Ron Avery’s hands hold the head of the bass, the blood from his battered hands mixing with that of a customer’s prize catch.
Sometimes he has to stop his taxidermy work on a fish because his hands get too torn up. He’s tried wearing gloves, but that doesn’t work.
“It’s a feel thing,” he said. “The whole time I’m working, I’ve got my hand in here, feeling along.”
Deer season, which starts in October, is bigger and bulkier but at least easier on the hands. The tiny teeth and bones inside the fish are what causes the worst damage.
By the time Avery is done cutting, scraping and cleaning the fish in his Roanoke Road shop, there’s nothing left of the fish but the skin. That is formed to one of several molds on hand, depending on the fish’s size. The fins are held upright with paper clips while a preservative – usually just plain old 20-mule team Borax – does the work. Then he paints it to look like it’s still alive.
It’s a dirty job, for sure, especially the beginning stages when the fish is gutted. But the final touch with the paint is almost delicate.
“There’s really an artistry to this,” he said.
Avery has worked in taxidermy for more than 25 years, but really started with it as a hobby when he was still very young. He’d gotten a fish mounted and saw a noticeable seam on the back where the fish was put back together.
“I thought, I could do better than this,” he said.
He came to LaGrange in 1986 when C.L. Hudson, then-owner of the Picnic Basket convenience store and bait and tackle shop, was looking for someone to do taxidermy.
Since then he’s had customers not just from Troup County and West Point Lake, but all over.
He recently mounted a fish for a customer in Bessemer City, Ala., about three hours away.
“He called and said his wife had caught a fish and he really didn’t want anyone else to do it,” Avery said. “He drove all the way here. That’s a good customer.”
It takes Avery six to eight hours over two to three weeks to complete a job for a customer. He mostly sticks to fish and deer, although he has had the occasional odd request. He preserved a river otter several years ago for the Columbus Riverkeeper.
Most of the fish Avery receives are frozen, although some are alive, fresh from the lake. If the fish is still alive, Avery freezes it to kill it.
“It’s the most painless way,” he said.
One only needs to look on the wall in Avery’s shop face left.
“I’m a right-handed taxidermist,” he said. It’s easier for him to repaint the fish from the head to tail if the fish faces left. It also cuts down on the number of molds he has to keep on hand.
It’s important, during the process, to get all the inside of the fish cleaned out, to the point of scraping down the inside of the skin with special tools. Mother Nature “will let you know” if you leave anything behind, he said.
In the end, the trophies are something he – and the owner – can take pride in.
“It’s going on someone’s wall,” he said. “You have to remember that.”