Tuna Tail Taxidermy

The tails of tunas and their relatives are especially stiff and almost bonelike in density. Because of this, a tuna’s tail is easy to preserve, and although it takes a good amount of time to do it right, it is a fairly easy and inexpensive process.

STEP 1: Remove the tail

STEP 1: Remove the tail

This is harder than you might think. A saw is my weapon of choice, but if all you have handy is a knife, make sure to cut the spine between two vertebrea. It’s important to leave about 2 or 3 inches of “meat” at the base of the tail, which will help keep the skin tight while drying and then will get trimmed down later in the process.

STEP 2: Air it out

STEP 2: Air it out

Next you will need to completely dry out the tail. This is not difficult, but it can take a long time. Depending on the weather, it can take two to three months to completely harden it. Keep the tail off the ground and hang it in a well-ventilated area that is out of the reach of rain, animals and the elements. (Warning #1: dogs and raccoons are the foremost enemies of this type of project, so plan accordingly.)

I like to hang mine on the side of my shed, under the overhang from the roof. You can either use a screw-in hanging hook or drive in two nails about 3 inches apart.

(Warning #2: Things will get ugly in the first few weeks. The tail will stink and attract lots of flies.)

STEP 3: Cut the base

STEP 3: Cut the base

Once the tail is completely dried out, the next step is to trim it up a bit. My power tool of choice is a miter box saw, but you can get away with using a hand saw in a pinch. Just make sure you clamp down the tail so you can get an even cut. (Warning #3: during this process, you will smell an interesting, pungent and unpleasant aroma that’s a cross between burning hair and sour fish. Don’t worry–the smell will go away once the tail is painted.)

STEP 4: Brush it up

STEP 4: Brush it up

Now, take a wire brush and give the tail a good scrub, making sure to remove all the dirt and debris on its surface.

STEP 5: Paint it black!

STEP 5: Paint it black!

The tail is now ready to be painted. Don’t worry if you have zero artistic skills, this is as easy as it gets. Place some scrap cardboard or old newspaper on the ground and give the tail a solid coat of glossy black spray paint. (Be certain to do this outside in a safe place out of the wind.) Apply at least three coats to ensure paint gets into all the nooks and crannies. Take your time, let the tail dry in between layers, and keep applying light coats until the tail is completely sealed and glossy. Keep a keen eye out for dripping paint, which is about the only way you can mess up this step.

STEP 6: Details

STEP 6: Details

At this point, you can simply walk away, as your tuna tail will look dapper with only the glossy black paint job. I like to work in a little more color, though, so I’ll spray on some subtle highlights of deep blue, silver, dark green, and maybe even purple if I’m feeling a little crazy. Adding highlights works best when you apply them while the black paint is still wet. Add the highlights slowly, just a little burst at a time. Don’t worry about messing up, as you can always paint the tail black again and start over.

When the paint is dry, adding a few coats of glossy polyurethane will help protect the tail and give it a little more shine. Adding a base is another nice addition. For short money, you can purchase a pre-made mounting plaque (check your local craft store) that will make a nice base and add some stability. Simply drive a screw up through the plaque into the base of the tail.

If all goes well, your tail will look as fresh and real as the day the fish was plucked from the sea. You’ll have a long-lasting souvenir to proudly display in your trophy case.

assortment of preserved tuna tails

A) One of the first tuna tails I preserved wasn’t painted but was coated with spray polyurethane, giving it a natural look.
B) Mo most recent tail from a bluefin caught aboard the Little Rascal.
C) If you wan too keep it simple, a few coats of glossy black spray paint is all that is needed to create a finished product.

The author with a bluefin tuna

The author with a bluefin tuna caught aboard the Little Rascal. Its tail was preserved and given as a gift to the captain, with the hope of a future invitation to go tuna fishing again.
photo: Joe Pechie

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