Ice Spearfishing Decoys
Recent historical interest, influenced primarily by Sporting Collectors, Antique Dealers and Interior Decorating trends has sparked a revival in the reproduction and collecting of wooden pioneer Ice Spear fishing decoys. They are without doubt, a truly unique North American folk art subject. Their sizes range from a tiny 1 inch minnow length to a massive 50 inch Sturgeon replica used to determine the minimum legal length spearing size.
Fish Decoys were used by native and early North American ice fishermen to lure food fish within reach of their spears. The decoys were all hand made, primitive by design and function due to then limited education, lack of regional communication and the general absence of quality wood working tools that are commonly available today. There are considerable differences in primary design and painting colours, which is influenced by various regions involved and the species needs of the original carvers.
The making of fish decoys for spear fishing is a very important part of the long and rich tradition of ice fishing. There is documentary evidence that North American native people spear fished through the ice since prehistoric times. The earliest known are from around 1000 A.D. and made of bone. The first recorded local history is taken from the diary of pioneer Lake Simcoe settler George Cook, making mention and detail of his first encounter with native ice fishermen in the year 1815. "They used a weighted wooden fish with metal fins, which was lowered through a hole chopped in the ice as a fish attractor for their waiting spears".
Fish decoys were first and foremost a functional object used to attract large fish, primarily Trout, Pike and Muskies for the purpose of spearing them through a hole chopped in the ice. Ice fishing decoys do not have any hooks attached to them as used in other conventional fishing lures. When fish were attracted to the decoy, they were speared from above by the ice fisherman. Much patience and quick accurate spearing skills were required.
Like the old wooden gunning and market hunters bird decoys, fish decoys were hand carved by sportsmen and commercial fishermen as primitive homemade tools. They were used to lure fish within range of their waiting spears. Ice fishing spears ranged from homemade sharpened sticks, to blacksmith hand forged art or mass produced by fishing lure or hand tool companies. Generally the spears were attached to a tethering line, to prevent their loss and to aid in recovery of the hopefully attached fish. The subject of their history and the crafting of spear fishing spears definitely requires separate coverage in a companion article.
Was spear fishing through the ice a productive way to catch fish? Indeed, late 1800s Fisheries records that hundreds of tons were caught each year, causing cries of outrage from the concerned conservationists of the day. Their intense lobbying of governments eventually led to a ban on spear fishing that flip-flopped its way into law at the turn of the century. Some Lake Simcoe commercial fishing licences were allowed to remain, but the last of the spear fishing licences were recalled in 1940.
On a broader scale, spear fishing is still legal in 6 of the United States. They are, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Alaska. This accounts for greater interest and the continuing supply of fish decoy products and information being available for decoy enthusiasts of those states.
The present Great Lakes Fish Decoy Carvers and Collectors Association is a spin-off group from the National Fishing Lures Collecting Club and The Waterfowl Preservation and Decoy Clubs of America. They hold several interesting meetings each year which allows members to exchange historical information and also buy, trade or sell original or reproduction fish decoys.
The undisputed International Dean of Fish Decoy Collecting hobby is Frank R. Baron of Lavonia MI, he states "that fish decoys old and new are treasured for their beauty in both form and paint." The law of supply and demand of quality pieces still dictate the price".
There is no need to worry about whether the decoy carving looks exactly like a "real fish" or other prey of the Trout, Pike or Muskie. The important thing is its action, does it swim properly? That is the key. When looking at examples of fish decoys that were used over the past 100 years it's quite apparent that many of them do not resemble any actual living species of fish at all, but instead are highly stylized in colour and design. On old originals, the hand carved knife marks should be visible but many contemporary carvers now opt to use a modern power tool for carving and sophisticated airbrush finishes.
When wooden fish decoy making was introduced to early North American pioneers, they eventually brought some newer ideas from the early Machine and Industrial Age to the practice. They used tin, copper and brass sheeting to make the fins and tails, plus weighted and balanced the decoys by pouring molten lead into a belly cavity. In many examples, common nail and furniture tacks were used to simulate the important eye detail.
Most original decoys were "whittled" with a common pocket knife and this fact accounts for the rather primitive yet appealing look that is generally observed on authentic decoys. It is said, that there were as many versions of decoys as there were carvers and with all of them being handmade, no two were ever quite the same? Some decoys styles are now seen with several new hooks attached. These are commonly known as cheaters and simply make use of old decoys for present day fishing rules.
Fish decoys have recently been rediscovered by the antique dealers as an authentic North American pioneer artifact and have been elevated to a much greater demand by private collectors and interior decorators. This demand has influenced the price of original decoys to rise dramatically and encouraged many artists to make replica decoys to accommodate increased market demands.
