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Hooked on decoys.


Sixty years ago, when the ravages of the Great Depression erased jobs, emptied cupboards, and made winter even more cruel, the fish decoy suddenly became a vital tool for many upper Midwesterners. They relied on these flashy hookless lures to attract fish so that they could spear them through the ice. Today, the same decoys that might have sold for $1 apiece at the local bait stand are fetching hundreds, even thousands, of dollars as they become a major force in the world of sporting collectibles.

But the practice of fishing with decoys was invented long before the depressed days of the 1930's. It's generally believed that Native Americans from nose-numbing climes were the first to lure fish with decoys as early as 1000 A.D., but the beginnings of this device are still debated, with some historians claiming it all started in Siberia and Japan.

The first American Indians to share their skills with the white man were from the Great Lakes--primarily Ojibways (Chippewas)--and this, according to many experts, led to the development of winter spearing as we know it today.

"I think the oldest use of wood decoys, outside of Indian use, was in Saginaw Bay (Michigan) on Lake Huron--primarily for walleyes," says Art Kimball of Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, one of the country's leading experts on fish decoys, who has written three books on the topic with his sons Brad and Scott.

"It went on commercially for years there," he continued. "In the mid-1870's they had a whole village out on the ice called Pickerelville. It had streets, hotels, stables, a tavern, even a mayor. There were cabins on the ice for the fishermen, and buildings where the catch was cleaned and readied for shipment. Occasionally some ice would break off and a part of the village would go. Boats would have to go out and rescue the fishermen."

Another early decoy-spearfishing stronghold was on Lake Chautauqua in New York, where furniture factory workers bolstered their incomes by spearing fish and selling them to inns, restaurants, and residents. This endeavor was so successful, fish populations were seriously depleted.

Just how productive is decoy spearfishing? So much so that in most states its practice has been outlawed. In New York, for example, it was banned shortly after the turn of the century. Today, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota are the only states where decoy spearing is allowed (though restricted to certain areas and species). Here, the tradition of the sport is strong among non-natives, and even more fervent among Native Americans who still rely on the decoy and spear for subsistence.

The winter spearing methods used by Great Lakes Indians today differ little from the way their ancestors skewered fish. A large hole is chopped into the ice, big enough to maneuver a decoy and spear. The ice around the opening then is covered with a carpet of spruce, pine, or balsam boughs to block out the light and provide padding to lie on. Next, a tent, or tepee, is built over the hole, covered with skins, blankets, old sleeping bags--anything that's warm and will shut out the light.

Inside the tepee, the ice hole gives off a frosty luminescence, like a TV screen without the test pattern. The fisherman lowers the decoy on a line into the water and brings it to life by imparting action with a jigging stick. the spear is kept at hand to thrust at any fish that swims within range.

Non-native spearfishing methods are basically the same, except a shanty or "dark house"--big enough to sit in with a few more creature comforts--is often used instead of a tent.

A typical fish decoy is whittled from wood with molten lead inset in its belly so it will sink. The decoys usually range in size from 3 inces to 50 inches.

The heyday of non-Indian fish decoy carvers was during the Depression, which explains the sizable school of 1930's vintage fish that are available today. During these lean years, the materials used to paint and ornament decoys weren't exactly of high priority. Nail polish, house paint, whatever was handy often covered the fish; rhinestones, pieces of mirror, sequins, and glitter were sometimes applied to add sparkle. Beer cans and food tins were used for fins, and tacks, nail heads, screws, pin heads, and brads were used for eyes.

Because these early-day carvers perceived their decoys more as tools than art, few of the fish from this period are signed. Often they can only be linked to their makers by style, species, and region.

One of the most important spots in the country in terms of the high quality and desirability of its decoys is southeastern Michigans's St. Clair/Mount Clemens area. The large decoys produced in this region--mainly for spearing muskies--by such artisans as Gordon "Pecore" Fox, Isaac Goulette, and Theodore Van den Bossche are now legendary among collectors and fishermen. But perhaps the best carver ever to put a blade to wood was Hans Janner, Sr., who, like these other Mount Clemens craftsmen, was active in the 1920's and '30's.

