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A good way to preserve your trophy fish

Chapter 10: Traditional Japanese commemorative fish prints

What do you do when you want something to commemorate a trophy fish that you've caught? There are a number of ways, from just taking a picture to preserving it as a trophy by getting it stuffed. In Japan, there is a unique and traditional way of commemorating a trophy fish called gyotaku that I would like to introduce here.

The color gyotaku I had made of the GT I caught in Okinawa. It was 132 cm long and weighed 38 kg

What is gyotaku?

A gyotaku is an ink print of a fish created by making an imprint directly from the fish itself. There is a long history of these fish prints, with the oldest extant example said to be a print of a crucian carp caught in February 1839. That was in Japan's Edo Period, which was still the era of the samurai. We're told that in one area of northern Japan, the samurai were encouraged to fish at sea as part of their mental and physical training in peacetime, and it's said that the fish prints that emerged from this served as a record of the training itself and as a trophy of sorts for catching an especially large fish.

In the traditional printing method, sumi (Chinese ink) is brushed onto the fish and an impression is rubbed onto handmade Japanese paper from it, resulting in a record of the type and size of the fish caught. Besides the traditional black & white prints made in this way with ink, there are a number of new gyotaku methods being used in recent years, such as more decorative color prints using paints instead of ink and "digital gyotaku" created from a photograph. I had a color gyotaku print made from the giant trevally (GT) I caught in Okinawa that I wrote about in my last column.

How to make a gyotaku fish print

The process for making a gyotaku fish print is:

Wash the fish well to remove the surface slime. This is an important step that is done to show the contours of the fish's scales more clearly and to prevent an unpleasant smell from remaining.
Next, the paint is applied to the surface area of the fish that will show in the print. In this step, you will get a nicer print with more tonal variation if you apply the paint more heavily in areas like the head, the backbone area and the fins and more lightly in the stomach area.
After applying the paint, lay the print paper or cloth on top of the fish and press it thoroughly to make a clear imprint. Since the fish was a large one this time, we used cloth instead of paper for the sake of durability.
After the impression is made, the print is lifted off the fish and it is touched up as needed by painting in the eye and other details that didn't show up clearly in the print. Finally the date and place of the catch, etc., are written on the print and it is left to dry.

My completed gyotaku print has a unique appeal and strength as an image that is different from simply taking a photograph or having the fish stuffed. When you catch a big fish you want to commemorate, why not try making your own gyotaku fish print as a distinctive way to preserve the memory?

An important point is to make sure you thoroughly clean the entire fish to remove the surface slime. Don't forget the fins
Carefully put the paper/cloth on the fish to avoid getting wrinkles
Slowly press on the wrapped fish to imprint its features onto the paper/cloth
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