Skin Deep: Keeping the Glory of Old, Forgotten Fish Mounts Alive

Photographs by Ralph Smith

The first skin mount I ever bought was a dusty 22-inch brown trout hanging in the corner of an antiques store in Columbus, N.J. The shop owner told me the fish was caught near Punxsutawney, Pa., but that’s all he knew. What I knew was that whoever hooked this trout must have been extremely proud of the catch and felt a strong connection to the fish. I knew this because I felt the same thing when I picked up the first fish I ever had mounted. As far as I was concerned, this forgotten brown trout deserved to be on the wall of an angler who still appreciated its meaning. So for fear of its ending up next to a neon Stella sign in a hipster bar, I pulled out my wallet and came to its rescue.

The problem with mounted fish—​whether bought or caught​—​is that like tattoos, once you get one, you want more. In the years that followed the dusty brown trout, I picked up a pickerel at this shop, a mahi­mahi at that store, and a smallmouth at some flea market. Condition wasn’t important. In fact, the more weathered and flawed, the more I liked them. It’s the missing fin and amateur paint job that give a mount character—and, in a way, deepen the mystery of the mount’s origin and life before it ended up in my care.

My only criteria are price and material. I never buy replicas, only skin, and the most I’d ever pay for a very rare or unique mount is $100. (To any ­antiques-​store owners reading this: It’s an old fish that’ll keep getting uglier with age, not a Tiffany lamp. Get real with your prices.) I also don’t shop for them online, because that’s too easy. The fun is in the quest—that moment when you scan the walls of an antiques shack off the beaten path and find a grizzled largemouth staring back.

To date, there are 14 skin mounts in my collection, the most prized of which are a 10-​pound bonefish and a 20-inch palomino trout. Based on the bone’s aqua paint job and heavy plaster core, and the fact that it’s no longer PC to kill a gray ghost, I figure the mount is from the ’50s or ’60s, and I know I’ll probably never find another like it. The palomino, while being one of the worst mount jobs I’ve ever seen, was a must-have for a guy who grew up in Jersey where the “golden trout” was such a coveted ­opening-​day prize. If you’re not from the Northeast, you may not understand. Every time I see that gaudy orange fish hanging in the garage with the others, I wonder if the person who caught it was the lucky one standing around a hole with 20 other fishermen, bombarding the poor glowing trout with corn, worms, and spinners. I think about whether photos of Ed Hogan holding his 50-pound king salmon on June 16, 1984, still exist, or if the name and date that are scribbled on his mount (now hanging over my lawn mower) are the only remaining record of the feat. And I wonder how long the stories behind the mounts of fish I’ve caught will get passed on through my family before they become hazy or disappear altogether, to leave future owners guessing.

Just to be safe, I think I’ll pen all their stories and slip a copy in with my will.