Catching fish in time leaves Rod stuffed

Palmer’s Island taxidermist Rod Gardiner with the head of one of his marlin. It has to look like it has just come out of the ocean.
Palmer’s Island taxidermist Rod Gardiner with the head of one of his marlin. It has to look like it has just come out of the ocean.

IN A house at Palmer's Island there is a basement workshop full of fish frozen in time.

The barracuda looks ferocious, the mangrove jack silently gulps air and the marlin looks as majestic as ever as they wait to be picked up by the fishermen who yanked them out of the sea.

Taxidermist Rod Gardiner has been at it for 46 years, but he says every time he finishes a piece, he fails because they never look perfect and real, even though their colours are as vibrant as ever.

"It's the same as if you asked a painter 'can you ever recreate that image in your head?'," Mr Gardiner said.

"The answer is always no.

"Every fish I do is a failure."

When I first spoke to Mr Gardiner he said he was knee deep in an 11kg red emperor.

As I drove down the highway, I braced for a fishy and smelly experience, but when I got there all I smelt was Styrofoam like when you buy a new vacuum cleaner.

"I must have the most well-fed wildlife in the area with all the birds and water dragons that wait for the offal," he said as he hosed down the red emperor's skin.

"Not to mention a very well-fed Labrador.

"My dog likes to bury pieces for later. I can tell how many bits are buried by the amount of ibises in the backyard."

Mr Gardiner got into taxidermy when he was 15 because he was fascinated by the art.

He started as an apprentice in Melbourne.

"It took a few years learning the technique and how to repair damaged pieces, and then a couple more years perfecting the technique," he said, now taking the final shreds of Styrofoam off the body he carved earlier.

"Then I had a weekend job at the Melbourne natural museum doing repairs on their collection.

"All the famous naturalists were taxidermists, you know? They did it to preserve and study specimens, but it is taboo to say that now."

Mr Gardiner used to do volunteer work for the Department of Primary Industries in Fisheries and for the National Parks and Wildlife Service preserving endangered animals found as road kill.

"I also used to do all animals, but the Italians drove me wild," Mr Gardiner said, his red emperor now stuffed with foam and nailed closed.

"They had no idea of the concept of an endangered animal, the stuff they brought me. I thought if I switched to fish that would stop them from bringing the endangered wildlife.

"I thought only doing fish would kill me, but I found out that no one wanted to do them because they are so difficult."

He said the trick to making the fish as life-like as possible was not to damage a single scale.

If there were damaged scales from being pulled onto the boat, he would be sure to make the incision on the side and put the backing board over it to hide any imperfections.

By now the red emperor is drying with pieces of foam under the fins so they are flared when finished.

Mr Gardiner said he does not do marlin over 60kg anymore because they take so long to do.

The average fish takes seven hours to skin and stuff, but a big marlin could take three days.

"I've been on my hands and knees for days buried in a tent of skin doing marlin before," Mr Gardiner said.

"I just tell them to go to a caster know."

On average he does two fish a week, which take four to six weeks to dry out, depending on the weather.

"There is 30 working hours in every fish if you work it out," Mr Gardiner said, which is why he charges $600 for the average specimen.

"It is so time consuming no one wants to know about it. I've had apprentices before but they don't last long.

"It's a patient and time consuming job. When you are finished for the day you have to put your hands up and walk away, or else you just work into the night."

To distract him from taxidermy Mr Gardiner also runs cafes and restaurants; Sassafras Pasta and Pizza Restaurant in Yamba currently.

He ran a nightclub on the Gold Coast in the 1980s, where he dealt with predators of a different kind than the ones he stuffs now.

"I also like fishing. But I don't care if I catch anything because I see enough already," he said.

"I better shower up, get the fish smell off me and go work in a restaurant."

Topics:  fishing outdoor-living palmers island taxidermy

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