By Andrew Johnson
When most people think of decoys, their minds typically drift to fields and sloughs packed with lifelike replicas of mallards or Canada geese. Or, perhaps, they may imagine a strutting tom turkey roaring its way in to a set-up of fake hens and jakes.
For one entrepreneurial couple, however, decoys take on a much deeper meaning.
Rick and Connie Whittier, who own and operate Whittier Decoys, have been making fish decoys full time for the past 12 years. Located in Lidgerwood, N.D., Whittier Decoys sells fish decoys to spearfishermen and women and collectors across the Dakotas and beyond.
“When we first started we could take summers off, but now we are busy year-round,” Rick Whittier said. “Right now we have all we can do to fill orders, and at any given time we’re running about 400 behind. We don’t allow bait shops to order during the ice season. They have to order in the summer, and if they run out, they’re out.”
The Whittiers estimate they annually sell and ship more than 2,500 decoys, each crafted and painted one at a time by hand. They have regular customers across the Dakotas and ship plenty of decoys to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as along the East Coast and as far away as England, China and Australia.
“We make 400 different species and subspecies of fish decoys,” Rick Whittier said. “Most of those are trout, as there’s over 170 species of trout alone. There’s also 15 different species of sunfish, and then you have white and black crappie or the walleye, sauger or saugeye. We have patterns we use, and we try to make them as original and realistic as we can.”
Carved fish are one of the earliest forms of American folk art, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which traces the practice back to around 1,000 A.D., when hunters in the Bering Sea first used small bone or ivory decoys for ice fishing.
With that in mind, the Whittiers craft functional decoys not only to be used while spearfishing, but also to help preserve the art form itself.
“We’re not greedy, and we try to teach people how to make their own decoys, because it’s an old art that’s dying off and we’re trying to preserve it,” Rick Whittier said. “A lot of people stop by to see the shop, and we do a lot of classes for adults and kids. There’s a lot of history behind decoys, so we need to keep making them.”
Years ago the Whittiers moved to North Dakota after serving as law-enforcement officers in Wisconsin. At the time, they had no intention of working full time again.
“We had just moved here to retire and didn’t really know anybody,” Rick Whittier said. “Then, out of nowhere, at 1 a.m. on Nov. 30, someone was knocking at the door. A gentleman who was pretty intoxicated was holding this antique spearing decoy. At the time they had just reopened spearfishing in North Dakota, and he’d heard I could do some woodworking and wanted me to make a copy. So, we went to the basement and ended up making two that night.”
The late-night visit in 2004 inspired Whittier to learn more about the history of fish decoys, so he went online to compile research and started carving some of his first designs.
“The deal was we were each going to get part-time jobs when we retired,” Connie Whittier said. “But after that first night he said he was going to do this for a living. He was making one about every week and a half, and they were always green. Every fish he made had three colors — green, green and the other green. I told him he better get it figured out because selling one every week and half wasn’t going to buy the groceries.”
Connie had done some woodworking and eventually convinced her husband to let her help with some of the sanding.
“I ended up doing a better job on the sanding than he does, and now I got a full-time job,” she laughed.
Rick Whittier said every decoy starts out as a chunk of white pine that’s cut and dried to his specs by an Amish community near Osakis, Minn.
“White pine is a strong wood that’s soft enough to carve,” he said. “I start with a rough saw, cut out the fish pattern and whittle it down from there. Connie cuts all the fins out of aluminum.”
He uses other power tools to bring life to the carving by adding eyes, gills and structure to the fins and tail, and he uses a unique set of rolling tools to imprint scales into the wood.
Once the blank resembles the target fish species, a precise amount of molten lead specific to each fish pattern is added for ballast to make the decoy sink and enable it to balance and hover in horizontal fashion. Automotive Bondo is then used to seal the lead insert in the decoy’s body.
“After the lead and fins are in they get a coat of primer,” Rick Whittier said. “We then test every decoy in a swim tank here in the shop because we only want to produce top-quality decoys. We’ve got it down to the point now where out of a batch of 30 we might have a couple that need to be adjusted. The lead has to be just right, because swimming is the key.”
After a decoy passes the swim test, its next stop is the paint room, where he has a palette of aerosol paints at the ready.
“I only use rattle cans like you can find at Wal-Mart, and we’re kind of known for our painting,” he said. “I paint really fast because I want the colors to weep into each other so they blend better. The paint room holds 33 fish, and I try to paint them all at once. I can usually finish one in about two minutes using a lot of different colors.”
Connie Whittier said much of Whittier Decoys’ success rests firmly in their attention to detail.
“Fishermen will argue and argue with us, but if you look at each state’s respective fish ID sites — and we also know this from fishing ourselves — Minnesota and Wisconsin have perch that are more green with black bars, and here in the Dakotas they’re more brown and yellow,” she said. “We are very specific, and I’ll often walk through the pictures on our website with customers to make sure they order exactly what they want.”
Rick Whittier said he paints mostly from memory for top sellers such as pumpkinseed, walleyes and perch, but he said he uses large photos from reference books for some of the less common species.
“People love to collect them, and we have guys who have vowed to have one of every decoy we make,” he said. “So much for being retired, but this is kind of different. We actually really like this.”
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