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Taxidermist's winning technique is beyond skin deep

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Taxidermist's winning technique is beyond skin deep
Rich Gensch displays his award-winning mount which is a replica of the fish that was caught. Gensch placed first in the nation with this fiberglass creation. Photo by TIM THOMPSON/Missoulian

Missoula's Rich Gensch takes first in nation with reproduction mount

Missoula taxidermist Rich Gensch's fiberglass reproduction of a king salmon is so realistic a judge at the National Taxidermists Association's annual competition couldn't tell that it wasn't the real thing.

Gensch's salmon mount earned him the national champ-ionship award for cold-water fish repro-ductions at the asso-ciation's Convention Com-petition and Trade Show held in Billings two weeks ago.

The mount also took first place in the World Taxidermy Championships held in April in Springfield, Ill.

Reproduction fish mounts - realistic painting of a fish on a fiberglass mold cast to match the specifications of the actual trophy - are becoming the standard in the taxidermy profession, Gensch said. They gradually are replacing the traditional "skin mounts" of fish, he said.

"I still do a lot of skin mounts," said Gensch, who opened Buckhorn Taxidermy studio in Missoula 12 years ago. "But in the last four years, reproductions have really taken off."

This was the first year the Taxidermists Association offered an award for fish reproductions at its national competition, according to Gensch.

Painting a reproduction to match the natural translucent colors of a real fish is the most demanding part of the process for a taxidermist, he said. The challenge is to reproduce the fish's individual colors and physical characteristics from reference photographs provided by the client.

Even natural skin mounts of fish require a skillful paint touch-up by a taxidermist to bring out the vivid colors of the live fish, Gensch said.

"The paint job is probably 80 to 90 percent of the effort to make 'em look right," he said. "That's why so few taxidermists do fish. The hardest thing to learn about painting fish is keeping the colors transparent, and giving depth to the paint job. If you get too much paint on, they get opaque, and they get that plastic look. I use three different air brushes to achieve that."

Gensch developed his artistic touch in painting fish as a youngster.

"I started taxidermy when I was a young boy, 10 or 11, as a hobby," he said. "When I was in high school, one of my friend's father had a shop. I worked for him … painting his fish. It's something I've been blessed with - being able to paint these without making 'em look gaudy."

Another trick in making fish reproductions look natural is the texture detail of the fins, he said.

"The fins are tough," Gensch said. "You have to trim 'em with a razor blade to get each individual ray. That takes time. Some people say there's not as much work in reproductions as skin mounts. But to make it look right, there's as much work."

Gensch's prize-winning salmon mount illustrates all his artistry. Just starting into its spawning colors, the rosy hues of the big male's sides blend subtly with its dark green back and silvery belly. The reproduction glistens as if it just leaped from the Yakima River, where the 27-pound fish was caught by a Tacoma man.

"You can see the scars on his face that I painted," Gensch said. "When they're spawning, they get all scarred up. I had one judge say he couldn't tell it wasn't a skin mount until he tapped it with his fingernail. There's a place on the score sheet for the judges' comments, and in the space for paint job, he just wrote, 'Sweet.' I've had a lot of people ask me if it was a skin mount or a reproduction."

There are several advantages to having a reproduction mount instead of a skin mount, he said.

"A lot of people are still leery of having a reproduction rather than a skin mount," he said. "But the nice thing about these is, if you catch a 40- or 50-pound king salmon up in Alaska, how do you deal with it?"

Gensch points to a cast of a 50-pound king salmon reproduction he currently is working on for a customer.

"A fish like this would have been tremendously difficult and expensive to bring back down," he said. "As long as you can paint the fish to look like a skin mount, it has all the advantages. A fiberglass reproduction, as long as you don't expose it to extreme heat or sunlight for a prolonged period, o

r drop it, it should last a lifetime."

Gensch charges the same price for a reproduction or a skin mount. But he promotes the reproductions to encourage people to practice catch-and-release fishing, he said.

He buys most of the fiberglass molds from a couple of manufacturers, he said, but recently he has started producing fiberglass casts of fish himself. In particular, he's been casting forms of bull trout for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"Because they're an endangered species, Fish Wildlife and Parks has given me one specimen to cast for educational purposes, to use for identification of bull trout compared to brook trout and brown trout," Gensch said.

His salmon mount just missed winning the best of show award at the World Taxidermy Championships in April, he said. A lobster reproduction, done by a taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution Museum, beat his salmon by a mere half-point.

"So I was excited, but disappointed, too," he said, "to come that close. Winning best of show at the world championships would just be incredible. That's my goal: to win the world championship."

Thursday - 7/29/99

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