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PORT CLINTON — In some 35 years of taxidermy work, Mike Pusateri has taken trophy walleye, bass, and perch and brought them back to life with equal doses of art and an understanding of the species.
He has done the same with some record-class white-tailed deer, creating attractive mounts of prized bucks with huge racks. His work is on display in living rooms, dens, and clubs throughout Ohio and Michigan.
And up until about four years ago, everything Pusateri took into his studio here along a busy stretch of State Route 163 came from anglers and hunters who had harvested game.
Then the phone rang.
It was veteran charter captain Mike Matta, with a peculiar request. Matta wanted Pusateri to do mounts of two invasive Asian carp – a bighead and a silver carp.
“I’d heard about them, and how they were such a problem other places, but I was kind of shocked by anyone wanting mounts of those particular fish,” Pusateri said.
At the time, a tour of various ports around the Great Lakes had been planned for a group of tall ships, and someone attending an Asian carp conference in Washington, D.C., commented to Matta that what they really needed was something more than pictures and a slide show for the informational displays accompanying the ships, something to really get across the threat that Asian carp presented.
“So, some contacts I had in Illinois got us a couple carp, and I looked for someone who could do it right, and do it now, and we got in touch with Mike’s Taxidermy,” Matta said.
The Lake Erie Charter Boat Association paid to have the fish, which were netted in the Illinois river, mounted so they could be part of the presentation at the various ports of call.
“They wanted something with impact, something physical in three dimensions to show people exactly what they were talking about with these fish,” Pusateri said. “I had never done a mount of an Asian carp – I’m not sure anyone had ever done one – but it seemed like something that was really important.”
Pusateri said the unique features of the Asian carp – very low-set eyes, the odd oblong shape of the silver carp, and an almost prehistoric, minnowlike look – gave the work its special set of challenges. He had about six months to sculpt the fiber glass molds and create the first pair.
Once the new Asian carp mounts made the circuit around the Great Lakes with the tall ships, which were viewed by close to three million people, biologists, and fisheries personnel from various states inquired about the origin of the mounts. Pusateri’s phone lit up – and it has not stopped lighting up.
“Sea Grant organizations from all over saw them and they wanted a set, and then somebody from the EPA called – they wanted something they could show to Congress,” Pusateri said. “I guess I became the official Asian carp taxidermist for the country, without ever really trying.”
Since that first rash of orders, Pusateri has done Asian carp mounts for the Army Corps of Engineers, most of the major universities in the Great Lakes region, many state agencies, and recently he’s put together display mounts of invasive species for states as far away as Maryland, and the province of Ontario. He’s made close to 40 sets.
“Maybe I became a bit of a celebrity at the taxidermy conventions, but I’m just hoping my work will help combat the problem,” Pusateri said. “When I talk to the fisheries guys, they seemed stumped by this problem, and kind of scared by it. They say these fish eat so much that the other species just die out.”
The first Asian carp mounts Pusateri did are located at the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Center just around the corner from his studio, when they are not out on loan to various organizations.
Asian carp were brought to this country about 40 years ago to control algae in catfish farms and sewage treatment operations in the South. When major floods in the 1980s and ‘90s washed the carp into nearby streams and waterways, they quickly made their way into the Mississippi River system and have been on the move ever since.
These fish are very aggressive and prolific. Asian carp now make up 80 percent of the fish in certain stretches of the Mississippi River, and they have pushed up the Illinois River to within miles of Lake Michigan. An electrical barrier on the Illinois River is intended to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes.
Asian carp do not eat other fish. They are filter feeders that consume huge amounts of plankton, robbing the young of many native species of its food source. Certain species of Asian carp can grow to 100 pounds, and consume 40 percent of their body weight a day in plankton.
Bighead carp and silver carp, the two species Pusateri uses in most of his exotic mounts, are considered the biggest threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem, and its estimated $7 billion fishing industry.
“People need to know that those mounts I made are relatively small by Asian carp standards. These things grow so fast, they grow like pigs,” he said. “If they somehow get in the Great Lakes and this fishery here fails, it will be devastating for Port Clinton and the whole region.”
NEXT GENERATION EVENT: Bass Pro Shops in Rossford is partnering with the Toledo Zoo for an event this weekend to encourage youth to get outdoors. From noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at Bass Pro, youths will have the opportunity to test their aim on the Daisy BB gun range, and give archery a try. The event is free. The participating youths can earn an “On Target” certificate and get an outdoor photo taken. Representatives from the Zoo’s EdZoocation program will be on hand from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday with some special guests.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.