Folk Art Fish Decoys – The Purest of Utilitarian Folk Art Collectibles
by Tim Spreck
©2006 McElreath Printing & Publishing, Inc.
For folks outside the Midwest, the concept of walking out onto a frozen lake in the middle of the winter seems preposterous. Even more far fetched is the notion that hardy men and women fish these lakes all winter in frigid temperatures reaching 50 degrees below zero effectively and without loss of life. The states of Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota among others still maintain spear fishing seasons and the sport is alive and well.
“Darkhouse spearing” as it is known, is a mystical, almost antiquated practice where the fisherman spears through a large hole in the ice, often only three to five feet in width. In a lake with ice up to three feet thick, this can prove to be a real challenge. Over the hole is placed the darkhouse.
The darkhouse is similar to fish houses used by winter anglers with a few key exceptions. There are no windows, and any cracks are covered to prevent light from entering. As a result, the interior of the icehouse is completely dark. The only light is that which is illuminated up through the hole in the ice. This is where the mystical aspects of darkhouse spearing come into play. The darkhouse is filled with an eerie, green light from the lake.
The effect is breath taking, and the view of the lake bottom can be hypnotic. Watching small perch or bluegills forage the icy depths below can easily tick away the hours. If one is very lucky, a large bass, trout or salmon may be observed. These species are all illegal to spear, but can be enjoyed from the vantage point of the darkhouse.
The process of spearing is just as it sounds. It is highly interactive and requires a variety of equipment, including fish decoys, a jigging stick or drop-line, and a spear. The spearfisherman drops an artificial decoy in the form of a fish through the hole in the ice. The decoy is attached to a line which is then attached to a jigging stick. By moving the jigging stick in a circular motion, the fish decoy is manipulated in the water to mimic the motions of a bait fish. If all is successful, a Northern Pike will come to investigate the decoy, and an accurate throw of the spear will end in successfully harvesting the fish.
Spearfishing has been inaccurately criticized in various circles as a method of over-harvesting lake populations, but the reality of the practice is that it can require the investment of many hours or days to end in success.
The art of carving wooden, bone, horn or other materials into the shape of a fish for use as a decoy has been documented back thousands of years. Native American and Eskimo anglers are credited with being the first North Americans to employ fish decoys in the art of winter spearfishing.
Native peoples as well as hardy frontiersman knew that winter spearing offered an opportunity to provide much needed food in a harsh and brutal environment. Throughout the past hundred years or so, the making of hand carved decoys for spearing has been a necessity as well as a pastime. The early carvers, mostly European immigrants, hand carved their decoys because there was no other way to get them. If you needed a tool for a specific job and that tool was not available elsewhere, you simply had to make it yourself. Their skills at decoy making directly affected their success as a spearfisherman. Furthermore, these skills dictate the desirability of their fish decoys to collectors of our time.
Fish decoys have always been a curiosity, a relic of a practice which many find difficult to understand. It is because of this that collectors appreciate the fish decoy as a wonderful example of utilitarian folk art. This is folk art of the most honest and basic type. Art that has been created for a specific purpose. An object that started out as a tool and later became art as its attributes, form, coloration and eye appeal were appreciated. The artist did not intend to create art nor did he know that someday it would be regarded as a valuable object worthy of collecting. As a result, the object is honest and pure without any regard to embellishments that may appeal to a collector. This honesty is refreshing to collectors who see through the manipulations of modern folk art, which is created to appeal to a specific audience.
In the 1980s, the popularity of fish spearing decoys as a collectible exploded in the world of folk art collectors. Several books and museum exhibits raised the awareness of collectors outside of the Midwest and established fish decoys as a collectible whose time had arrived.
That popularity has grown in waves since then. Now collectors worldwide clamor for authentic examples for their collections. Talented contemporary carvers have joined the ranks of the old time masters as their creations delight and inspire. Many of these carvers create decoys which resemble actual fish so closely that the distinction is very difficult to make. Others create whimsical, colorful decoys based on a colorful interpretation of an actual fish with little regard to its physical attributes or markings. All are effective in the darkhouse and equally effective at luring in collectors.
As with any collectible, the issue of the authenticity of old fish decoys is critical.
Unfortunately, there are fakes out there. When any collectible becomes valuable enough, the economics of greed will bring a certain unscrupulous element into play. Savvy collectors in any field have historically overcome this problem by arming themselves with information. A knowledge of old surface, paint and construction materials, as well as the characteristics of the work of specific carvers, will help avoid the pitfalls of a non-authentic decoy.
There are several excellent reference books available for those who wish to study fish decoys. Examples include Folk Art Fish Decoys by Donald Petersen and The Fish Decoy by Art Kimball. Hands on examinations are also important to learn the specific characteristics that either give fakes away or guarantee authenticity. For this type of personal interaction, visit sporting collectibles shows, interact with the dealers and study the decoys. As always, it is important to buy from reputable, established sources with expertise in the field.
Establishing and understanding the value of a fish decoy is based on several criteria. Of course, supply and demand are foremost in any appraisal of value. If a specific fish is in great demand and the supply of legitimate merchandise is unable to fulfill this demand, the prices will gravitate upward. Conversely, if there are sufficient numbers of these decoys available and collectors as a whole are indifferent, the prices will not rise.
There are really two different types of decoys when it comes to establishing value. First are the fish decoys by known makers. These are easier to price, given the past records of prices paid. As an example, a later period brook trout by old time Michigan master carver Oscar Peterson may have a value range between $600 and $1200, based on previous prices paid at auction and privately. The value range depends on condition as well as a host of other criteria, but it establishes a parameter. Second, there are fish decoys by unknown makers. Values for these fish are dependent more on eye appeal, quality, paint proficiency, age and condition. These fish must be evaluated on their own merits and compared to those with known prices paid as well as experience in the marketplace.
As an object of folk art, fish decoys rank with duck decoys and handmade lures as some of the most unique and pure of all folk art collectibles. Their form, simplistic beauty and innovative coloration bring countless smiles to the faces of the collectors who love them. As with any collectible, an active knowledge of quality and authenticity, coupled with purchasing from a reliable source, will insure your collection will grow in value over time.
While appreciating the skills of each fish decoy carver, it is easy to let the mind wonder to a time that now seems so far away. A time when hardy souls, naive to the future world of art, created fish decoys as tools. Utilitarian objects which we now appreciate as art.
Tim Spreck is a master fish decoy carver, active spearfisherman, author, spear fishing advocate, and collector of spearing decoys. To learn more about fish spearing decoys, visit his website at
Permission granted to Fish Decoys Net to reproduce this article: Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine
© 2006 McElreath Printing & Publishing, Inc. – All rights reserved. No portion of the Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine may be reprinted or reproduced without express permission of the published