Mike Ward of St. Paul tightened his grip on a light-tackle fishing rod that looped over the stern of his boat. The rod quivered and darted as he reeled against the resistance, captivating all onlookers in our flotilla.
We were four days into a July fishing trip to Lake of the Woods and we were all hooking nice walleyes on jigs in 24 feet of choppy water. Twenty-inchers were being released without much fanfare.
But this time, cheers rang out. Mike’s brother, Chris, cleanly netted the biggest walleye any of us had ever seen. The brothers scrambled to unhook it under a barrage of shouting from everyone else.
“How long is it?” “Measure the girth!” “Take a picture!” “Get it back in the water!”
None of us had ever kept a trophy fish for mounting. Nor was there a debate about keeping this one. But when the fish checked in at 30 inches in length, with a Rubenesque midsection, we knew its likeness would soon hang from a wall at the Ward’s family cabin.
Mike’s big-headed walleye was a no-brainer for CPRR: catch, photograph, release, replica.
The fish replica business in the Upper Midwest is going strong. Taxidermist Rick Lax of Conover, Wis., delved into it in 1992 with the ambition of improving on fake-looking plastic molds that were standard for that era. He and other artisans in the craft say business is better than ever, boosted by more catch-and-release fishing and improved realism in the look-alike equation.
“They put the big ones back in the lake for someone else to catch,” Lax said. “It’s great for my business.”
Said Mike Thelen, owner of Fiber Tech Productions in Nisswa: “Taxidermists did business [with skin mounts] in a 30-mile radius. With replicas, I do the whole 50 states and other countries.”
Traditional “skin mounts” haven’t gone away, and the old-school option is a natural way to preserve trophy lunkers that accidentally perish in boats before they can be released.
But Lax, Thelen and others say fewer and fewer dead fish are mounted every year. Besides catering to anglers who wouldn’t think of killing the fish of their lifetime, replicas add value by not fading, cracking or shriveling over time, Thelen said. What’s more, the translucent fins on replicas don’t get brittle. The fake fish don’t carry odors, and the wait times for delivery tend to be shorter.
It’s true that replica customers can exaggerate their catch, but when they do, it’s good for the economy. In today’s market, $15 an inch is typical for a quality replica. At that rate, Mike’s 30-inch walleye will cost $450 to commemorate.
“The more they lie, the more money I make,” Thelen cracked.
Lax said 80 percent of his fish-only taxidermy business has shifted to replicas that he paints by hand with airbrushes. The only crucial data he needs is the fish’s length and a good photo. He displays the image on an iPad as he paints, zooming in to count stripes and capture other details.
“I don’t emphasize so much the need for a girth measurement,” Lax said. “I can tell from the picture how the fish was built.”
His shop 10 miles north of Eagle River now overflows with proprietary molds of all shapes and sizes for muskies, northern pike, trout, bass, crappies, bluegills and walleyes. Lately, he said, 50-inch muskies caught in Minnesota are a big part of his business. But catch-and-release has caught on across all species, so well that big-slab panfish increasingly are ordered as replicas.
Lax said he has 110 different molds just for muskies, including tough-to-paint tiger muskies. He was the taxidermist hired by St. Paul fly shop owner Robert Hawkins, who set a world record for largest muskie caught with a fly rod in 2015 on Mille Lacs. Sixteen days later, Dominic Hoyos of Stillwater caught and released the “Queen of Mille Lacs,” another monster muskie preserved in polymers by Lax.
Thelen of Fiber Tech Productions said walleyes dominate his summer business in the Brainerd lakes area. But he molds plastic into fish doubles of all kinds, often selling unpainted molds, or “blanks,” to other taxidermists.
Lake Country Replicas in Hawick, Minn., dwells on making blanks. In the past decade, the shop has grown to employ nine people who make 50 to 60 unpainted fish molds a week. They are largely sold to taxidermists around the country, said Nathan Metz, the shop’s manager. The business depends on the universal passion for fishing, he said.
“It used to be a sideline business, but it’s evolved into much more,” Metz said.
Metz and Lax said replica fish makers took a giant step forward when molds evolved to feature see-through gill plates and unobstructed mouths. In old-fashioned replicas, viewers looked in and saw a plastic plug in the back of the fish’s mouth.
Metz said anglers are apt to order replicas when they reach certain benchmarks, unsure they’ll ever catch a bigger one. For muskies, 50-inch and 55-inch models sell well. For walleyes, 30 inches is one of those magical numbers.
“The 30-inch walleye is the one replica that we’ve sold the most off,” Metz said.