Though Janner worked as a blacksmith, his touch with a knife was delicate and precise. He preferred to carve walnut, and shaped his fish with a full body and broad tail. He often fashioned fins for his decoys from the metal tags of parts made by the General Fire Truck Company, and occasionally he would cut them so that they read "Gener," providing his phonetic signature.

Janner decoys are widely praised by folk art experts, who expound upon the "line" of his fish.

"What appeals to me about his decoys is his line," says Ben Apfelbaum, guest curator of the first major museum exhibition of fish decoys at the Museum of American Folk Art. "I mean the simple hydrodynamic quality of those fish is just resonant of the '20's, '30's, and '40's of American design. Janner's decoys have a design quality that makes them at once abstract fish and real fish."

But hydrodynamics and abstract design mean little to the cadre of fishermen who still use Janner decoys with great success.

"A collector I know was unable to get one of the Janner's that's still out there that he wanted to put into the exhibition for me, because the present owner said that he just had to have one more season with that fish," says Apfelbaum. "He said he just couldn't part with it. And we're probably talking about a $20,000 purchase."

Like a quiet country preacher, Janner performed his good works for a small congregation of family and friends, while about 200 miles to the northwest a Jimmy Swaggart type was appealing to the masses. Oscar "Pelee" Peterson, with his dramatic, kinetically colorful style of decoy, made an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 fish in his lifetime. He also carved countless decorative fish, plaques, and signs for bait stands and sport shops.

Due in part to his prolific, high-profile output, the name Oscar Peterson is synonymous with old fish decoys. Today the work of this Cadillac, Michigan, master is the most sought after of all the carvers.

Peterson is believed to have started decoy making in the early 1900's. Like most carvers of this era, his peak was in the 1930's. His fish are generally thin, streamlined, and subtly curved. The lower jaw usually juts out slightly, giving the fish a perpetual pout. He carved a wide variety of decoys from yellow perch to suckers to walleyes, in a range of sizes from 3 to 14 inches.

The unmistakable panache and appeal of Peterson creations led several of his contemporaries to copy his ideas. But what sets his decoys apart from all others in his brilliant brush work. He had a penchant for bright, brash colors, particularly on the mouths of his fish, which he usually painted a bright lipstick red.

Peterson decoys, which exemplify the type known as the Cadillac style, are now fetching Cadillac prices. At a Sotheby, Park-Bernet auction last January, a Peterson brown trout went for $18,700--a world-record auction price for a fish decoy. Private sales snare between $10,000 and $20,000.

Though Michigan-made decoys are probably the most coveted by collectors, there is a wealth of fish to discover in all shapes and styles in the other Great Lakes states.

One of Wisconsin's most noteworthy decoy-spearfishing hot spots is the Lake Winnebago area in the east central portion of the state. Here, the sturgeon reigns supreme among spearfishmen.

Up to three or more sturgeon decoys, called coaxers, are used at a time. Often one of the decoys is made to the exact minimum length established for sturgeon (currently 45 inches) so the fishermen will know immediately when a legal-sized fish swims into view. Other general size ranges are 12 to 18 inches.

Sturgeon are now known to chase live fish, but apparently is doesn't take much to get their curiosity up. Some coaxers from this region are no more than a long, brightly painted piece of weighted wood. Another decoy discovered here was made from a bowling pin. And--giving a whole new meaning to bottom fishing--some fishermen have even been known to use toilet seats to attract fish.

In contrast to the big, crude decoy creations from around Lake Winnebago, the fish carved by the Ojibway Indians at Lac du Flambeau, about 200 miles north, are relatively small and precise.

