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Ojibwe Winter Spearfishing Decoy | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Ojibwe Winter Spearfishing Decoy

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Ojibwe Winter Spearfishing Decoy | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeSpearfishing decoy

Spearfishing decoy, 1996

The use of white paint on the underbelly of the fish is commonly seen in John Snow’s decoys. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum Object #1996.118.106A-B

EnlargeJohn Snow

John Snow in his workshop, 1996

John Snow in his workshop. Source: Image courtesy by Lewis Koch, Wisconsin Folk Museum Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Documentation Project

EnlargeDecoys in progress and tools used

Decoys in the making, 1996

Decoys in progress and tools used for carving, in John Snow’s workshop. Source: Image courtesy by Lewis Koch, Wisconsin Folk Museum Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Documentation Project


Ice-fishing, 1996

A tent on the ice, covering an ice-fishing hole. Source: Image courtesy by Lewis Koch, Wisconsin Folk Museum Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Documentation Project

Sturgeon decoy carved and painted by Ojibwe artist John V. Snow.
(Museum Object #1996.118.106A-B)

John V. Snow, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe, carved and painted this wooden spearfishing decoy to resemble a sturgeon. Ojibwe fishers use a length of fishing line to lower such decoys into the cold winter waters, hoping to lure fish close enough to spear. These decoys represent one of the oldest forms of functional Ojibwe sculpture. Some of the other species represented in Lac du Flambeau fish decoys include northern pike, smelt, golden shiner, walleye, crappie, bluegill, and bass.

The Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe have long passed down the knowledge and skills of spearfishing and decoy carving by taking on apprentices, guiding students to develop their own techniques. As a young man, John learned to carve fish decoys by watching his father, Thomas Snow. John gained an intricate understanding of how a fish looks and swims through years of observation and he displays this knowledge through his fish decoys. His creation of darker colored decoys for use in clear waters and brighter ones for dark waters illustrates John's close attention to detail. The range of decoys he produced vary in size from large bait fish to small minnows.

Selecting the proper wood is the first step in making a successful decoy. Basswood is most commonly used, but other popular materials include white pine, birch, alder, redwood and balsa. The wood must be cut and aged, or "cured", for an appropriate amount of time before carving. The carver uses a knife to roughly shape, trim, and lastly, for completing detailed carving of each decoy. Carving the shape of the fish correctly is very important because the curve and pitch of the tail are vital to the decoy "swimming" properly through the water.

Once the carver has finished creating the decoy's shape, he pours molten lead into a rectangular cavity cut into the front of the decoy's underbelly. Next, he inserts metal fins, often cut from scrap metal such as old cans or buckets, into slits in the sides of the fish. These fins help keep the decoy in an upright position when submerged in the water. The carver finishes the decoy by painting it in a realistic style. In the past, only natural dyes were used to tint the wooden fish, but modern artists frequently employ oil and acrylic paints.

In addition to the fish decoy and a spear, winter spearfishing also requires a hole carved through the ice. Often, the spearfisher will drill a small test hole in the ice to measure the depth of the water and to observe fish activity in a specific area. Once a spot is chosen, the spearfisher will drill a larger hole, narrower at the surface and angling outward towards a wider bottom; this shape eases the removal of the ice block, which is pushed down into the water.

Traditionally, a spearfisher would cover the hole with a small tent made of tree branches and blankets, then the fisher would lie on his stomach under the tent to fish. Modern spearfishers often use a "shanty," a cabin-like enclosure that allows them to sit upright while fishing. Both methods accomplish the goal of blocking out the light which tends to scare fish away. Using fishing line attached to a jigging stick, the spearfisher lowers the fish decoy into the water and maneuvers it through the water as realistically as possible hoping to attract a fish to spear.

[Sources: Kimball, Art and Brad Kimball. Fish Decoys of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibway (Boulder Junction: Aardvark Publications, 1988); Wisconsin Folk Art: A Sesquicentennial Celebration (Cedarburg: Cedarburg Cultural Center, 1997).]


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[Posted on January 19, 2006