The summer of 1992 Joe and I uncovered what would probably be our last great find of Minnesota spear fishing decoys. Having spent our summers in northern Minnesota the previous twelve years, we stuck up ‘wanted to buy’ placards throughout the region in every Laundromat, general store, corner restaurant and tavern, wherever we found a bulletin board. One day a fellow from Palisades called us with a John Ryden decoy.
We had interviewed Ryden’s sister who still lived in their hometown of Aitkin the year before and I had written a story on Ryden’s decoys published in Decoy Magazine (May/June 1991). Ryden (1897-1982) produced fish decoys for 60 odd years, often selling them from the trunk of his car in the railroad station’s parking lot. His decoys were usually small, measuring three to five inches. Early examples had thumb tack eyes and smooth fins. Eventually he crimped the edges of the metal tail and fins which became an identifying feature on his decoys. Ryden also did extensive carving on the head of his decoys which extended around the bottom of the decoy. The mouth design was unique and made Ryden decoys easy to identify. Ryden further denoted the fish gills with three black curved brush strokes and painted dots between the lines. Most of Ryden’s decoys were painted in realistic patterns using subtle natural colors and heavy painted detailing. Yet he also painted decoys solid red, white or metallic gold. The one we bought in Palisades was a little walleye. The gentleman was surprised that we paid $50 for his decoy and wanted to know if we would pay the same price for a lot more Ryden decoys. When Joe assured him he would pay a finder’s fee if he was able to buy any Ryden decoy, the man told us about his friend who had given him the walleye decoy.
The next day we drove over to Aitkin to check out our new lead. I waited in the car when Joe went to the house. The gentleman’s friend invited Joe in, so all I could do was wait. I watched as the two men disappeared into the garage. About an hour later Joe came back to the car muttering. “Damn, I just saw the greatest bunch of decoys and the guy won’t sell them!” In between expletives and curses, Joe filled in the details. The man, an electrician, had worked at the old Ryden omestead rewiring the barn. He came across a dark house box in the barn which he bought for $5. The dark house box was a shotgun shell rate painted black and fitted with 5 sectioned drawers. Each drawer had an eyescrew pull through which a metal rod was strung that held the drawers shut. Inside the box was Ryden’s personal set of spearing decoys...26 of them, all different: some had metal insets: all were in excellent condition. Joe had offered $1000 for the set to no avail and he was not happy about it!
The following week we got a call for the electrician. Did we still want the darkhouse box and decoys? YES!!! If we were willing to pay $1200 cash, we could have the set. Needless to say, we were on our way to Aitkin that day. When we arrive at the electrician house, Joe wanted me to stay in the car. He didn’t want to take any chances that my reaction to the decoys would screw up this deal. About an hour asted and I was getting nervous in the car. Then the door opened and Joe was beaming. “I can’t believe it. Wait till you see these decoys. That guy sold these so he could take the money to the Indian Casino. He told me he and his wife lost $500 in the progressive slots, but he was going back that night and double my $1200!”
We drove to the city park and took a good look at our purchase. Each drawer was filled. There were bluegill, crappies, trout, walleye and shad decoys. One sunfish had hammered copper panels on each side. Another had polished aluminum panels. There were hollow copper decoys, woodburned natural wood finished decoys, cheaters with treble hooks, a decoy fashioned out of copper and a piece of mirrored glass, even the typical Minnesota red and white decoy looked good. The oil paint was crazed and mellowed. It’s hard to describe the excitement of really finding a great piece of folk art. Knowing that these little fish were carved 60 years ago by a simple man from a small town in northern Minnesota. One can just imagine him carrying his dark house box out onto the ice, setting it next to the ice hole, slowly pulling open a drawer and deciding which decoy would work best on that particular day.