Today, spear fishing through the ice is banned for important conservation measures in all but 6 States in The United States of America and also generally banned in Canada. Some strict exceptions do apply in The Province of Ontario fishing rules that set specific locations, times and specific coarse fish. For many reasons, it is not a popular fishing sport as it once was, nor is it considered essential for family table food as in the past.
In almost parallel situation to that of old duck hunting decoys, pioneer fishing decoys were simply discarded or set aside by their makers and owners as having little or no value at the time. With today's resurging interest on all folk art, bird and waterfowl carving has attracted many new generation artists to seek other forms of wood carving.
The art of carving spear fishing decoys as a native American craft has been aided and continued by a multitude of articles in leading American Fishing and Outdoors magazines, newspapers and antique buying guides, plus historical journals. (eg. Fine Woodworking, New York Times, Washington Post, Antique Monthly etc.)
Today, dozens of step by step books on fish decoy carving and collecting have been written to encourage and inform both new and established enthusiasts. Country Home Folk Crafts magazine published a fine article by 20 year veteran fish decoy carver Ray Zelinski which has been followed by many. The Smithsonian Institute also offers special courses each year on carving fish decoys. The G L F D C C A offers hands on carving and painting seminars at their meetings free to all and hosted by very experienced World Class carvers.
Much local fish decoy manufacturing history is yet to be discovered by the author. Where did all the old wooden fishing decoys used on Lake Nippising, Lake Simcoe or Georgian Bay come from? Several small local manufacturers over the years can only be described as very small home-made, or tiny "Cottage Industries" with only a few examples of their products left available today. A few known local decoy makers were, Rolland Boats of Orillia, Busty Baits of Parry Sound and Fontaine Fish Huts Lake Simcoe, of which separate historic profiles have now been prepared.
How did I get involved with this hobby? "Quite by chance", Joe noticed a February 1995 Country Home and Folk Craft magazine with an article about making spearfishing ice decoys. He bought it for his experienced bird carver brother-in-law, thinking he would like to make one, but the book was accidentally left behind after their visit ended?
“Finding myself intrigued with this antique art form, I kept glancing through the article and finally just went down to the shop and cut a simple one out. With help from folk art painting wife Irene, I painted it. The first decoy led to the making of a second and third, quite unwittingly hooking myself on the making of fish decoys? The tally today numbers well over 100 pieces.
We have now moved away from the semi folk art and realist styles to replicate examples of early Internationally recognized carvers such as the legendary Oscar Peterson of Cadillac MI., Hans Janner Sr. of Mount Clement MI. and Native carver Ben Chosa of Wisconsin. Oscar Peterson (1887-1951) reportedly carved as many as 10,000 pieces during his life span. Today, his fish decoys which sold for a dollar or two have brought the highest prices at sporting and collectible auctions. Some specials reported to have been sold between 5 and 10 thousand dollars U.S. funds. On a more normal situation, some good old decoys have been discovered at garage and estate sales for a couple of dollars.
Researching the historical interests grew rapidly as friends and relatives added their pioneer stories and knowledge. Many personal letters and telephone calls were exchanged with leading American carvers and historians. The result was them offering their experience and knowledge very graciously. As mentioned, many excellent books have now been published on this important folk art subject.
The greatest satisfaction has been derived from researching and duplicating the work of local pioneer decoy carving fishermen on Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. We have made separate detailed mechanical drawings of these to ensure preservation of local designs for our future generations to look back on and enjoy.
For easy whittling and ready supply of material the majority of fish decoys were carved from local white pine or white poplar. Some exotic kinds of wood were used, such as Mahogany or walnut but these examples are very much limited to a minority.
In the Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay regions, a great number of decoys were never painted or preserved in any way, leaving the wood naturally white but raw to the elements? Some carvers used white or silver house paint for the bottoms only and coloured the tops with green or blue crayon.
It is of interest to know that the earliest documentation of a commercial fish decoy was a patent issued to Ira B. Guinley of Boston MA. in 1865. The Pflueger Tackle Company was the first to offer fish decoys for sale in their 1892 mail order catalogue. They offered 4 sizes (2 to 7in.) and 2 colour schemes.
Joe Fossey is a Barrie senior, enjoying retirement after careers in Bell Telephone, Marine and Machine Tool Industries. A life long boating enthusiast, he is an amateur marine Historian and writer with a large reference library on Canadian and American recreational boating history.
We trust that this information will bring you a better understanding of the history and present positioning of fish decoys as genuine folk art. Some of this information has been extracted from articles written and published by Ray Zelinski, Frank Baron and other enthusiasts. We thank them for sharing their historical and technical knowledge with others having an interest in the fascinating story of fish decoys.
Joe plans to keep carving fish decoys in the coming months and would be very interested in talking with other carvers or historians on the subject. He can be reached at (705) 726-6600.