It was decades since I had last visited a taxidermy company. At that time, perhaps 35 years ago, the entire catch was required, including the skin and bill (if it were a billfish) in order to produce the finished likeness.
That 35 year wait ended last December when I attended the 4th Annual Gray FishTag Research Symposium in Pompano Beach, Florida at the invitation of Bill Dobbelaer, general manager of Gray Taxidermy and Leah Baumwell, director of Gray FishTag.
Flying to Florida, I toyed with my storyline: the process from the moment the fish was captured to the step-by-step progress of the completed mount.
But when I caught sight of the Gray Taxidermy building, I discarded my original storyline.
Gaping at the Gray Taxidermy facade, highlighted by a 27-foot shark feeding on amberjack along with an equally huge blue marlin – a landmark for the bustling traffic on Interstate 95 – I immediately photographed the scene.
As we walked in through the front door, a “welcome” sign greeted me.
It was then that I realized that the attention to detail was part of the character of the Gray Taxidermy organization. It has served them well for more than half a century.
My friend Dobbelaer met us and was bursting with pride, eager to show me through the facility. Weaving our way through the crowded offices, he introduced me to Craig Fitschen, sales manager. “He’s our problem solver,” Dobbelaer boasted proudly.
We moved on to Kim Underwood, office manager. I had met Underwood in Cabo on one of several “satellite tagging trips;” then on to Brittany Kinsel, customer support, along with Leo Lampone, an owner in charge of production, before we entered the shop area, where Calvin Fisher, shop manager, greeted us.
Then walking on into the sprawling, cement block building with a corrugated metal roof, I looked around at fish mounts of every size and description hanging from vast racks.
At first, the very number of mounts appeared to be nothing more than chaos, but as I adjusted to the scene and watched the staff work, I realized this was the result of the techniques, fine-tuned to near perfection over the 50-years of development from Captain Bill Gray’s first studio. At that time he conceptualized the idea that would allow his fishing friends and clients to preserve their fishing adventures. Today, the company is averaging more than 18,000 life-like fish trophy mounts annually – from the smallest to hugest – turning it into the largest taxidermy studio in the world.
Dobbelaer and Fisher described how the individual mounts slowly made their approximately 90-day passage through all the departments from removal from the individual molds to shipping.
The process is overseen by a quality control team of inspectors at seven inspection points to ensure the excellence of the finished product; every fish mount in the plant was someone’s fish that had been ordered.
When an order arrives, the process begins with mold prep and fiberglass layup. This is followed by finishing and installation of the bill for billfish and the addition of eyes, fins and details. They use client-provided photos to apply any and all unusual anatomical features to the fish. Then one of the inspectors does the final prep.
The painting process begins with a primer, followed by the paint base and final coats, after which the clear coat is applied and the fish is left in the drying area until crating.
Once crated, there is the final inspection before it is wrapped in cardboard and shipped.
Most of the afternoon, I was free to explore the plant at my own pace with several cameras and a tape recorder slung over my shoulder; every direction I looked, there were rooms. Some were paint booths, others were filled with tables laden with tools of every description, and all had partially completed fish mounts – from small baitfish still being painted waiting to dry, while others hung from the walls or huge racks filled to the ceiling with fish mounts.
Mounts were in one phase or another waiting to be examined for imperfections, with bondo applied, sanded, and primed before the actual paint process.
This process could be likened to a coat of many colors as different hues were layered one by one to create the life-like colors that are the benchmark of Gray Taxidermy.
Team members were struggling to ensure that the shipping dates for Christmas gift items were met. And even with the impending deadlines, all were quite willing to take time to answer a question or explain the procedure on a specific fish mount as they labored over it.
All were in various stages of the production. Some were just removed from one of the more than 10,000 patented molds of real fish from around the globe. Others were at various stages – from rough sanding to completion, ready to be shipped.
Roger, a master craftsman and mold maker who joined the team 35 years ago, has the responsibility for all the molds and is constantly updating them. This, of course, is one of the most vital steps in the making of a quality trophy fish mount.
Their patented molds are made from a collection of both real fresh and salt water fish that are used to create the various fish models to reproduce the lifelike fish trophy mounts; their mold collection is the largest in the world.
Each step of the process requires remarkable attention to detail.
Watching Johnny, a dedicated veteran finisher on the team, complete a batch of billfish freshly sprung from their molds, reinforces how important the details are to the success of each mount.
The edges of the body are trimmed away, and bondo is applied to smooth out the seams. At this juncture, all flaws must be discovered and removed before the primer coat is applied, regardless of the size.
A base silver coat is sprayed on all fish mounts that are metallic in color. Other fish trophies are primed in white. Most colors are specially blended translucent lacquers tailored to allow the background color to bleed through.
Bob, another long-time member of the team, who got his start in his teens painting hot rods and custom cars, where he honed his skills until he came to work for Gray. Now he spends his time in his bare block wall corner, surrounded by bottles of brilliant translucent lacquer colors used to do his visual magic with most of the billfish that come out of the shop. He seems inspired by the rock music loud enough to be heard over the thumping of a compressor.
Slowly circling the billfish mount, air-brush in hand, he stalks his prey until every droplet is precisely in place. Then, and only then, does he shut off the compressor, step back and admire his creation. He allows a confident small smile of satisfaction that belies his artistry developed in the process of painting in excess of 10,000 billfish in his career.
Bob’s level of experience and his enthusiasm was mirrored in the many members of the team that I photographed and spoke with throughout the afternoon. Roger, master craftsman and mold maker; Leo Lamphone, plant manager; Garret Albrektsen, customization specialist; along with a host of painters, sanders and other specialists all eager to explain their sphere as well as their enthusiasm for their position.
Wall and hanging fish mounts are how it all began. Now, the variation is endless – limited only by the imagination of the client – matched with the creativity of Gray’s artists who continue to amaze with their variety of styles or settings.
Albrektsen and his team develop the special “Custom Creations.” It may be a vertical or horizontal wave mount that offers endless customization options, or it could be a river rock, a coral reef bottom, or simply a sand bottom setting, but they create an extraordinary custom fish mount that becomes a unique work of art that can be displayed in a place of honor in a home, boat or office.
If space is a concern, or a client is looking for something different, then a jaw, tail or bill mount may work. These mounts are just as realistic, but they require much less space.
Plus, a selection of personalized name plates to hang with mounts are available in a variety of sizes, shapes and styles.
By the end of the day, I had been given the opportunity to chat with many of the Gray Production team and I saw the most realistic and authentic collection of fish mounts I had ever been privileged to see.
From baitfish to billfish, I observed a vast number of their mounts in every stage of production assembled by an impressive team who convinced me that they enjoyed every step involved in creating them.
I came away realizing that any fish caught can be the stimulus to create a unique museum-quality fish mount. It takes only the imagination and desire of the client coupled with the talented artists at Gray Taxidermy to create a special design that will memorialize a special catch of a lifetime.
I can’t thank Dobbelaer and Gray Taxidermy enough for inviting me to spend a magical day at their facility …
a day that I shall never forget.
That Baja Guy-Gary Graham