“Fish decoys are made for ice fishing,” explains Kober, a master carver. “An ice fisherman cuts a large hole in the ice, lowers a fish decoy through the hole on a string to attract a fish, then spears the fish when it swims up to investigate the decoy.” Kober is pictured here tank-testing a bluegill decoy to see how it “swims.”
Spearing game fish is illegal in most states, but in some northern states such as Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin it’s an accepted method of angling, where species such as northern pike and muskellunge are fair game. The state of Wisconsin even has a sturgeon spearing season, the state record weighing a whopping 212 pounds. A slow-growing species, this particular record sturgeon was estimated by fishery biologists to be 100 years old when it was speared in February 2010.
“My family has been carving fish decoys now for five generations,” said Dave Kober. “The tradition began with my grandfather, Lester Ballard, passed through my uncle, Mike Ballard, then through me to my son, Travis. Now my eight-year-old granddaughter, Kylie, is carving. All in all, it adds up to more than a century of carving tradition.”
Through the years, fish decoys have evolved from ice-fishing aids to collectible folk art. Pictured here is a Kober-carved brook trout, Michigan’s state fish. Notice the metal fins, glass eyes, and attention to detail in the painting.
Many fish decoys, such as this walleye, are carved with a curved body. “That way they swim in a circular motion when jigged up and down under the ice,” said Kober. “And with most fish decoys being made of wood, they have to have lead inserted into the belly to get them to sink yet remain upright in the water column.”
The grayling is one of Kober’s favorite species to carve, but ironically grayling have been extirpated from the Great Lakes State. There remains, however, the northern town of Grayling, Michigan, the fish’s namesake.
Not all spearing decoys are made to represent fish. Some are carvings of frogs, baby beavers, leeches, young snapping turtles, ducklings, salamanders, tadpoles, crayfish, and even muskrats. Ice anglers carve anything they think will attract a game fish, and the decoys they make range from a couple inches to more than two feet in length.
It takes Dave Kober an average of 10 hours to complete a decoy, about eight hours for the carving and two for the painting. He mainly uses white cedar he gathers from his own woodlot, “Because it’s easy to work with and stinks good…,” Kober said, referring to the aromatic smell of the cedar. His neighbors are also constantly on the lookout for unusual pieces of wood for Kober to carve.
From a rough, two-inch-thick piece of wood to the finished product, half a dozen steps or more may be involved in the decoy carving and painting process. Growing up on a farm, he began learning his craft as a kid by carving images of farm animals.
The most famous fish decoy carver of all time was Oscar Peterson (1887-1951), also of Cadillac, Mich. Though his decoys may seem crude by today’s standards, they are highly collectible. These two Peterson decoys, now in Dave Kober’s collection of vintage “fish,” are worth more than $1,000 each. The one in the foreground is a brown trout, the one in back is a sucker.
As with Oscar Peterson’s creations, Dave Kober’s fish decoys have also become highly collectible folk art. So much so that some have sold at the famous Sotheby’s auction house in New York City, one fish decoy bringing $2,500 on the block. But most Kober decoys are more reasonably priced, selling for between $100 and $200.
Some of Kober’s carving tools, which were inherited from his grandfather, are more than a century old. “I don’t use them much anymore,” said Kober, “because the blades have become so thin over the years from so many sharpenings there is hardly anything left to sharpen. But I still cherish the tools nonetheless.”
Not all Kober fish carvings are small. This giant muskie on the porch of the workshop welcomes visitors. “I like to carve muskies and pike with an attitude,” said Kober. As a gag for display in a local restaurant, he once carved a muskie with tusks in addition to teeth. “It gets people’s attention…,” Kober says.
A drawer full of muskie and northern pike decoys ready to be fished, and yep, all carved with attitudes. Notice that some of the decoys have multiple holes drilled in the metal dorsal fin. Attaching a line at different points along the dorsal makes a decoy swim differently, giving it various actions in the water. “Some days predator fish want a more aggressive action and some days more subtle,” said Kober. “You just have to experiment.”
The toughened hands of a master carver. Notice the drop of blood where Kober nicked himself with the file. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve cut myself with either knives or files,” he said. “It just comes with the territory if you’re a carver. You learn to live with a few stitches now and then.”
Kober’s carving shop is literally packed with fish decoys in various stages of production. But if a visitor doesn’t see his favorite species already on display, no problem; Kober will custom carve any species a buyer desires. Some anglers even bring Kober photos of their trophy fish and have him carve a decoy to the specific measurements of the actual fish.
A visit to Dave Kober’s fish decoy shop is like taking a step back in time. The first thing you notice as you walk through the front door is the wonderful aroma of cedar wood shavings. Now in his 70s, Dave spends most of every winter sitting beside his warm, wood-burning barrel stove doing what he enjoys most, carving fish decoys.
Fish decoys have a long history in North America. “Decoy making and ice fishing go back to the very beginning of human history,” Kober said. “Early native peoples of present day Alaska and Canada have left us intricate examples of carved wood, bone, and ivory spears, barbs, and fish decoys–tools produced before the Iron Age. In my own neck of the woods, the early native peoples of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan produced some beautiful and highly-effective spearing decoys.”
Whether used for ice fishing (spearing) or sought after as collectible folk art, fish decoys are a unique slice of the American outdoors. And a few fish decoy carvers such as Dave Kober and members of his family are continuing the tradition. To view 10 more photos of Kober’s fish decoys and his workshop in Michigan’s north woods, continue on….
If you’re ever close to Cadillac, Michigan and would like to drop by master carver Dave Kober’s workshop to take a look at his fish decoys (www.koberdecoys.com), it’s located about eight miles south of town along state route M-115. But telephone first to make sure he’s there, because if it’s winter, “I may be ice fishing…,” Kober says with a grin.