"I think the yre the most interesting decoys of all," says Kimball, "because they have to work right. I mean, normally there's only one line tie on them, so with a wood tail it's got to swim in just the right circle. It has to be made and weighted very carefully, which is a task."

To the west, in Minnesota, where the lake tally is more than 10,000, there are at least that many different varieties of decoys for collectors to discover.

"Minnesota probably has more different styles of fish than any other state," says Kimball. "There are probably more spearfishermen, pre capita, than anywhere. The decoys are often more colorful, more folksy, and generally brighter--probably because they get a lot of use in the dark-tinted water; and because the fishermen are after northern pike, which like bright colors.

"You can also see ethnic differences throughout the state," Kimball continoues. "You can even tell a Norwegian's fish from a Swede's. The Indian fish there vary from tribe to tribe. Most of them are wood-burned, straight fish with metal finds."

The Gopher State also has the distinction of producing more "critter" decoys in the shape of frogs, mice, gophers, muskrats, crawdads, salamanders, turtles, and even butterflies and ducks.

With the rich spearfishing tradition in Minnesota and the other Great Lakes states, the region is clearly at the center of the fish decoy world. But New York fish make strong showings of their own on occasion--at least from a collector's point of view. Last summer, a Lake Chautauqua fish sold for what was then a world-record auction price for a fish decoy: $6,600.

These western New York fish were often characterized by a through-the-body line tie and a leather tail. They were usually painted in dark, subdued tones.

Steve Michaan, a collector from New York, has amassed one of the finest line-ups of Lake Chautauqua fish in existence. In fact, coupled with his assemblage of top-notch works by Oscar Peterson and the legends of Mount Clemens, such as Hans Janner, Sr., he has what he unflinchingly calls the best collection of fish decoys in the world--in terms of its quality.

But Michaan, who has collected everything from Tiffany lamps to antique reels over the years, didn't get hooked on fish decoys one piece at a time. He went to the Donald Trump school of collecting.

"I started watching the duck decoy market, not knowing, in my mind--and I still don't know, to tell you the truth--if there is any connection between fish decoys and duck decoys," says Michaan. "But early on I figured there might be some relation. At that point, a pair of ducks sold at auction for about $80,000 or $90,000, and then I really started paying attention to the fish. I bought a few here and there, and then at Oliver's (an auction house for sporting collectibles) about three sumers ago, a duck decoy went for $319,000. So I said, 'Okay, if that's what's happening here, then fish have to be next.' That was in July of 1987, and that September I bought a major collection of Oscar Peterson decoys, totaling about 250 pieces."

Michaan, a real estate developer by profession, then set out to build his fish decoy empire, buying as many of the top pieces that he could find. Today his collection, which is valued in the millions, makes up the bulk of the decoys shown at the Museum of American Folk Art exhibit.

Where does he expect the fish decoy field to be ten years from now?

"Where the duck decoys are now," he says. "I'd say the top ducks are selling for $100,000 now, on average. I think that the fish can do the same thing."

But, let's face it, unless they win the lottery, most people don't have a few thousand dollars to invest in a wooden fish. Don't worry. There are thousands of decoys floating around the country that can be had for a fraction of that amount--less than $100.

Where do you find them? Just about anywhere--flea markets, antique boutiques, sport shops, garage sales--who knows, maybe even your grandpa's attic.

But he warned--there are a flood of fakes on the market today. If you're really serious about starting your own collection of genuine, old fish decoys, you should use the same principles that Michaan applies to buying museum-quality pieces.

First, once you've read everything you can about fish decoys, try to find an area to specialize in. Soon you'll discover carvers and styles within each region that you especially enjoy.

Before you buy your first fish, make sure you're doing business with a reputable dealer. If you have any question about the authenticity of a decoy, don't hesitate to get a second opinion.

In time, you will create your own mini-empire of artful fish, full of life and history, that will last for generations to come.
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Title Annotation:collecting fish decoys
Author:Morrison, Tobin
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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