Consider the ice-fishing decoy: Is it another piece of piscatorial paraphernalia or an objet d’art?
The short answer is both.
Fish decoys are used primarily by spear anglers, folks who sit for hours, usually in a darkened shanty, staring at a hole in the ice in hopes that a fish — and typically a large one — will swim within range. To increase those odds, anglers often use decoys to attract the attention of a predator, hoping the faux fish will entice the cruising critter in for a closer look.
Ice-fishing decoys typically are turned out by basement or work-shop artisans, though they were once manufactured by major bait companies. But the home-made models, which always had a certain allure to ice fishermen, have become quite the rage as art objects. They show up everywhere from the coffee tables to fish-camp fireplace mantels but can just as easily be found on the Antique Roadshow or eBay, offered as unique examples of American folk art.
In some cases, prized specimens can fetch six figures.
And as with other art, the priciest are those made by long-dead artisans, though plenty of practitioners continue to make, sell and fish with their wares. Michigan — with its long winters and maniacal passion for ice fishing — is among the most fertile landscapes for examples of the craft.
The reigning king of Michigan decoy carving is Dave Kober, whose little outbuilding near his home on M-115 just southeast of Cadillac is part workshop, part museum. Kober, 79, has been making decoys since he was a lad, a pastime he picked up from his ardent-sportsman grandfather and gradually turned into a career. What starts out as a fallen branch from a white cedar tree turns into a bluegill or a trout or perch. He especially likes working with old, worn cedar fence posts.
“If it’s got flaws in it, that just adds to the character of the piece,” Kober said.
Although his repertoire also includes larger-than-life carvings, he prefers to produce decoys that he painstakingly weights and tank tests to make sure they swim properly. But he readily admits more of his work these days winds up on display to people, not pike.
“They’re all working decoys,” Kober said. “But they cost so much most people don’t have the heart to ever put them in the water.”
He is hardly alone; there is a coterie of Michigan carvers who specialize in ice-fishing decoys. And though most of them take pride in their fish-attracting appeal, most acknowledge they’re as likely to wind up in shadow boxes as tackle boxes.
Fred and Jo Anne Campbell, a husband and wife who live in Benzie County, have run BenzieJo Decoys out of their backyard shop since 1997. They got into it when Fred found some at a market, remembered using them as a kid, bought some and was totally enthralled by them.
Jo Anne thought he was nuts. But when Fred decided to start carving them, Jo Anne volunteered to do the painting.
BenzieJo Decoys begin at $50 for an 8-inch Red and White (their best seller) and can go to $145 for a 10-inch model. They are working decoys, designed for anglers, but generally sold to art fanciers and collectors, Jo Anne said.
Michigan has a long history of fish decoy carvers, the best known of whom is Oscar Peterson (1887-1951) of Cadillac. Carvers speak in hushed tones about Peterson; he’s well-known enough that his fish have been sold by Sotheby’s, and a single piece once brought $18,000.
But most modern carvers appreciate the objects for what they are: decoys.
Bob Gwizdz is a career outdoor writer who lives in East Lansing and works for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.