Mention Decoys, and ducks and geese come to mind. Or, perhaps owls for the shotgunner interested in lowering the crow population. East coast collectors might even think of shore bird decoys. But for the discerning collector another type of decoy exists – the fish or fishing decoy.
If fish decoys are not rare, they are at least so scarce that the writer has seen perhaps half a dozen genuine specimens in a year of shows and auctions. These are not lures in the sense that hooks are attached, but were made to resemble a tempting smaller fish for larger predatory species. Hence, most fishing decoys are under about ten inches in length; and the average might be four to seven inches. The body is made of wood, sometimes select hardwoods but almost any grade appears. In general, the careful handiwork given to the above-water duck decoys and shore birds does not appear in fishing decoys.
Either smoothly or crudely handcarved, some bodies are juttingly angular, others rounded and graceful. Some look like the food fish they were intended to represent, but a few examples are more a folk-carving of what the maker thought a fish should be. Fins, made of tin or wood, are always included and are located in approximately the right anatomical positions. No mouth is usually indicated, and gills are not outlined. Eyes, if present, might be of paint or bright tacks.
Most fishing decoys are a light color, the body one shade, the fins and tail sometimes another. Some two-tone bodies exist, however, with different colors in the head or tail region or in the underbelly area.
All authentic decoys will have an attachment point, an eyelet or screwed insert atop the body, forward near the head and near the pectoral of horizontal fins. A line secured to this eyelet permitted lifelike movements underwater. It should be noted that the decoys, being mostly wood, were weighted so as to sink easily.
These interesting objects were used in colder regions of the country in the sport of ice-fishing. The decoy was dangled in the water beneath a chopped hole, sometimes from a windowless ice-fishing shanty that gave the operator some protection from the cold and, by blocking out light, made it easier to see things underwater.
The decoy was moved by a relatively short line in motions designed to attract pike, pickerel and walleyes. When a large fish moved in to investigate, it was impaled by a hand-held fish spear.
In shallow waters old-time sportsmen would often drop broken porcelain plates into the water and the pieces settled to the bottom. This formed a lighter background and large fish could more easily be seen against this in the low-light winter conditions.
In parts of the Midwest where spear-fishing for fresh-water sturgeon is permitted, another use of fishing decoys evolved. The sturgeon spear is a heavy affair with a detachable head fastened to a long wooden handle – when a sturgeon is speared, the handle falls away and the fisherman attempts to bring the fish in by means of a stout rope attached to the spearhead. However since depth perception in water is tricky, fisherman will frequently string several decoys of varying colors at measured intervals on a single line. The technique enables them to judge more accurately the angle at which the spear must be hurled.
Fishing decoys are now commanding relatively high prices, generally in the $35 to $90 range. As might be expected, fake or altered or recently made specimens are sometimes passed off as originals. Style or size are not really indicators of authenticity since many fish decoys are one-of-a-kind creations, perhaps carved by the person that used them.
Beware of the decoy that has a line attachment point at the front tip area, as this is likely an old wooden lure with a single, double, or treble hooks removed. Tin tail or fins should be somewhat spotted or rusted from repeated contact with air and water.
Look also for new-appearing line eyelets and fins, or fresh paint. On good decoys, the paint should not crack or “alligator” because actual use took off the paint at an accelerated rate. This left a thin residue of the original coat or coats and will be smooth if the body was sanded.
Fishing decoys, though little-known, are fascinating hints that humans wishfully believed they could outsmart fish. And judging from some of the well-made, lifelike decoys, they probably succeeded – once in a while.