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."
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 1¼ 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.
Before the magic mud starts to harden, the remains of the fish are put on a contour form and pinned down with the fins properly extended and the body in the exact posture the client wants. Most tarpon, for example, are mounted arching upward, as if leaping from the water trying to throw a hook. Sailfish generally are mounted in a plain, leaping curve with dorsal fin extended. A freshwater bass is usually formed up with its mouth open wide and gill covers flared out, as if it were about to finish off the biggest bullfrog in its pond. When the magic mud has hardened sufficiently—a very big fish can take a week—the mount is taken off the contour form. The sawdust is emptied out, and the mount hung up to dry. In the humid Florida summer a very big fish sometimes hangs around the plant for a month simply drying out.
Once dry, a Pflueger fish passes through the hands of half a dozen beauty technicians. One specialist puts fiber-board backing on the fins and tails. The next fills in major defects in the body and fins with a wood-fiber compound and also fits its eye socket with a German-made glass eyeball that is within a millimeter of the size of the original and has an iris of the correct color and configuration. Another specialist gives the fish a filler coat of paint to preserve it and highlight minor flaws, which are then corrected with another kind of cellulose putty.
After a shining coat of base paint has been put on it, a Pflueger fish looks as perfect and pure—and about as sexy—as Ingrid Bergman did playing the part of a nun in one of the Hollywood flicks of yesteryear. In this immaculate state the fish finally reaches the north end of the building, where an artist will restore the drab or gaudy colors it had in real life. If the fish is a common one such as an amberjack, a veteran Pflueger artist has done so many of the same he could probably do the job blindfolded, using the tail of a seeing-eye dog for a brush. But if the fish happens to be Hypoplectrus unicolor, a small, deep-dwelling grouper that passes through the plant rarely, the artist will look up the specifications and artist's rendition in the file before proceeding. When hung on a wall and assailed by the wrong kind of light, some finished mounts shine so brightly and garishly they look as if they had just leaped out of a vat of varnish. Be that as it may, considering the perishability of its original flesh and its final durability, a Pfluegerized fish is a remarkable product.
Since he was a boy, Pflueger has been wallowing in fish, figuratively and in fact. He often fished with his father in orthodox ways and also experimentally with deep lines and whatnot. As a high-schooler he collected fish on docks for the company and on vacations worked along the assembly line, skinning fish at one end, painting them at the other. Before graduating from high school, he was a master angler and an able taxidermist despite the fact that as a teenager he tilted with a lot of different windmills. In his junior high days he was a table-tennis whiz; in high school, an able swimmer. Before the age of 20 he had won local and state honors as a powerboat driver, trapshooter and drag racer. He should be forgiven these truancies. For one thing, he is now considered an absolute authority in several areas of saltwater fly-fishing, where he holds numerous world records. For another, his father, certainly one of the fishiest men of all time, was also a bit of a dilettante. Now and again, when Al Pflueger Sr. felt he simply had to get away from fish, he would take off and hunt for tree snails in the hammocks of the Everglades.
The name Pflueger—which is often misspelled Pfleuger or Plfueger—is German, meaning "plowman." Although the name is very familiar to anglers in this country, curiously neither Al Pflueger Sr. nor his son can take even half the credit for the fishy reputation it now enjoys. Before the fish-mounting Pflueger family came to the U.S., an Ernest Pflueger who was not related was prospering as a harness manufacturer in Akron. Ernest Pflueger was a fishing nut and before his death in 1900 was producing fishing gear. In the past 40 years the Pflueger tackle manufacturers in Ohio often got inquiries from people wanting to know what happened to the fish their charter captain sent in for mounting. The Pflueger fish mounters in Florida now and again got Pflueger reels to repair. By further coincidence the Shakespeare Company, another tackle manufacturer, subsequently became the parent corporation of both concerns, so, by adoption, today all Pfluegers are in one family.
One of Al Pflueger's sidelines today is artificial reef building. With the help of charter skippers, sportsmen and the city of Miami, for the past four years he has been sinking old ships in 200 feet of water along a mile stretch off the coast. Pflueger's hope is to restore fishing to the high level he knew as a boy. The wreck sites are already paying off both for drift fishermen and trollers, and, even if fishing is never again as good as it was, Pflueger's reef already offers the angler the chance for a very rare prize. Suppose a fisherman using a Pflueger lure, Pflueger line and a Pflueger rod and reel trolled over the bait-rich waters of the Pflueger artificial reef? Suppose he caught one of the rare Atlantic spearfish that was discovered by Al Pflueger Sr. and named T. pfluegeri after him? Though a long shot, it is possible that someday some angler will catch such a 100% Pflueger fish. One thing is sure. If he then sends this rare prize off to be Pfluegerized for posterity, it will wait its turn in line at the Pflueger taxidermy plant just like Dick Nixon's fish and everybody else's.