Folk Art Fish Decoys
The Purest of Utilitarian Folk Art Collectibles
By Tim Spreck
For folks outside the Midwest, the concept of walking out onto a frozen lake
in the middle of the winter seems preposterous. Even more far fetched is the
notion that hardy men and women fish these lakes all winter in frigid
temperatures reaching 50 degrees below zero effectively and without loss of
life. The states of Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota among others still
maintain spear fishing seasons and the sport is alive and well.
spearing" as it is known, is a mystical, almost antiquated practice where the
fisherman spears through a large hole in the ice, often only three to five feet
in width. In a lake with ice up to three feet thick, this can prove to be a real
challenge. Over the hole is placed the darkhouse.
The darkhouse is similar
to fish houses used by winter anglers with a few key exceptions. There are no
windows, and any cracks are covered to prevent light from entering. As a result,
the interior of the icehouse is completely dark. The only light is that which is
illuminated up through the hole in the ice. This is where the mystical aspects
of darkhouse spearing come into play. The darkhouse is filled with an eerie,
green light from the lake.
The effect is breath taking, and the view of the lake
bottom can be hypnotic. Watching small perch or bluegills forage the icy depths
below can easily tick away the hours. If one is very lucky, a large bass, trout
or salmon may be observed. These species are all illegal to spear, but can be
enjoyed from the vantage point of the darkhouse.
The process of spearing is
just as it sounds. It is highly interactive and requires a variety of equipment,
including fish decoys, a jigging stick or drop-line, and a spear. The
spearfisherman drops an artificial decoy in the form of a fish through the hole
in the ice. The decoy is attached to a line which is then attached to a jigging
stick. By moving the jigging stick in a circular motion, the fish decoy is
manipulated in the water to mimic the motions of a bait fish. If all is
successful, a Northern Pike will come to investigate the decoy, and an accurate
throw of the spear will end in successfully harvesting the fish.
Spearfishing has been inaccurately criticized in various circles as a method
of over-harvesting lake populations, but the reality of the practice is that it
can require the investment of many hours or days to end in success.
of carving wooden, bone, horn or other materials into the shape of a fish for
use as a decoy has been documented back thousands of years. Native American and
Eskimo anglers are credited with being the first North Americans to employ fish
decoys in the art of winter spearfishing.
Native peoples as well as hardy
frontiersman knew that winter spearing offered an opportunity to provide much
needed food in a harsh and brutal environment. Throughout the past hundred years
or so, the making of hand carved decoys for spearing has been a necessity as
well as a pastime. The early carvers, mostly European immigrants, hand carved
their decoys because there was no other way to get them. If you needed a tool
for a specific job and that tool was not available elsewhere, you simply had to
make it yourself. Their skills at decoy making directly affected their success
as a spearfisherman. Furthermore, these skills dictate the desirability of their
fish decoys to collectors of our time.
Fish decoys have always been a
curiosity, a relic of a practice which many find difficult to understand. It is
because of this that collectors appreciate the fish decoy as a wonderful example
of utilitarian folk art. This is folk art of the most honest and basic type. Art
that has been created for a specific purpose. An object that started out as a
tool and later became art as its attributes, form, coloration and eye appeal
were appreciated. The artist did not intend to create art nor did he know that
someday it would be regarded as a valuable object worthy of collecting. As a
result, the object is honest and pure without any regard to embellishments that
may appeal to a collector. This honesty is refreshing to collectors who see
through the manipulations of modern folk art, which is created to appeal to a
In the 1980s, the popularity of fish spearing decoys as a
collectible exploded in the world of folk art collectors. Several books and
museum exhibits raised the awareness of collectors outside of the Midwest and
established fish decoys as a collectible whose time had arrived.
popularity has grown in waves since then. Now collectors worldwide clamor for
authentic examples for their collections. Talented contemporary carvers have
joined the ranks of the old time masters as their creations delight and inspire.
Many of these carvers create decoys which resemble actual fish so closely that
the distinction is very difficult to make. Others create whimsical, colorful
decoys based on a colorful interpretation of an actual fish with little regard
to its physical attributes or markings. All are effective in the darkhouse and
equally effective at luring in collectors.
As with any collectible, the
issue of the authenticity of old fish decoys is critical.
are fakes out there. When any collectible becomes valuable enough, the economics
of greed will bring a certain unscrupulous element into play. Savvy collectors
in any field have historically overcome this problem by arming themselves with
information. A knowledge of old surface, paint and construction materials, as
well as the characteristics of the work of specific carvers, will help avoid the
pitfalls of a non-authentic decoy.
There are several excellent reference
books available for those who wish to study fish decoys. Examples include Folk
Art Fish Decoys by Donald Petersen and The Fish Decoy by Art Kimball. Hands on
examinations are also important to learn the specific characteristics that
either give fakes away or guarantee authenticity. For this type of personal
interaction, visit sporting collectibles shows, interact with the dealers and
study the decoys. As always, it is important to buy from reputable, established
sources with expertise in the field.
Establishing and understanding the value
of a fish decoy is based on several criteria. Of course, supply and demand are
foremost in any appraisal of value. If a specific fish is in great demand and
the supply of legitimate merchandise is unable to fulfill this demand, the
prices will gravitate upward. Conversely, if there are sufficient numbers of
these decoys available and collectors as a whole are indifferent, the prices
will not rise.
There are really two different types of decoys when it comes
to establishing value. First are the fish decoys by known makers. These are
easier to price, given the past records of prices paid. As an example, a later
period brook trout by old time Michigan master carver Oscar Peterson may have a
value range between $600 and $1200, based on previous prices paid at auction and
privately. The value range depends on condition as well as a host of other
criteria, but it establishes a parameter. Second, there are fish decoys by
unknown makers. Values for these fish are dependent more on eye appeal, quality,
paint proficiency, age and condition. These fish must be evaluated on their own
merits and compared to those with known prices paid as well as experience in the
As an object of folk art, fish decoys rank with duck decoys and
handmade lures as some of the most unique and pure of all folk art collectibles.
Their form, simplistic beauty and innovative coloration bring countless smiles
to the faces of the collectors who love them. As with any collectible, an active
knowledge of quality and authenticity, coupled with purchasing from a reliable
source, will insure your collection will grow in value over time.
appreciating the skills of each fish decoy carver, it is easy to let the mind
wonder to a time that now seems so far away. A time when hardy souls, naive to
the future world of art, created fish decoys as tools. Utilitarian objects which
we now appreciate as art.
Tim Spreck is a master fish decoy
carver, active spearfisherman, author, spear fishing advocate, and collector of
spearing decoys. To learn more about fish spearing decoys, visit his website at
www.fishdecoy.net (the largest fish spearing decoy website in the world) or call
him at 651-439-1110.
1930s William Fave of Minnesota.
Ca. 1930 decoy by legendary Michigan carver, Bud Stewart.
Ca. 1940s Frank Nizera, "fish on fish" design.
Leech Lake (Minnesota) wood burned decoy, 1930s.
Leroy Howell decoys have risen dramatically in value; 1940s, $425.
1940s Park Rapids decoy.
lure by Tarz Geiselhart, 1980.
Longstaff lure, 1950.
stripe Minnesota lure, anonymous carver.