SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
February 21, 1972
Anything found in water—from fighting surface fish to benthic weirdies—is fair game for taxidermist Al Pflueger Jr.
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February 21, 1972

You Catch It, He'll Mount It

Anything found in water—from fighting surface fish to benthic weirdies—is fair game for taxidermist Al Pflueger Jr.

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Last spring a 500-pound marlin caught off the northern Bahamas by Actor Cameron Mitchell sat waiting its turn amid several thousand pounds of lesser fish in a cold storage room of the Pflueger plant. At the time Mitchell's big billfish came in, Leonard Black, the fish skinner who might handle it, was busy on a 75-pound amberjack caught somewhere by J. D. Hawkins of Grenada, Miss. At the same time, on a pallet near Black's worktable, the defleshed remains of a once-beautiful 80-pound longbill spearfish lay stretched out, hideous to behold. At that point in its skinned-out, half-cured, oily state the spearfish looked less lovely than an American woman daubed with anti-wrinkle cream and bedecked in curlers.

The Atlantic spearfish is an oddball cousin of the common marlins and sailfish—a rare species little known and seldom caught. Few big-game fishermen would recognize one on sight. Most of them do not know such a creature exists. The particular spearfish moving along the Pflueger assembly line (gradually regaining its good looks) was caught by Edwin Jay Gould, a New York investment banker who has had more than 100 fish mounted by Pflueger. According to Drs. C. Richard Robins and Donald de Sylva, the foremost experts on the species, Gould's 80-pounder is the largest of record. The arrival of Gould's big spearfish at Pflueger's place was, in a sentimental sense, a homecoming, for it was Al Pflueger Sr. who 15 years ago first discovered the species.

Although the elder Pflueger got only a grade-school education before he had to make his own way as a lineman for a New Jersey power company, he was blessed with the catchall mind and curious eye that a naturalist needs. In the mid-1950s, when the sport of billfishing was booming and his taxidermy business along with it, Pflueger noticed that some of the so-called white marlin he saw on docks, as well as some sent to him for mounting labeled as white marlin or sailfish, definitely were not. On the basis of booklore he absorbed in his off hours, Pflueger suspected these misnamed oddballs were a sort of spearfish known only in the Mediterranean. When he submitted evidence to Drs. Robins and de Sylva, they initially agreed with him. After further study Robins and de Sylva realized the strangers spotted by Pflueger were a distinct species of Atlantic spearfish. They gave the new species the official name Tetrapturus pfluegeri. Considering that Gould has been a very steady customer and that Pflueger discovered the species that now bears his name, the record-sized spearfish certainly rates special attention. But at Pflueger's place it did not get it. This most famous of all Pflueger fish waited its turn in line just like Dick Nixon's fish and everybody else's.

A few steps behind the oddball spearfish, there were three common fish: a Gulf flounder, a bluestriped grunt and a red-breasted bream. Though ordinary, each is special in a way. The foot-and-a-half flounder was caught off a Florida dock by 5-year-old David Lindner of Cincinnati, who wants it mounted with good reason. How many other anglers, age five or age 50, have ever caught a Gulf flounder almost half as long as they are tall?

The bluestriped grunt was caught by 71-year-old Fred Zollner of Fort Wayne, Ind. Although he is surely better known as the owner of the Detroit Pistons' basketball team, Zollner is also a deep-lining, mini-fishing zealot. In the past 10 years he has put nearly 200 strange and beautiful runt-sized fish through the Pflueger plant. Scuba divers and snorkelers have seen bluestriped grunts galore, but none has seen a 14-inch lunker such as Zollner caught. Zollner brought his big grunt up from a depth of 400 feet using a special wire line so sensitive he can feel a half-pound fish brush against it a quarter mile below.

By contrast, the red-breasted bream alongside Zollner's grunt was taken in a most humble way. Cora Hiott, a housewife, caught it in the Edisto River of South Carolina, using a cane pole and bobber rig baited with a cricket. As red-breasted bream go, Cora Hiott's is a whopper, weighing 1� pounds. It is undoubtedly one of the oldest bream ever put through the Pflueger plant. Cora Hiott caught it six years ago. As her husband, Allen Hiott, explains, "We figured we might never catch another bream so big, so we froze it solid in a block of ice, put it in our deep freeze and bided our time. I had seen fish mounted by this man Pflueger, and I thought if we ever got to Florida again, we would drop it off at his place." On their way to a week of fishing in the Florida Keys, the Hiotts left the block of ice containing the bream at Pflueger's place. In the Keys, Allen Hiott caught a beauty of a bull dolphin. It too is now somewhere among the 9,000 fish moving through the Pflueger assembly line.

From the time it enters the south end of the Pflueger plant (which smells like a tuna cannery) until it comes out the north end (which smells like a paint factory), an ordinary fish like a dolphin or amberjack takes about five months. General Motors produces Chevrolets much faster, and even Cellini's old artisans turned out silverware in less time. Again, there is a difference. Whereas General Motors works mainly with metals—as did Cellini's men—Pflueger craftsmen handle very perishable stuff. For all his wonders, the Almighty God never made a fish that lasted long out of water. Within a day at room temperature all fish lose their good looks and shortly thereafter start to rot.

The average fish spends much of its time in the Pflueger plant, in effect, simply being adapted to life out of water. After a fish is skinned and the skin is scrupulously cleaned of every degradeable particle, it lies in the sun so that the water and oil inherent in the skin will be drawn to the surface. The skinned-out remains are then put in a degreasing solution. Some species need only one sunning and one degreasing bath. Oilier fish such as mackerel often need two sunnings and two baths. For the oiliest specimens, the sunning and bathing periods are lengthened, and the whole process can take a month. After being degreased the specimen is soaked in a poison solution with a strychnine base to deter bugs that might try eating it in the years to come. (Before Ralph Nader and his Raiders ride onto the scene to announce that the fish hanging on the walls of America are a menace, let us hasten to add that the strychnine dose in Pflueger fish is very light. Any kid who climbs onto a mantel and starts chewing on a Pflueger mount will never feel the effect. Indeed, at the rate living fish are soaking up mercury and other poisons, a Pflueger mount may soon be the safest seafood in town.) After being degreased and bugproofed on the Pflueger line, the dry skin of a fish, with its fins, tail and jaws still attached, resembles a shriveled shag of tobacco leaves that has spent a long, hard winter curing in a Carolina barn. After soaking in a softening agent to restore its pliancy, the sodden skin looks even worse.

When he first went into taxidermy, Al Pflueger Sr. mounted fish in the conventional way, stretching the pliant skin over preshaped forms of solid plaster. A solid plaster mount weighs about a third more than the real fish. In the early '30s Pflueger perfected and patented a hollow-mold process. A modern, hollow Pflueger beauty hanging on the wall, looking as if it were alive, weighs barely a third of the original fish.

In the hollow-mold process, the side of the fish skin that will eventually face out from the wall is put in a concave mold conforming to the size and shape of the live fish. Through the head-to-tail slit the skinner has made on the opposite side of the skin, a soft sheet of puttylike, mud-colored material reinforced with surgical gauze is inserted and spread out over the whole interior of the skin. This magic molding material was developed by Al Pflueger Sr. and, to preserve its secrecy, is commonly described by his son simply as "mache" or "mud." After the skin has been lined with a layer of Pflueger's magic mud, the void remaining is then filled in with wet sawdust. When it has been so solidly packed that the skin is distended into the original shape of the fish, a wood plate is inserted (to accept the screws of a wall bracket) and the slit in the back side is sewn up.

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