Fishing for the perfect painting subject

Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2003

I try to get out fishing with my friend Detlef Buettner at least a couple times a year. We have a good time and always seem to catch fish. But we had a special reason for our most recent trip. Detlef is an artist who specializes in life-size fish paintings, and he wanted to catch a halibut to paint. And not just any halibut: It had to be between 30 and 40 pounds so it would fit on the paper he planned to use.

I met Detlef five years ago in a typically modern way: I sold him a fishing lure on eBay. When I realized he lived in Juneau, I offered to deliver the lure personally. It was then that I discovered Detlef's true passion: painting fish. Detlef was born in Germany but came to the United States in 1981 and completed his BS degree at UAS in 1989. His day job is as a fisheries biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

On our run from Tee Harbor, I asked Detlef a question that had been bothering me since we had organized our trip: Are halibut pretty enough to paint? Without question, salmon and Detlef's salmon paintings are beautiful. But halibut?

Detlef's answer was emphatic: They are every bit as beautiful as salmon, just different. They have an intricate mottled scale pattern that changes depending on their environment. Fish caught in shallow water with sandy bottoms are typically lighter in color than fish from deep water and rocky bottoms. I promised to look closely when given the chance.

We ran about 45 minutes and anchored up 90 minutes before the tide change. I rigged the rods as I usually do when fishing in 200 feet or less: a sliding 16-ounce sinker, size 16 circle hook tied on a 200-pound mono leader, a whole purple herring, and a small light to attract fish in the dark. Unfortunately, I realized I had only one working light that day so, being a proper host, I put it on Detlef's rod.

We fished about three hours and Detlef caught perhaps a dozen fish. I caught nothing. I'd like to think it was the light, and not my fishing skills, that made the difference. But no matter, Detlef caught the fish he needed, a nice 32-pound halibut. I gaffed the fish and brought it aboard so that Detlef could take several close-up slides he'd use in his painting. It was something of a challenge to keep the fish still - under normal circumstances I tie off and bleed halibut in the water so they don't raise a ruckus in the boat - but somehow we managed.

When I scrutinized this halibut, I saw it was every bit as beautiful as Detlef assured me it would be. There were several shades of brown and tan with an almost red hue in places. This wasn't just dinner; it was a magnificent creature worthy of an artist's preservation. When I asked Detlef how long it would be before he had prints ready to sell, he said perhaps six months. He typically takes 30 to 150 hours to paint each fish and works only one hour per night, before he does the dishes.

A few minutes later Detlef caught a quillback rockfish he also photographed as a possible painting subject. I've always thought quillbacks were beautiful fish - brown, yellow and orange with striking and dangerous fins. I tried to get Detlef to say that it was prettier than the halibut but he wouldn't hear it.

Just different, he said.

Detlef sells his life-size fish prints locally and though his Web site at

Bill Brown is an avid fisherman who runs a reel repair shop in Juneau. He can be reached at 789-2448 or

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