Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fish Rubbing - Gyotaku

I first heard of Gyotaku a couple of years ago.  The only problem is I could not remember the name or how it was spelled since I am not fluent in Japanese.  I was mainly interested in it because of what it was; a unique and artful way to display and memorialize a great fishing experience.

In Japanese, ‘gyo’ means fish and ‘taku’ means rubbing.  Hence, gyotaku is a ‘rubbing of a fish’.  I thought it was great because it is something you can do yourself and it is inexpensive to create.  This also makes it the perfect creation for the little one’s first fish.

The first step in creating a Gyotaku print is to catch a fish.  Since my new year has not been all that kind to me, I had to enlist help for this part.  My now eight year old son Cooper provided the ideal fishing partner.  It was just two years ago that he brought in his first fish.  Each time we go out, he always finishes on top with the number brought in.  I am not sure if it is because he is just that much better than me or if it has to do with my time is being used to bait his hook, help him cast, help get his hook loose from a limb when he decides he can cast the bait better, or just witnessing his youth and awe of nature.  Either way, I am happy to assist in his success.

For this story, the fishing started out a little slow.  We fished with some Canadian nightcrawlers on a small #8 hook with a cork bobber.  I had a spot picked out under a bridge just in case it rained.  Funny thing about that spot; there was more traffic under the bridge than on top where the road was.  In a space of a few hundred feet, we had acquired no less than twelve different anglers using a variety of tackle.

 None of which had so much as a pretend bite.

I convinced Cooper to let’s head to another location and try our luck.  It did take some convincing.  As much as he likes to fish, he really, really gets bored if nothing is taking the line.

So we ended up at an old fishing hole I knew about and threaded another nightcrawler.  By the way, the nightcrawler farm had the best catch phrase for their bait.  “Our worms catch more fish, or they’ll die trying!”

It did not take long before Cooper brought in his first fish.  A small bluegill that was too small for the project.  A little later, he brought in a beautiful pumpkinseed.  He liked the name of the species and started figuring out why it carried such a moniker.

I made one last cast and left the line alone as we packed up everything.  After loading the truck Cooper asked where my rod was.  I told him and we walked over to where I had it sitting.  However, it was no longer standing up.  It was now flat on the ground twitching.  I finally caught a fish!  We had a short fight with the monster bream (well, average sized bream for most people) and we both laughed now that the slump was over.  He would work great for the Gyotaku print as well as provide a small meal.

Part two of the print is the preparation of the fish.  You want to clean and dry the fish completely.  Use dish detergent or vinegar in the cleaning to help kill any bacteria.  After washing, take paper towels and pat dry.  Pay special attention to the gill area and other openings.  Push the paper towels up into those areas to dry as well.  Flare the fins and use something underneath them if necessary to keep them flat.

For part three, there are several options.  This is where the actual printing process will start.  Take a paint, it can be anything from a water color, to an oil base, to an acrylic, and brush the fish with it.  For fish that are multicolored or fade from one color to a lighter version, you can brush with different mixed paints as well to simulate the actual colors.  For our print, we used a non-toxic paint since Cooper was involved.

Now we get to the ‘taku’ part of the print.  Gyotaku was originally invented in the mid 1800’s as a way for Japanese fishermen to show the size of their prized catches.  Rice paper has historically been the medium for the prints as it is light weight and flexible enough to reach all the contours of the fish.  We did our print a little different but I will explain the process first.

Take the paper and lay over the fish.  Begin rubbing the paper onto the fish so the details of the scales are seen.  Be sure to press the paper into the fins in order to get a good print as well.  On our particular catch, we placed the fish on a piece of canvas and approached the rubbing from the opposite way, pressing the fish instead of the paper.

When completed, it makes an excellent display.  And if used for your kid’s or grandkid’s first fish, it will also make a treasured heirloom.  You can repaint the fish to make a few other prints to share with grandparents and loved ones as well.


  1. Good story. You got style. I'd love to know why you call it a Canadian night crawler? and not a dew worm ...? which is what we call them up here in Canada.

  2. This is great, now I need to take my granddaughter and get her to catch her first fish

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this nifty idea! I think I am going to incorporate it into some upcoming youth fishing events and excursions!

  4. You're not "affluent" in Japanese, eh? Fluent is the word, bud.

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