BAXTER -- Bob Johnson said he felt confident when he went to Perham two weeks ago for the John Jenson National Fish Decoy contest.
Since the first time the 40-year-old Baxter carver had competed in the contest he had significantly improved his technique, including "burning" in scales on his decoys to make them appear more lifelike.
But Johnson's confidence took a hit when he got to Perham.
"I think they could hear my jaw hit the floor when I walked into the show area," said Johnson, who has carved decoys for 10 years but didn't compete in Perham until 1999. "Everybody's work has improved so much. The competitions are becoming extremely tough. You must come up with innovative ideas each time you compete."
Johnson was overwhelmed in Perham, and for good reason. Last year the contest, the largest of its type in the nation, had 190 decoys entered for judging. This year there were 409. The exhibit hall had 230 tables filled with everything relating to decoy carving, a testimony to the growing popularity of this unique American folk art form.
Johnson entered decoys in nine categories and won three first-place awards, three seconds and two thirds. The first-place decoys depicted a largemouth bass, arctic char and whitefish. The second-place winners depicted a white sucker, northern pike and perch. One of the third-place decoys depicted a golden trout while the other featured a whitefish with a fish house painted on its side. This decoy was entered in the folk art division.
Johnson also won the Best of Show award ($250) for a 5-inch red-and-white sucker. That decoy along with the first-place winners became the property of the show officials. Typically, Johnson gets from $50 to $500 for a decoy.
"Things have really taken off," Johnson said Monday in his basement workshop in Baxter. "I'm getting calls from all over the nation. In the past year I've made about 30 to 40 decoys and 30 have sold. I hardly have any stock left."
Johnson credits fellow carvers Bruce Dixon, Backus, who was his first mentor, Michigan's Mike Holmes and Harley Ragen and Wisconsin's Doug Davis for helping him succeed. "It's a close-knit group," Johnson said.
A Johnson-carved brook trout decoy recently was featured on the cover of Cabin Life magazine, published in Duluth. It's the kind of notoriety that is garnering attention for his decoys from coast to coast. He also was hired to paint a limited edition painting called "The Gathering," which depicts decoys made by many of today's carvers. A painstaking process, it took him about three weeks to finish the painting, including about 12 hours spent drawing each decoy.
Interest in decoy carving has escalated and hasn't peaked yet.
"People are getting into the collectibility and history of carving," Johnson said. "Some are second-generation carvers like myself. There's a lot of curiosity in how you do it. It's up to the individual carver to learn what he can and make it work. That appeals to a lot of people."
Johnson's work almost certainly is beginning to influence other carvers.
He acknowledges that probability, then adds, "I'm to the point where it's going to be real hard to come up with new things. I'm pushing the realistic fish to the limit."
But the limits keep rising, and Johnson is helping raise the standards for decoy carvers.
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