Archived Story

Duck, fish decoys became treasures [UPDATED]

Published 10:08am Monday, September 24, 2012 Updated 12:10pm Monday, September 24, 2012

Duck hunters in the early years of Otter Tail County used decoys to lure ducks closer to their blinds each autumn.

Spearing decoys were made to lure fish to holes in fish houses during the winter months. Today those decoys are considered very desirable by many collectors.

“Collectors search the countryside, or go on the internet, to find these relics of a bygone era,” says oudoorsman and county historian Roger Rustad.

He said the functional aspect of these decoys is appreciated as well as their beauty and unique appearance. Preserved are many decoys that would otherwise have been destroyed.

Rustad said that early decoys were used again and again and in conditions that were not conducive to maintaining them in their original condition.

“Some decoys were repainted, not once but a number of times,” said Rustad. “Sometimes the duck bill would be chewed on by a hunting dog. The tail of a bird was often chipped when thrown in a bag with other decoys.”

Today, many of those broken birds have been restored to resemble their original condition.

“Fortunately for us,” said Rustad, “some of these early decoys were placed on shelves and never were used for their original purpose.”

In recent years, he said that more carvers have appeared at flea markets, antique stores and other places. Rustad says these carvers, while carving for their own enjoyment, are also finding a ready market for their merchandise.

Rustad has compiled a list or prominent duck and fish decoy carvers in Otter Tail County, living and deceased.

In 1980 Charles Beck, an artist previously known for his woodcuts, started carving decoys.

“Charles has geese, turkeys and other decoys that are truly outstanding,” said Rustad. “He’s especially talented in the restoration of old working decoys.”

Tom Connell, who was 96 when he died this past July, was just 16 when he began carving duck decoys in 1931 near his hometown of Campbell.

In 1945 he started spear fishing during the winter months and began carving spearing decoys that same year.

Most of the fish decoys averaged seven inches in length.

Over the years he made several hundred decoys, giving most of them to friends and relatives.

In 1990, at the suggestion of Beck, Connell began making fish decoys with wooden tails instead of using metal ones.

As a teenager Connell carved his fish decoys with a jack knife, using the thick end of apple crates which were soft pine.

In 1990, he started substituting basswood for pine. He made his duck decoy bodies from cedar.

He spent from seven to eight hours making one duck decoy and from four to five hours making a single fish decoy.

During an interview with me a few years ago, Tom explained that for a duck decoy you start with a block of wood and begin the project by carving off everything that doesn’t look like a duck.

As for the fish decoys, he said it was a long process as well. After the carving you insert lead and then apply from three to four coats of paint.

After hearing all this, one can’t help but appreciate hand-crafted decoys that became things of beauty with unique appearances.


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