Red was born, raised and lived most of his life in the Saginaw area of lower Michigan. An avid hunter, fisherman and trapper, Bruce worked in the automotive industry designing specialty cutting tools for GM and others, worked in heat treating and even designed tools for Dremel until he moved North to the Gaylord area in 1980. He has been carving for 56 years and estimates that in that time he has made approximately 2000 pieces of all types, 90% of that being fish decoys. Although his father did carve a few fish decoys Floyd considers himself self-taught. “When I was just a boy I got a new jackknife for Christmas one year and just started whittling.” During the Saginaw years he carved a lot of duck and fish decoys out of the red cedar that’s common to that area. A lot of the houses in Saginaw are set on red cedar posts. These old dried posts make excellent carving material. Red cedar doesn’t grow up north so now he uses white cedar exclusively. In addition to waterfowl and fish decoys Bruce also carves canes, walking sticks, lures, ice rods, signs and furniture such as tables and benches.
The fish decoys range in size from 2 1/2” to 24” and are painted with water based paints and topped off with varnish to waterproof them. The earliest examples have tin fins but the majority since about 1964 were made of copper or brass. Bruce felt that the flash of the metal was key to attracting fish so he left the fins unpainted. He used to scour the dumps for old teakettles, wash tubs and other throw-outs to reclaim the copper and brass for fins. If he didn’t have a part he needed he would scrap out old plugs for the eyes, hook hangers, etc. He figures he must have trashed a small fortune in valuable old lures. They just didn’t seem important to him back then as he had a fishing dock in Saginaw and his fishermen customers used to give him lots of old tackle.
Until about 15 years ago Bruce didn’t even have a band saw. He used to split out the rough billets and without using a pattern would draw out the fish on the blank, cut it out with a coping saw, finish carve it with an X-Acto knife and then hand sand it. The decoy was made to whatever size the wood was. He would spray paint them through a piece of old veil material to get that fish scale effect.
There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the signatures and other markings on the Floyd Bruce decoys and with good reason. It’s a very complicated subject but I’ll try and clarify it as best as I can. Some of the decoys you’ll see are marked with “XXX”. Notwithstanding previous reports this does not signify a competition decoy. Bruce intended it as a mark of quality, signifying “Tested & Guaranteed”. He adapted it from the famous triple X mark used in the past on flour sacks and gunpowder kegs. The numbers on the bottoms of some of the decoys indicate the year made and the order for that year, size and species in which that particular decoy was made. For instance, a 10” Rainbow Trout marked “FJB ‘78’ 003 XXX” means that it is a tested and guaranteed decoy made by Floyd Joseph Bruce in 1978 and that it is the 3rd one of that size and species made at that time. Since each size and species would use the same series of numbers there could theoretically be an indefinite number of decoys with the exact same markings limited only by the different species and sizes he made that year.
To further complicate things, not all Bruce decoys are marked. Up until about 1968-70 Floyd did not sign or mark any of his works. People didn’t care about that stuff back then. “They just wanted a decoy that worked”. But an incident that transpired at that time changed things for Bruce. A friend of Floyd’s used to vacation every year in Michigan’s Copper Country and would stop by on the way and pick up a few fish decoys to take along. This particular time he was back the very next day and reported to Floyd that he was trading the decoys for the cabin rental bill but the owner wouldn’t accept them unless they were signed. That started Floyd’s practice of signing his decoys. At first they were simply signed “FJB” by hand in black paint. About 1975 he started burning his initials “FJB” into the bottom with a branding iron. Twenty years ago he began the practice of signing, numbering and dating them. But the signature story doesn’t end there. A great many of Bruce’s decoys have been signed and dated after the fact. After the collecting of fish decoys became popular people started bringing Floyd’s early decoys back to him and asking him to sign, date and number them. He doesn’t feel as though he can say no to a customer so he complies putting on the dates and numbers as best as he can remember them. “Of course there are a lot of # 1s”.
Bruce has been marketing his decoys to the public since about 1956. His early work was sold through bait and tackle shops in the Saginaw Bay area. He had a string of 4 or 5 shops from Bay County up around the bay into the Sebewaing area that handled his work. He also sold a lot of stuff to antique shops that liked to handle handmade things. He has been doing the Midland Gun Show, the oldest show in the state, since it’s inception in 1962, a show which Bud Stewart also did. Floyd tells of selling his fish decoys for $1.50 - $2.00 each and outselling Stewart who was only getting a buck for his.
Information above provided by Gary Miller
This is an excerpt of an up-coming book by Gary Miller on Michigan Carvers
The photo below provide by Ron Fritz of Fife Lake, Michigan.
He carved the jigging stick in 1984. it is 29 inches long with glass eyes and is stamped FB on the belly.