Quarantine Project: Driftwood Striped Bass (or Your Favorite Fish)

My late winter/early spring started with high anticipation of hooking into some big striped bass at Fletcher’s Cove on the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Each year, stripers enter the Potomac–and other East Coast tributaries–to spawn. This is an incredibly short window that leads to a couple weeks of little sleep and hard fishing. Fletcher’s Cove is DC’s premier fishing location with rowboat rentals, a prolific shad run, and the allure of giant springtime stripers. Unfortunately, Fletcher’s is plagued by sediment buildup due to the natural flow of the river altered some 60 years ago, which requires repetitive and expensive dredging. If you’re from the DC area and don’t know about Fletcher’s or the issues it faces, be sure to check out Friends of Fletchers Cove!

COVID-19 threw a wrench in my spring, as I’m sure it did for everyone. Fletcher’s Boathouse did not open due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. And while I have been able to social distance on the river and have a couple banner shad fishing days, my hunt for giant striped bass in our nation’s capital will have to wait until next year. Striped Bass are overfished and subject to overfishing, so to be honest–I was content with not hooking into one of these beautiful fish. Any way, with the prospect of tangling with one of these cows squashed and some free-time, I came up with an idea: if I can’t catch, tag (through the American Littoral Society), and safely release one of these fish, I’ll make one out of driftwood that I gathered on the Potomac’s banks. Follow along as I show you step-by-step how to make a driftwood fish sculpture.

This project can be adapted to any fish and can be as simple or intricate as you want–that’s the beauty of it! Additionally, you can make a driftwood fish sculpture with very simple tools. I had access to some specialty tools that made manipulating driftwood pieces easier and a more refined product, but they are by no means necessities.

Tools Required:

  1. Jig saw or a coping saw
  2. Caulk gun with Liquid Nails construction adhesive
  3. Sandpaper assortment
  4. hammer and hatchet/chisel–you can generally get a fairly flat edge by splitting driftwood pieces
  5. Clamps

Optional Tools:

  1. Bench-top sander–this tool is effective at putting a flat edge on pieces of driftwood and making angles
  2. Table saw–I did not use my table saw too much, but it did come in handy for putting an angle on the end of a piece.

Before we dive in, please use caution and proper safety equipment when using power tools–especially the power saws!

Step 1: Trace out your fish of choice on a piece of plywood

I found a picture on google of a mounted striped bass and copied it onto the plywood. To keep your proportions similar, try to split your picture and plywood into quadrants. Also, you can try to estimate a rough scale. For example, I found that 1/2″ on my picture translated to roughly 4″ on the plywood. Just take your time, use a pencil, and make minor tweaks until you’re happy with the outline. Now you’re ready to cut.

Step 2: Cut out your outline

Once I was happy with my outline, I broke out my jig saw and started cutting. I took out the larger, straighter edges first. With the large pieces out of the way, I had more room to work around the smaller, angles and curves. I had a jig saw, but a coping saw–or other hand saw–would be fine and probably even more effective at getting clean cuts on fins or the jaw .

Step 3: Collect Driftwood

Head on down to your local river or beach and start collecting! You’re going to need much more than you think. I found it useful to have ample smaller pieces to fill in odd shapes. Also, get as many curved, unique pieces as you can. When you’re collecting driftwood, try to plan ahead and picture the shapes of driftwood you’ll need. Plus, this is a great way to get out of the house and practice safe social distancing–maybe even bring your fly rod along!

After you have a bunch of driftwood, I suggest you clean each piece off. I scrubbed each piece with water and a little bleach (take care to not get any on your clothes and dispose the liquid in your sink or toilet). But you would probably be ok with just hosing it all down and letting the driftwood dry out on your driveway.

Step 4: Dry fit pieces around the outline

Once I washed my driftwood and organized it all, I started filling in the outline. I wanted to keep the natural curves and fins intact as best as possible. So, finding the perfect pieces made sense. I did, however have to shape some pieces for the fins, to get those sharp angles. Once I had all the pieces for the outline ready to go, I began flattening and gluing them into place.

Step 5: Flattening and gluing

For this step, I relied heavily on my bench sander. This tool let me flatten the bottom edge, which gave me a solid and uniform surface to spread the adhesive on. I flattened most of the pieces this way, but I also used a hatchet and hammer to split some pieces, which worked well. The sander is also very useful at shaping angles, which accomplishes that perfect fit you’re looking for. But like I noted earlier, you can definitely get by without a bench sander.

I tried to get as many core areas finished first–the fins, outline, and head–because those areas required more intricate pieces. When spreading the adhesive, take care to clean up as much excess/spill-over as you can. If the glue is still visible, you can spread some leftover dust from sanding on it or fit a very small piece on it.

Step 6: Puzzle time

After I finished the outline and intricate areas, I began filling in the bulk of the fish. This felt like a puzzle. I tried to use whole pieces as best I could. But in the end, I had to reshape and trim down a bunch of pieces. The main goal here is to cover up the entire fish with driftwood and try to maintain a roughly level profile.

Step 7: Finishing Touches

Once I had the entire fish covered and glued down with driftwood, I started doing some finishing touches. I carved an eye out  of driftwood and made it black with a blow torch. I also used the blow torch to darken up the top side of the fish to give it some natural contrast. The next thing I did was add a piece for the gill plate. This took some serious reshaping to match the existing ridges of the driftwood, but it was worth it in my opinion. The final thing I did was make sure any exposed glue and plywood were cleaned up; I covered any dried glue with small pieces of driftwood and I took sandpaper to the remaining visible plywood edges.

Boom, you’ve got a piece of art that you made yourself and can be proud of. Better yet, base it off a fish you have a story about, and that memory will be memorialized in your sculpture.

I hope you enjoyed this–I know I did. If you have any questions leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to answer them. One final note, every sculpture and piece of driftwood will be different, so improvise. In the end, all that matters is if you’re proud of the final product!

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