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Some fish decoys could be classified under Fish Sculptures or Fish carvings; however, a large number of fish decoys are not in the shape of a fish. Frogs, ducks, insects, beavers, mice, snakes, crayfish, turtles, and rabbits are just a few of the animals that have been used as decoys to attract a hungry fish to the fisherman.
In the classical sense, a fish decoy is an object that is used to attract a predator fish. However, fish decoys have also been used to attract sturgeon. The reasons why sturgeon are attracted by decoys is a point of discussion, as it may be competition based (thinking another fish has found some food that the sturgeon might want) or might be reproductive - or just something as simple as plain curiosity.
Fish decoys are primarily used when Ice fishing with spears, although fish decoys have been employed during "normal" (non-ice) fishing to attract fish to where a fisherman may have placed several baited lines. Most common forms of fish decoys are weighted and attached to a line. The line is often attached to the roof of the shanty, some other stationary object, or a jigging stick. The fisherman will then “swim” or "dangle" the decoy to attract a fish in close enough to spear.
Another form of decoy that is sometimes used is called a “floater”. This type of fish decoy is not weighted, but is attached to a weight that holds the decoy at the desired depth.
There are other fish decoys which have one or more hooks attached. In Minnesota, and some other states, these decoys are illegal and are referred to as "cheaters". In Michigan, a hooked decoy is legal and is simply counted as one of the number of lines that each angler is allowed to employ. These decoys are used since some species of fish, such as pike, are very aggressive and will attack the decoy. The application of hooks provides an additional method to ensure the catch.
Fish decoy carving dates back to the time of Native Americans who would often carve decoys out of wood, bone, or antlers. They would lie out on the ice and use the decoys to attract a fish. Modern ice fishermen will often use an ice shanty, which is sometimes also called a darkhouse or fish house, to protect themselves from the elements while fishing.
In modern times, fish decoys have been carved and collected for their artistry. Fish decoys are now considered a form of folk art and have garnered a growing following in recent decades. Many decoy carvers have also carved items to be used in decorating—such as plaques, vases, paddles, and carvings of other animals.
Masters of the art form are too numerous to name, but a few examples in any list would have to include: Gordon Charbeneau, Abe De Hate Sr, Gordon “Pecore” Fox, Hans Janner Sr., David Forton, Yock Meldrom, Larry Joseph Peltier, Oscar W Peterson, William Jesse Ramey, Tom Schroeder, Harry Seymore, Andy Trombley, and Ted Van DeBossche. These carvers (and numerous others) are considered vintage master carvers because their work predates the modern “collector” phase of Fish decoys. Their carvings were primarily intended as tools to aid the fisherman in harvesting fish to help feed their families.
Some other master carvers are considered Transitional since they began carving fish decoys before the collecting phase began in earnest (during the 1980s). Once collecting fish decoys became popular, these carvers continued to make decoys both for the fishermen and the collector. A list of well-known transitional carvers would include: George Aho, Vern Baggs, Jed Blain, Mark Bruning, Hans Janner Jr., David Forton, Jim Nelson, Ernie Peterson, Bud Stewart, Floyd Bruce, John Eddy, Marvin Mason Jr., and Dave Kober. Of course, this list is far too short to include all of the influential carvers who fit into this category.
Contemporary carvers are those who primarily started carving after the 1980s. Some of their work is primarily targeted towards the collector market, yet a number of their pieces are still used in the practice of ice fishing. A quick search on www.eBay.com or any search engine will yield a large number of decoys and names of some very excellent carvers including Tony Hughes. Also, some artists—such as an art teacher in Brainerd, Minnesota, featured in the January–February 2009 issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine—are developing the next generation of fish decoy makers.
Numerous books have been written on the art forms of Fish Decoys including:
|The Fish Decoy||Art, Brad & Scott Kimball (1986)||ISBN 978-0-9604906-3-9|
|The Fish Decoy Volume II||Art, Brad & Scott Kimball (1987)||ISBN 978-0-9604906-5-3|
|The Fish Decoy Volume III||Art, Brad & Scott Kimball (1993)||ISBN 978-1-877771-00-2|
|Fish Decoys of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibway||Art Kimball||ISBN 978-0-9604906-7-7|
|Folk Art Fish Decoys with Values||Donald J Peterson||ISBN 978-0-7643-0053-0|
|Fish Decoy Makers Past and Present||Donald J Peterson||ISBN ??????|
|Beneath the Ice||Apfelbaum, Gottieb, and Michaan||ISBN 978-0-525-48529-2|
|American Fish Decoys||Steven Michaan||ISBN 978-0-9748721-0-0|
|Commercial Fish Decoys Identification||Frank R. Baron||ISBN 978-1-57432-267-5|
|Bud Stewart Michigan’s Legendary Lure Maker||Frank R Baron||ISBN 978-0-917231-12-4|
|Fish and Fowl Decoys of the Greak Lakes||Dona Tonelli||ISBN 978-0-7643-1643-2|
|Michigan’s Master Carver Oscar W Peterson||Ronald J Fritz||ISBN 978-0-9604906-4-6|
Web Sites that reference Fish Decoys
- Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine
- Great Lakes Fish Decoy Association
- Michigan Darkhouse Angling Association
- The Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association
- National Fish Decoy Association
- Texas World Fish Decoy Carving Championship
Wayside Chapel listing of fish carvers by region: