Outdoors/Adventure

When you really want your fish to make a big impression, try the art of gyotaku

My thoughts were focused on not losing a lure just as I snagged the bottom. “That’s a fish!” the boat captain shouted.

Unsure, I gave some line so I could unhook myself and felt a head shake. A halibut, I thought. Probably a small one.

When the fish came near the surface, the captain, Tim, was at my side to help. It wasn’t a halibut, and he had known this long before I did.

I saw the long body of a lingcod flash in the water below. The giant fish pulled line as it reached the surface, and I lost my balance for the first time as I forgot the bend in my rod.

“Reel!” Tim shouted.

The ling swam inside the angle of the other lines, and I followed instructions as Tim called out which of us on the boat needed to go under and which of us needed to go over. I was reeling, ducking line and terrified of losing the fish all at the same time.

I stepped back as the fish’s head lifted out of the water. It was the head of a prehistoric creature. A monster’s mouth gaped open; six feet cleared the deck as the giant fish thudded, rolled and swam at our feet.

Halibut are abundant and good to eat, but it was the lingcod that captured my imagination most — a fish known to rise without being hooked, the last of a larger extinct species that roam the rocky depths. All eyes were on the gigantic fish.

What I remember most about that lingcod, a decade later, was the visceral power in its head and body as it lunged toward me on the deck. There wasn’t time to take in the rippling along its skin or the striking features of the head.

It seemed only minutes passed before the fish was in my arms, cradled so I could hold all of it as Steve took a photo and everyone aboard made guesses about its weight.

The head alone weighed 27 pounds, which I remember because I saved it for mounting. Later, after the fillets sat in several buckets with halibut and rockfish, I asked how much the whole fish might have weighed.

I’ll never know, and I’m not sure why I want to know. We were fishing for food, not trophies that day, but I kept the head for a mount because I wanted to keep the living experience of that fish for as long as possible. And I feel rather stupid all these years later mentioning the 27-pound head on my wall, but I didn’t know any other way to record and commemorate the day.

Last week, a friend invited me to a fish printing workshop in Soldotna. We would learn a traditional method of printing fish called gyotaku.

My first thought after signing up was to ask if I needed to bring my own fish — I didn’t. My second thought, before an online search to find out more about gyotaku — pronounced ghee-oh-tah-koo — was how cool it would have been to make a print of the lingcod years ago.

Information found online consisted of the usual repetitive articles that give a limited introduction without much historical or cultural context. Images of gyotaku prints range from fossil-looking black ink on white paper to elaborate paintings worthy of an art museum.

At the workshop, held outside and under a tent, our teacher, Ron, explained how he came to learn the art after moving to Hawaii. He loved fishing and saw it as a way to create a keepsake from his experiences diving and spearfishing.

He taught us the method he learned — a quick and easy technique that involves applying ink to the fish and pressing paper onto the inked area to print the specimen. He had two salmon from Seward given to him by friends for us to paint. Because the ink is non-toxic, he planned to barbecue these same fish for dinner that night.

He had a few other specimens — a saltwater sculpin and a king salmon head and tail. I chose the sculpin as it reminded me of a tiny version of my lingcod.

The first step in the eco-friendly and inexpensive fish-printing enterprise is to clean off the fish. Ron had already done this with soap and vinegar. The protective layer of the fish, also known as slime, must be removed to make a good print. That is one reason an acceptable gyotaku requires the fish to be dead.

Ron removed the eye of the fish to create a white space. Then he positioned the fish on cardboard and used paper towels to soak up any remaining liquid. He said this step was important because fish liquids left on paper would later create holes in our print.

We used sumi ink, made from vegetable oil soot, to lightly paint our fish. Only the inked area would appear later on paper.

Next, we dabbed off the ink with special attention to areas where the ink dried quickly — tail and fins — or pooled. I don’t know the word for the area under a fish’s fin, but perhaps “fin pit” describes the spot where I made my biggest mistake.

My first fish inkblot test showed that I had failed to absorb the instructions as much as over-absorb the ink.

As I saw everyone’s prints come to life, I got excited about the possibilities for nature printing — seahorses, crabs, starfish, shrimp, and large specimens, like my lingcod. I eyed a large roll of rice paper that would be big enough to soak up a salmon shark.

As we worked to capture our fish on paper, we talked about photographs, negative space, and how fish lose color out of their environment. I saw why gyotaku is considered an art form that crosses the boundaries of art, science and fishing.

I came home with supplies and ideas to print fish, but as I write, Steve calls out from downstairs to tell me that Rigby, our chocolate Lab, has run off with my roll of rice paper.

“Did he hurt it?” I yell back.

“Maybe a toothmark,” Steve replies.

I can’t be upset, because I don’t know what else would make my future giant lingcod print dream better than to know it has a little Rigby toothmark in it.

Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.

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