Ely, Minn. – Fish decoys are the embodiment of functional art. In water, they attract fish. On display, they lure people.
According to fish decoy-carver and appraiser Tim Stouffer of Ely, Minn., a decoy differs from a fishing lure because it traditionally has no hooks. Its main line of work is in darkhouse spearfishing for northern pike. A decoy hangs on a line beneath an ice hole and its weights are distributed so it “swims” in a circle when it’s jigged. While their basic design is fish-shaped, decoys are sometimes fashioned as critters like ducklings, frogs and chipmunks.
“The idea is not to catch a fish with your decoy. It’s to cause them to come in and look, and then you throw the spear,” Stouffer said.
Still, Stouffer said decoys are also some of the most collectible utility folk art pieces available. When they’re not at work, decoys might adorn mantles and display cabinets.
French surrealists have nothing on decoy carvers, as evident from the photos below of Stouffer’s work. Part of the appeal is in using crazy colors, using whimsical swirls, learning from others, and developing a personal style, he said. Imagination is the only limit. “It doesn’t really matter what your decoy looks like as long as it gets attention.”
He described the darkhouse experience as magical. Sun shines through ice and snow everywhere except inside the house. It’s complete darkness over a rectangular ice hole.
“You look down into that rectangle, it’s all lit up and you see everything that happens,” said Stouffer, 48.
Realistic: Northern pike with vintage fire extinguisher metal fins
Stouffer said fish decoy contests and shows have grown in popularity. A decoy’s swimming ability and its appearance are among several judging categories. Realism is a subdivision within them. The northern pike shown has eyes, scales and fins painted to look like the actual fish species. As for circular swimming, Stouffer said a decoy should sit horizontally in the water without having its head or tail too far up or down. The key is proportioning the weight in the right places.
Painted: Walleye with hinged, jointed tail
Unlike natural tones, some decoy-makers indulge in a multitude of blasting color. Stouffer said appraisers can sometimes date various carvers by the types of house paint that was available in a given era. Some rare decoys had paint that didn’t adhere for long. If those decoys were used for fishing, the paint would flake off. Today, carvers apply several coats of varnish to protect their paint job.
Metallic: Walleye MN Coop coffee tin fins
When the old-timers first began crafting fish decoys, Stouffer said, they used whatever metal they could find for fins and sometimes tails. This included roofing material, coffee cans, tobacco tins, kitchen containers and machine shop leftovers. Tails determine the tightness of a decoy’s swimming circle. Metal tails can be bent to affect that diameter. However, a tail carved into wood can’t be adjusted. Considering his parents were antique shop owners, Stouffer has an affinity for old things. He incorporates that upbringing as a signature for his decoys. “I’ll make them with old tins for fins, and I’ll leave the [merchandise] words on there.”
Fantastical: Armored Perch
Simply put, Stouffer defined fish decoys as wood, metal, weight and wherever imagination goes. As functional folk art goes, his fish decoys encourage flights of fancy. Stouffer calls the perch decoy shown Armored Perch. But appearances don’t matter to a northern. They might speed in and smack a decoy. Other times, they’ll just hover and stare at it. “They seem to be either curious or angry,” he said.
Critters: Patriotic Dragonfly
Critter-style fish decoys abound as birds, mammals and amphibians. Stouffer said he’s seen decoys crafted as mice, turtles, squirrels, baby rabbits and snakes. “You find almost anything in the belly of a pike,” he said. As with other decoys, realism or not is artistic license for carvers. This colorful dragonfly with the Cheshire grin is set to schmooze cantankerous northerns.
Antique: Vintage Silver Mizera 1950-1960
This antique minnow, created by the late master-carver Frank Mizera of Ely, is from the 1950s or ’60s. Stouffer explained that carvers didn’t begin signing their work until the 1980s or ’90s. So, determining who carved an old decoy can be difficult. However, he said “their signature was their style.” Recognizing materials, estimating age and appraising a decoy’s artistic value come with experience. Some decoys date from the late 1800s. But collecting didn’t become nationally known until the ’70s or ’80s. Around then, decoys became so popular in Minnesota that fakes began turning up to attract antique dealers and collectors. Artificial aging was a characteristic. But Stouffer said that after decades, even those have become somewhat collectible.
For more information, reach Stouffer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.