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Class of ’91

A Reel Artist

Growing up on her grandfather's farm, by an unspoiled creek along the Chesapeake Bay, Ellen McCaleb C’91 would observe the seasonal processions of fish by her house–striped bass, red drum, bluefish, mackerel. Fishing outings with her father, "a tough task master" around the farm, provided precious occasions for the two to simply have fun together.
   
"What was most interesting to me as a kid was you never knew what you were going to catch," she recalls. "You would put your rod over and you could end up with this huge, big thing on the end that you thought was maybe a skate–something undesirable–but fisherwomen naturally are optimists, so you’re hoping it’s the most beautiful cobia you’ve ever seen."
   
So it wasn’t surprising when McCaleb, while working for a venture-capital firm, purchased a few basic tools and began to carve antique-style fish as a hobby. As her carving improved, McCaleb reexamined her priorities and decided to quit her finance job to start her own carving business. When she mentioned to a friend that she would like to carve replicas of fish that people actually caught as a way of promoting the practice of catch-and-release–and thus, the preservation of dwindling fish populations–she learned that her idea matched a tradition dating back to 19th-century Scotland and England.
   
As McCaleb discovered, trophy-fish carving emerged in the mid-1800s when primarily wealthy anglers were searching for a way to preserve their most impressive catches. Carving became a more attractive and longer lasting alternative to plaster of Paris models and taxidermy. As taxidermy techniques grew more sophisticated, the art of fish carving began to wane in the 1940s. Today, McCaleb says, she knows of only one other person in the United States in addition to herself to continue the tradition. "We’re kind of keeping an old craft alive."
    Samples of her work are displayed on <www.fishcarvings .com>.


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