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Photo of fish decoys.

Fish Decoys as Art

A high school teacher uses fish decoys to lure kids into art class.

By Mike Rahn

Walk into the art classroom at Brainerd High School, and you'll see art instructor Bob Johnson clad in a tan lab coat, with a smile on his face and pottery clay under his fingernails. He looks like a gung-ho art teacher, but he's done something unconventional with his art curriculum. Johnson combines studio art skills with a centuries-old fishing method -- darkhouse spearing.

As a youngster, Johnson spent many winter hours on the frozen lakes of the White Earth Reservation in Mahnomen County, where he learned spearing from his father. Into the cold water, they lowered wooden fish decoys -- carved, painted, and weighted to dart and "swim" convincingly to lure northern pike within spearing range, as father and son kept vigil in their darkhouse above.

When he grew up and became a teacher, Johnson discovered his students didn't have the same outdoors life that he'd had as a child. "I love to hunt and fish, and I was surprised that so many young people seemed more interested in their Nintendos than in the outdoors," Johnson says.

When he started teaching at Brainerd High School, Johnson thought that perhaps he could design a course that would stimulate students' interest in both art and the outdoors. In 2002 he proposed the product of his brainstorming, "Darkhouse Spearing: A Minnesota Tradition," to Principal Steve Razidlo. Razidlo sensed that Johnson was onto something, and that his course might attract young people who rarely see the inside of an art room.

"[Razidlo] told me that if we had 25 kids sign up for it, we'd give it a try," says Johnson. When class registration ended, the class was full and students had to be turned away.

The next year Johnson was asked to double the offering. By the 2007-2008 school year, "Darkhouse Spearing" had expanded to three introductory classes during fall semester and two spring semester advanced classes.

"Many young men and women are hesitant to take high school art," says Razidlo, "until they discover it can be rewarding and fun to stretch their limits and express themselves. Bob's course is one that gives them that opportunity."

Origins of Spearing.

In Johnson's course, students first research the origins of spearing and its evolution. They learn that fur trader Alexander Henry met Ojibwe Indians spearing fish through the ice near Fort Mackinac in upper Michigan as early as 1763. Students also learn about regulations that restrict waters and fish species for spearing.

Each student must interview a spearer. It might be a relative, a friend, or perhaps an acquaintance of Johnson's. In the interview, the student learns about spearing tools and techniques and the darkhouse spearing experience. Then the student records these discoveries in an illustrated journal that he or she must keep throughout the semester.

Students might learn, as junior Kyle Smith did, that some spearers selectively harvest smaller northerns because of better tasting flesh. Or they might hear about unexpected things that can happen in a darkhouse. Senior Kristi Takasaki's interview subject told of a muskrat that popped up through the ice hole and scrambled out of the water before getting its bearings and exiting the way it entered.

Start Seeing Decoys.

Next students observe many fish decoys carved or collected by Johnson. Then they begin sketching and planning several preliminary designs for their own decoys. They must take into account decoy shape, style (folk art, working, or decorative), materials, paint patterns, and placement of the fins that control its movement. Like decoy carvers of old, most students work with locally available woods. In Brainerd, students have access to white pine, salvaged from trees that have blown down, been struck by lightning, or succumbed to disease. The Brainerd Lakes Chapter of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association donates some carving tools and money to cover the cost of milling whole logs into usable-size blocks.

Now the real fun of creating an object begins. In the classroom, a band saw's high-pitched whine and the aroma of heated resins signal the transition from theory to practice. With refined paper patterns drawn from their sketches, students rough out decoy profiles on the band saw. Some students bring their decoys to finished shape with knives, a traditional technique known as chip carving. Others use power sanders for a smooth, sleek effect; most do the final sanding by hand. Some add fine details using woodcarving knives, chisels, hand-held rotary carvers, and wood-burning tools.

Before painting a decoy, the student must weight it to make it sink below the ice. This process of weighting is a science in itself. A properly weighted decoy will "ride" level in the water, the wood's buoyancy counterbalanced by a metal weight that fills a slot carved or routed in the decoy's underside. Molten lead is the traditional weighting material. Some decoy makers, however, are choosing to "get the lead out," using such substitutes as steel or other nontoxic shot pellets sealed inside a cavity in the decoy.

Johnson grades the finished decoys not just on appearance but also on performance, which he tests in the 350-gallon water tank in the art room. "What I look for in a truly successful decoy is swimming ability," he says. "It's a function of weight and the size, shape, and placement of the decoy's metal fins, which control motion and descent."

A decoy should swim forward and up with a lift of the spearer's jig stick. As the spearer lowers the stick, forward momentum should make the decoy glide in a spiral downward. "The ideal is for the decoy to make a complete circle with one lift and release," says Johnson, "but most don't quite make that standard."

Science and Style.

Once the decoy has been properly weighted, it's time for acrylic enamel paint, applied by hand brushing, airbrushing, or both. Students can create a realistic effect of scales with a wood burner, by spraying a mist of paint over mesh, or by embedding mesh in a layer of gesso, leaving a raised scale appearance. Urethane sealer is applied to prevent cracking and checking.

Johnson's students must carve decoys in several styles, comparable to categories found in many competitive decoy-carving contests. Decorative class decoys are most realistic, with anatomically correct fin shape and placement, body details, and coloration. Service-working class is the blue-collar class of spearfishing decoys -- these decoys suggest a particular species in shape and color. A third decoy class -- folk art -- is a real departure from decorative and service-working decoys. Folk art decoys are often radically stylized in shape and painted with the artist's choice of colors. It's up to the individual as an artist to push the limits of this category.

Students are also required to design and carve a nonfish critter, such as a frog, turtle, or salamander, which some spearers use.

Real Trial.

In winter Johnson takes his class out on the ice for a dose of the real thing, using his own darkhouse and those of several darkhouse association members. Members provide a meal, such as a bratwurst cookout, and mentor the students in spearing technique.

As in all fishing, success depends on cooperative fish and gradually acquired skill. Connecting with a northern is not the norm on these first spearing outings; but graduate Chad Weiss did spear a 6-pounder on his first attempt at spearfishing. After the 2007 fall semester, Travis Cizek put his decoys to the test during Christmas break. He came back to school with photos of his first speared pike, a 30 incher.

After graduating in 2006, Peter Winch used what he learned in Johnson's class to temporarily "turn pro" as a fish decoy carver. The summer after high school graduation, Winch made 440 fish decoys to be sold by a sport shop in Bemidji. At $10 per decoy, Winch made $4,400. "It was the best summer job I ever had," said Winch.

Other graduates of Johnson's class have entered their creations in fish decoy design contests. Among the most prestigious events is the John Jensen Invitational, held each April in Perham. In 2008 senior Ben Nelson took fifth place with a brook trout in Open Decorative Class and second place with a white bass in Junior Decoratives. Junior Travis Whirley earned fifth place in the Junior Folk Art Class with a classic red-and-white decoy. Senior Nate Berens took fourth place in Open Decoratives with a sunfish.

Berens, who had never taken a high school art class, now makes decoys for his own use as well as decorative decoys for competitions.

"He never knew that an amazing talent was inside him," says Johnson.

Berens' artwork serves as a perfect example of the vision Johnson had for a fish decoy carving class that might pry young people away from Nintendo and into the arts and the outdoors.

Visit The Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association.


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