reproduction mounts of trophy bass from Lunker Club participants are being made by Don's Taxidermy (816-532-3500) of Smithville, Mo. Owner Don Frank estimates his business creates more than 100 replica fish mounts a year. He has noticed an increase in the demand for reproduction mounts, which he attributes to the practice of catch-and-release and an awareness of increased fishing pressure.
"Fishermen realize that if 7-, 8-, 9- or 10-pound fish are taken out on a regular basis, there is no way the fishery can sustain itself with that amount of fishing pressure," says Frank.
This awareness has created a dramatic rise in Frank's replica business. "Five years ago, replica mounts made up 5 to 10 percent of my business; now it's pushing half," says Frank, who has been a full-time taxidermist for 20 years.
Orders for reproduction mounts have also increased over the years at Archie Phillips Taxidermy (205-787-6902) in Alabama. "It is a growing part of the industry," says Phillips.
The veteran taxidermist believes Alabama's numerous farm ponds (more than 47,000) have helped his replica business. "When a fellow owns a pond and wants to raise big fish, he knows he can catch one from his pond and turn the fish back in," says Phillips. "So, he can get a reproduction of the fish and maybe catch that fish again the next year." Phillips' work includes two replica mounts of bass caught by former President George Bush and by current First Lady Laura Bush, both from B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott's pond.
Replica mounts of six bass, which Missouri angler Dan Boyer claims is an unofficial state record limit, hang on a wall at his home. After photographing and measuring each fish, Boyer released all the bass into the subdivision lake he was fishing. The measurements and photographs helped Brad Bilbrey of Bilbrey Studio Taxidermy (636-475-9391) in Barnhart, Mo., reproduce Boyer's memorable catch in fiberglass.
The Missouri taxidermist works mostly on skin mounts, which Bilbrey can make cheaper than replicas. His major expense for a replica mount is the fiberglass blank, which he has to order from a supplier. "It's unfortunate, because a lot of guys will keep that fish to save a hundred bucks," says Bilbrey. "There is no fish that is any better-looking than a fiberglass mount. Once you finish it and hang it on the wall, it's like painting a car hood. It's going to look exactly like that forever."
Frank has a small inventory of his own casts, but he, too, depends mostly on existing blanks from suppliers. "It gives me a lot larger selection to pull from, and I have access to all the new casts the replica companies are making," he says.
Improvements in the blanks make today's replica mounts look more realistic. "In the last 10 years there have been several new reproduction companies that are using better materials and techniques in order to cast the fish," discloses Frank. "Now, the quality of the better replicas is good enough that most people can't tell that they are replicas."
A limited number of casts is still the main drawback of reproduction mounts, though. "There are a lot of misnomers about how they are made. A lot of guys think we just make them from scratch and put all the detail in ourselves, which is not the case," says Frank. "They have no idea what a taxidermist has to do to make one. In order to make a replica mount, someone has to have caught a fish that size, so a mold is made of that fish. Your catch ends up being an exact duplicate of another fish that size."
Even though he makes his own blanks, Phillips still incurs a major cost when he has to keep adding molds for various sizes of fish. "Every now and then, one will come along that we don't have, so we'll make a mold of that. It's a never-ending thing," says Phillips, who has about 1,000 molds in his supply. His reproduction mounts cost approximately $250 for an 8-pound bass, whereas a skin mount for the same size fish is about $150.
The Alabama taxidermist creates more than 1,000 replica bass mounts a year. Phillips, one of the pioneers of fiberglass mounts, started making replica mounts of saltwater fish almost 40 years ago. He has definitely seen the long-term benefits of his reproductions.
"With a replica, you'll never have any aging or cracking problems that you sometimes encounter with skin mounts," says Phillips. "Over time, if you get too much heat or humidity, sometimes skin mounts will crack around the scales, whereas a fiberglass reproduction is forever."
The taxidermist's job of making an exact replica becomes easier if anglers gather some vital information about their trophy catch before releasing it. The weight of a trophy catch is all Phillips requires to make a replica mount. He believes most bass in the same weight class are similar in length.
"That's particularly true of smallmouth — you can almost stamp them out of a mold," says Phillips. "You can have a little different problem with a largemouth, because some of the fish have extended girths. Spotted bass also run like smallmouth. If they get around 6 or 7 pounds, they get a potbelly."
Frank and Bilbrey recommend taking a good photograph and measuring the bass' length and girth for the most precise replica mount. "If you measure length and girth, I can usually get within an inch either way of that, unless you have a real oddball fish," Bilbrey says.
A flexible tape works best for measuring your trophy catch. If a measuring device is unavailable, photographs taken in proper proportions also can determine the length of a trophy fish. "You see guys who, when they catch big fish, the first thing they do for a picture is stretch their arms out and hold that fish out as far as they can," says Bilbrey. "That way, in the photograph the fish actually looks 6 or 8 inches bigger than it really is." The taxidermist suggests taking some photos of your catch while holding it next to your leg or other objects (tackleboxes or fishing rods), so he can measure later to scale the size of the fish.
If an angler has neither a measuring tool nor camera, Frank recommends using fishing line, which any angler will have handy.
"When you catch a fish, lay it down, take a piece of fishing line and pull it out to the length of the fish (measuring from the tip of its mouth to the tip of its tail) and cut it off to length," Frank suggests. "Then take another piece of fishing line, wrap it around the girth (biggest part of the belly) and cut it off to length. When you get home, you can measure those pieces of line, and you'll have an accurate length and girth of your catch. If I have those two measurements, I can match the size closely."
Today's realistic replica mounts have become real lifesavers for trophy bass. The ranks of the Bassmaster Lunker Club might grow considerably if more anglers realize they can release their once-in-a-lifetime catch and still hang a precise copy of it on their walls.