Eight years ago Bob Johnson decided it was time to carve a decoy again. The 39-year-old Baxter resident had carved one when he was 10, "but it turned out lousy" and he quit after just one attempt.
But Johnson, who teaches pottery and photography at Brainerd High School, didn't lose the interest in carving that was passed on to him by his father. He also had begun darkhouse spearing again, another hobby he learned from his father, and needed some decoys to fish with.
So Johnson bought a book with decoy patterns and carved another one. "I thought it turned out great," he said, "so I took it to a friend's fish house on Ossawinamakee and threw it in the water. It floated like a duck."
The decoy lacked weight, a problem that was easily remedied. Johnson liked the end result and has been carving ever since. He carved 40 decoys last year and has carved about 200 over the past eight years. It's a pleasurable hobby he pursues in his basement after the kids are in bed on winter nights.
"I lose track of time when I'm carving," said Johnson, whose carving season runs from Thanksgiving to mid-March. "I become so immersed in it the hours fly by. That's the time I love because it's my time to be alone with what I do. I look up and all of a sudden it's two in the morning."
The results of Johnson's late-night efforts have been noteworthy. He won four awards, including a fifth, two fourths and a second, at the John Jensen Nationals last spring in Perham. "The more I've pursued it the more proficient I've become," said Johnson, who grew up in Mahnomen and taught in Karlstad for 14 years. "I started out making working decoys and it's progressed into an art form. As the art form became its own I've taken the time to get the details right."
Johnson's decoys are made of basswood, pine or cedar scraps he salvages from construction sites. He cuts the profile on a band saw, then sands and shapes each one. With a carving knife he etches in the gills, mouth and other details. Eye sockets are drilled out and realistic glass eyes glued in. The fins are made from the tin lids of 2-pound coffee cans. Lead wheel weights are used to balance the decoys, and each is tested to make sure it swims right.
Johnson usually has two or three decoys in progress and can carve two northern pike decoys in one night. He also makes shiners, rainbow trout, brown trout, whitefish, tullibee, bass, panfish and perch decoys. All are known for their distinctive finishes, hand-painted details and wire-wrap line ties. He uses acrylic paint with a polyurethane finish and carves his name and the date on the bottom of each decoy. A working decoy -- one used for actual ice fishing -- costs $40 . A decorative decoys gets as much as $125, depending on the species. Though decoys take up most of his carving time he also carves human caricatures, including Santa Clauses. He has entered his decoys and other carvings in competitions in Perham and Duluth.
Johnson owns a collection of 25 decoys from 18 different artists, including Otto Bishop Sr., Larry Lange, Dennis Burtrum, Stan Kaste, Otis Lael and Bruce Dickson. "It's nice to have a piece from the different carvers," he said. "Their styles are all different and I like to look at them every now and then."
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