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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Ten years ago John Reilly, a Wall Street securities dealer, took off for Florida, seeking a different kind of vacation. In Miami Beach, Reilly contracted a charter-boat skipper named Bob Holloway to take him game fishing in the Bahamas. By the time Holloway had poked the stem of his boat Starduster into the Gulf Stream, bound for Bimini in the black of night, a northwest wind was gusting over 30 knots, piling up 10-foot seas. To be ready for the next day's action, John Reilly got into a bunk to sleep, but he never did. Whenever Star-duster leaped off the top of a big sea, Reilly ended up on the floor. "Oh, God, I will never forget that night," he now says. "I fell out of the bunk at least 40 times. Nine and a half hours after leaving Miami, we reached Cat Cay, south of Bimini, with two portholes blown out and maybe a pint of gas aboard."

The weather continued so foul for the next 24 hours that Holloway kept Starduster snugged to a dock in the Bimini harbor. Game fishermen who have been thrown out of bed repeatedly and then do not get a minute of action in the fighting chair the next day tend to sulk. John Reilly turned out to be a wonderful guy. When denied the chance to go after big fish in the grand manner of Hemingway, Reilly, without grumbling, took the lightest tackle Holloway had aboard and dunked a line off the stern, right at dock-side. Using bread and flecks of mullet, he caught a wild variety of itty-bitty fish: small parrots, angels, wrasses, demoiselles and occasionally a whopper of a needlefish measuring over eight inches. Reilly was so delighted by the varied shapes and colors of his catch that he wanted them all mounted. Holloway iced away the midget fish in his bait box so they could be delivered intact to Al Pflueger, the famous Miami taxidermist. At the minimum rate Pflueger charged per specimen 10 years ago, Holloway now reckons that Reilly's total haul of mini-fish would have cost more than a thousand dollars. Alas, he will never know the exact amount, for while he and Reilly dined ashore that night, a cat got into the bait box.

The cat got the biggest piece of the action on John Reilly's first game-fish safari, but Pflueger, the taxidermist, was the long-term winner. Reilly was so taken by Southern fishing that he brought his own boat down from the North. In the next six years he sent more than 50 fish of all sizes—some 10-footers and some six-inchers—to Pflueger's taxidermy company. Of the rough total of 200 feet of fish that Reilly had mounted, he kept about half; the rest he gave to friends, relatives and business pals. When he caught two blacktip sharks of identical size one day, he had both mounted and gave them to his twin sons, Donald and Kevin.

While it is unlikely that Pflueger-mounted fish will ever become as common a wall hanging as, say, Whistler's painting of his mother, thanks to anglers like Reilly—and the general enthusiasm of people for marine life these days—Pfluegerized fish are proliferating in American homes.

When Albert Pflueger, the pioneer and perfector of marine taxidermy techniques, went into business 47 years ago, most of the fish he handled were common species. In the late '20s and '30s most anglers fished in orthodox ways and caught a standard line of game fish. Today the bulk of the 9,000 fish being processed at one time in the one-acre Pflueger plant in Hallandale, Fla. are still old standbys: marlin and sailfish; tuna, albacore and bonito; dolphin and barracuda. But mixed in the regular game bag now there are many of the bright reef fish that divers have come to love; and benthic weirdies caught by deep-lining faddists; and also runt-sized tarpon and snook caught by light-tackle specialists. Even the shark, once abhorred, is now adored. Sharks large and small are being mounted in increasing numbers, at a steep price, by plain folks who want something with a little more pizzazz than Whistler's mother to hang in their rumpus rooms. The last time Jerry Webb, the operations manager of Pflueger, took a good look around, there were 241 species of fish going through the plant, along with an assortment of turtles and crustaceans.

The Pflueger plant is the sort of large-scale, artsy-craftsy operation that would drive an efficiency expert berserk. Imagine, if you will, an automobile plant where Cadillacs and Cadillacs the size of Ford Pintos and Plymouths bigger than Cadillacs and Lincolns smaller than Ramblers all move along the same assembly line. Add a few Stutz Bearcats and wood-spoked wagons to the line, and you have a rough idea of what the Pflueger operation is like. In one day a Pflueger craftsman may work on a dozen fish that are specifically identical but of different size. On the same day he may handle another dozen that are the same size but not at all alike.

In essence the Pflueger operation resembles the 16th-century metalworks run by the old Italian playboy/artist Benvenuto Cellini. But there is one wholesome difference. Cellini was very client-conscious; Al Pflueger never was. From his start as a professional taxidermist in 1925 until his death in 1962, Al Pflueger operated on the principle that all fishermen and all fish deserve equal treatment. Pflueger's totally democratic and fishocratic philosophy prevails in the taxidermy plant now managed by his son, Albert Jr.

At Pflueger's place today, as always, a fish is a fish is a fish. While the identification of the species being handled is always important, the identity of the fisherman counts for nothing. A few years back an aide of Governor Claude Kirk of Florida telephoned to ask if a down payment on a fish for the governor could be deferred. The aide was told the fish would be handled provided the governor made his payments on time like everybody else. Craftsmen who in years past handled specimens for Zane Grey, Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway and Herbert Hoover now work with meticulous dispassion on fish for the Kennedy family, Dean Martin, Ted Williams, Dick Nixon and Jack Nicklaus. If Golda Meir sent in a Nile perch tomorrow, or Leonid Brezhnev shipped a hake from the Sea of Okhotsk, nobody in the Pflueger plant would get excited. Alfred Glassell's 1,560-pound black marlin now hanging in the Smithsonian Institution—the biggest bony fish ever recognized by the International Game Fish Association as a world record—was mounted by Pflueger men, and so was the head of the 4,500-pound white shark that now hangs with toothy mouth agape in Salivar's Bar in Montauk on Long Island. Pflueger once mounted a manta ray with a 16-foot wingspan, but no one around the plant can recall for whom. At Pflueger's place, fish are remembered far better than fishermen.

Five years ago three St. Peter's fish from the Sea of Galilee—supposedly the kind that Christ fed to the multitudes—were flown to the Pflueger plant alive so their colors could be observed before mounting. Neither Al Pflueger Jr. nor Jerry Webb is sure just who sent the fish or why, but both remember the fish. According to Webb, the St. Peter's fish were vertically striped like the common demoiselle called sergeant major. According to Pflueger, they were shaped much like bream but with perchlike mouths. The plant had never handled a St. Peter's fish before nor has it since. But when Pflueger and Webb were recently asked to describe these onetime visitors to the plant from the Sea of Galilee, right off the top of their fish-filled heads they could do so with remarkable accuracy.

Three years ago a lady, fishing on Bob Holloway's new craft, Sea Wolf II, brought nothing to boat except an 18-inch length of plank, hooked while trolling. She wished it mounted, and Pflueger obliged, charging her the then-minimum rate of $45. "We did not take the insides out or even give it a glass eye," Pflueger says, "but it got a very good $45 varnishing job." As usual Pflueger does not remember the client's name, but he does remember that the plank was No. 3 spruce. How in heaven's name does a man with a head full of fish recall the composition of a small plank so well? Simple. As Pflueger explains, "It was the same kind of wood we used to make our packing crates. For all I know it could have been off one of our crates."

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