Early Objects & Sculpture
FISH DECOYS
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  • SUCKER FISH DECOY
    Artist unidentified
    Lake Chautauqua, New York
    Late 19th century
    Paint on wood with tin and leather
    3 x 9 3/4 x 3 3/4 in.
    American Folk Art Museum, gift of the Beinecke Foundation, Inc., Barbara and John Robinson, 2000.3.1

    TROUT DECOY, PERCH DECOY, AND BROOK TROUT DECOY
    Oscar “Pelee” Peterson (1887–1951)
    Cadillac, Michigan
    1935–1944
    Paint on wood and metal
    5–8 in. long
    American Folk Art Museum, gift of Alan Milton, 1990.14.1 (trout) and Lori Zabor in memory of Selma Segal, 1991.14.4, 5 (perch and brook trout)

    Decoys used for ice spearfishing can be traced to Native American prototypes. The fisherman built a shanty around a hole cut in the ice and waited in the darkened enclosure, ready to strike with his handheld spear as the target fish passed below, attracted by the shaped and painted decoy dangled in the water. The first major interest in this method, outside Native American and Eskimo cultures, occurred around Lake Chautauqua, in western New York. Especially as hotels developed along the lake’s shores, workers from the nearby furniture factories began to supplement their incomes by supplying the hotels, restaurants, and residents with fresh fish. Eventually, this led to commercial harvesting ventures that so depleted the lake stock that ice spearfishing was banned in the state in 1905. New York State decoys are most closely related to the earlier fish decoys carved by Native Americans, with simple forms and somber colors. They often have fins made from a single piece of tobacco tin or other recycled metal that was passed through a slit in the decoy body. The defining characteristic of New York State fish decoys, however, is the addition of leather tails.

    An extensive use of fish decoys developed among those who fished the frozen freshwater lakes of Alaska, Maine, the midwestern states, and Canada. During the Great Depression, the Midwest, in particular, experienced a boom in ice spearfishing with decoys as a means of supplementing both incomes and diets. As with wildfowl hunting, the wholesale slaughter of gamefish finally prompted government legislation banning commercial harvesting and severely restricting ice spearfishing over decoys for sport.

    Oscar “Pelee” Peterson is probably the best-known carver to have emerged during the Depression years. Peterson grew up hunting and fishing in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and remained a wilderness guide most of his life. He spent more than fifty years carving, and he approached decoy making as a profession, carving decoys for himself, the tourist trade, and other fishermen. It is estimated that he may have carved as many as 10,000 to 15,000 pieces, of which 1,500 to 2,000 may still be in existence. Peterson’s decoys are distinguished by their enameled surfaces and bright colors.
  • Photo by John Parnell