stripe decor

Hookless Lures Still Catch Notice

by Nelson Bryant

Published: February 18, 1990

The New York Times

Provided for educational purposes only

Hookless Lures Still Catch Notice

Published: February 18, 1990 New York Times

Once recognized only by those who collected, studied or actually made or used them, fish decoys - lures without hooks - are swimming into public view.

Some 200 of them are in ''Beneath the Ice: The Art of the Fish Decoy,'' a recently opened exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art in Manhattan. The exhibition continues through April 17.

Although most of the decoys in the show were carved in the 1900's, such devices have been used for centuries to attract fish within range of spear fishermen working through holes cut into the ice of lakes and flowages.

Until fairly recently, it was assumed that decoy-spearfishing was an Eskimo invention. But today many believe that native Americans led the way, just as they did with waterfowl decoys made of the stuffed skins of ducks, and there are those who say that the technique originated in Siberia and Japan and not in North America.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, white men's use of fish decoys was concentrated in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York State and portions of Canada. The spearing of most species, the so-called game fish, was outlawed in New York shortly after the turn of the century. But native and nonnative Americans still pursue -albeit with some restrictions as to area and species - decoy-spearing for both sport and food gathering in the other three states. Northern pike, sturgeon and muskelunge are the usual quarry.

Some historians believe that Lake Chautauqua in New York may have been the first location of significant decoy-spearfishing by white men, but others opt for the Saginaw Bay area of Michigan. On Lake Chautauqua, furniture factory workers augmented their incomes by spearing fish and selling them to restaurants, hotels and residents; the workers were so successful that fish populations were severely depleted.

Art Kimball of Boulder Junction, Wis., a passionate student of the fish decoy, tells of a commercial decoy-spearfishing endeavor on Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron in the last century that resulted in the creation of a seasonal village called Pickerelville. The village was complete with mayor, stables for horses, a tavern, cabins on the ice for the fishermen and buildings where the catch was cleaned, packed and readied for shipment.

''Every once in a while,'' he added, ''a hunk of ice would break off carrying a piece of Pickerelville out into the lake and boats would have to go out and rescue the fishermen.''

To appreciate this scene, it's helpful to know the fisherman's methods. A decoy spearfisherman cuts a large hole in the ice, builds a tepee or some other shelter over it to provide warmth and to keep out the light. Lying on boughs, tarpaulin, blanket or what have you, he lowers the decoy on a line into the translucent depths and gives it lifelike action with a jigging stick. One hand is kept free to grab the spear when the quarry swims into view.

A handsome book, ''Beneath the Ice,'' containing full-color illustrations of all the decoys in the show and a history of the fish decoy, is available at the museum. The book's creators are Ben Apfelbaum, guest curator for the exhibition; Eli Gottlieb and Steven Michaan. Michaan, many of whose decoys are in the show, owns what he unabashedly says is far and away the best collection of fish decoys in the world.

''I bought most of the major collections during the last two years,'' he said. ''There are people who might have more fish, but there is no one who has as many quality pieces.''

The museum's exhibition will travel, this year and next, to Midland, Mich.; Cleveland; Milwaukee; Clayton, Mo.; Kamloops, British Columbia, and two other undetermined locations.

The typical fish decoy is carved from wood - the Eskimos use bone - that is then weighted so that it will sink. There are a few unweighted decoys that are submerged by the use of a sinker dangling below. Decoys range from tiny two-inch minnows to giants more than four feet long (for sturgeon), and a few resemble mice, frogs, beavers and crawfish.

There was a time when manufacturers of wooden plugs for conventional angling also made fish decoys. That has ended, but there is a company in Michigan that produces plastic fish decoys.

Early on decoys were carved by the angler for himself or family and friends, but in many locations cottage industries were developed by men who made and sold decoys to spear fishermen.

Fish decoys vary enormously. Some have metal fins and leather tails. Some are close copies of the fish they are intended to represent and others are impressionistic. The painting of them might be realistic, but it might also be out in left field, perhaps a garish combination of red, white and blue.

Although a scruffy-looking decoy might attract more fish, the bright, nonnatural colors that appear on many venerable decoys probably were used because they worked better - in a specific location at a specific time - says Kimball.

Kimball and his family run Aardvark Publications, a family endeavor that has published several valuable books on antique fishing tackle and fish decoys, including one on the work of Oscar Peterson, perhaps the most prolific of modern decoy makers.

The first volume of the Kimballs, ''The Fish Decoy,'' went through four printings and the second volume of that book is in its second printing. The Kimballs may be reached at (715) 385-2862.

Experienced collectors can usually recognize the origin of a fish decoy by its style. Some collectors gather decoys from one region, others concentrate on small fish or those painted in an unusual manner. Still others, if they have the wherewithal, go after those carved by famous makers, such as Peterson.

Peterson, who died in 1951 and was from Cadillac. Mich., may have fashioned as many as 15,000 decoys. Another famous decoy maker was Hans Janner Sr., of Mount Clemens, Mich., a powerful, rambunctious Bavarian who, Apfelbaum writes in ''Beneath the Ice,'' is ''widely considered the best pure carver of fish decoys who ever lived.''

Another highly regarded Mount Clemens carver, Gordon (Pecore) Fox, created impressionistic fish. The work of all these men is in the show.

Decoy collectors are digging deeper into their wallets these days. In 1989, Oliver's Gallery of Kennebunk, Me., auctioned off a New York state (Lake Chautauqua region) fish decoy for $5,750. And at a Sotheby, Parke-Bernet auction last month a brown trout by Peterson went for $18,700; a salmon (or steelhead) by a Michigan carver, Harry Seymour, went for $14,300 and a yellow perch by Fox fetched $7,150.

In conjunction with its exhibition, beginning March 1 the museum has scheduled a series of lectures, slide shows and symposiums on the history of fish decoys in various regions, including New York State. There will also be instuction on how to carve and use the fish decoys. A brochure of this program may be had at the museum.

The exhibition is at the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery at Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th streets. Hours are 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. every day.

Last Updated on January 19, 2006
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