After 30 years of serious hunting and fishing, I'm pleased to say there isn't one dead stuffed fish or animal moldering away on the walls or shelves at our house. I've saved a few trophies over the years -- a pair of antlers from a memorable buck, some beards and feathers from wild turkeys and a Japanese-style print of a big rockfish acquired by pressing its paint-slathered side against a bolt of green felt a few years ago.
But in none of these instances did the trophy-taking infringe on my ability to clean and eat the catch, which is the only reason for vanquishing anything, in my book: If you're not going to eat it, don't take it.
Fish taxidermy has come a long way in the last few decades and you no longer have to kill a fish to get a decent wall-mount. Many outfits now offer plastic replicas of various sport species, scaled to size to reflect the particular catch.
But they have an assembly line look that doesn't interest me. Photographs are fine, too, though I prefer photos of fish and game alive and in their glory to being held aloft by some proud angler or nimrod.
What the world needs is a more pleasing alternative, which is where Jay Falstad steps in. He's a professional fish painter, who for a few hundred dollars will paint an original watercolor that precisely reflects a trophy catch. All you have to do is measure the fish, photograph it and slip it back in the water alive, and you still can get a satisfying wall-hanging that won't gather dust.
Falstad, who lives on a tiny vegetable farm near Sudlersville on Maryland's Eastern Shore with his wife and 10-month-old daughter, says as far as he knows he's the only artist in the country doing what he does. He's breaking new ground in several ways.
For starters, the 39-year-old ex-newspaper ad salesman never had an art lesson in his life and won't start now. "I like what I'm getting," he says of his work. "If I take a lesson, it may mess me up."
He majored in English at the University of Delaware, where he grew up, but his passion always was fishing. One day about a decade ago he went to the Chestertown Wildlife Art Show and saw a fellow making watercolors of marsh scenes. He knocked them out in 15 or 20 minutes apiece, on the spot, and they were impressive.
Falstad can't remember the artist's name, but he was inspired enough to go back home and buy a full set of watercolor paints, brushes and paper. "The only thing I knew much about was fish, so I started painting fish."
His early efforts were rough, but promising enough to keep going. Two of his first watercolors, one of a brown trout and one of a rainbow, hang today in the foyer of his little brick farmhouse. The colors are, well, a bit harsh.
"Harsh?" he said, laughing. "They're horrible! I only keep them because my wife likes them, and they help remind me how far I've come."
He also keeps two mounted fish -- also a rainbow and brown trout -- that he caught about the same time, one in Delaware and one in Wisconsin. Both are four-pound trophies that he sent to a taxidermist friend who did a nice job mounting them, but today he dislikes them, too. "They look so dead," he said. "I keep them in the studio so customers can see what the alternative is."
While his taxidermist friend was working on the two trout, Falstad made a painting of the four-pound rainbow and hand-lettered on it a tally of the size, weight and details of the catch. "I looked at it later and thought, 'This is much better than a mounted fish and it promotes what I believe in -- catch-and-release, rather than killing fish.' It wasn't just a fish carcass on the wall, it told a story."
Now his hobby has become a trade.
Falstad's full trophy treatment consists of a full-size, signed, matted and framed original watercolor of the catch, seen side-on against a white background, with three small boxes below, one containing the photograph, another the fly or lure used and the third a hand-lettered account of what, where, when and how.
He showed me several he's been working on and they were formidable. A plump Florida permit dominates one wall of the bright little studio that he, his father and brother designed and built; another wall features his impression of an eight-pound New Zealand brown trout caught on a fly; a third has an Atlantic sailfish, scaled down so it doesn't take up an entire wall.
Falstad gave up his advertising career a couple of years ago to devote full time to art and living the rural life. The little farmhouse was a wreck but he and his wife cleared it out and made it bright and livable. They downed some trees in the backyard to give a view down to Unicorn Lake, where bass, pickerel, bluegills and crappie abound. "I thought when we moved here I'd be out every evening fishing," he says with a laugh, "but work on the house took over."
I asked Falstad what he thought of the work of two of my favorite local wildlife artists, watercolorist C.D. Clarke and fish specialist Mark Susinno. "Oh, those guys are real artists," he said modestly. "I just do little fish pictures in profile, very simple. I could never hope to do anything as good as that."
For now, he said, he's happy to make his tidy watercolors for Father's Day or birthday gifts or as simple mementos, so some contented angler can have a record of his finest hour, and nothing has to die to get it.
It sounds like a fine solution to an old, vexing problem.
For information on Jay Falstad's paintings, check the Web site www.fishpaintings.com or call 410-928-3505.