Jan 10, 2019

Sturgeon Eye Candy

Experienced carver George Schmidt crafts decoys that attract fish, and serve as works of art to the anglers who own them

By Cooper Radtke 

Reaching for his draw knife, 80-year-old Appleton resident George Schmidt demonstrates with ease the process of crafting the next perfect sturgeon coaxer.

Another crank on the vice arm, and a brief confirmation shake test were the last bits of preparation before the wood shavings started piling up on his boots.

At more than 1,600 and counting, Schmidt’s eye-catching decoys have gotten the attention of man and fish alike. After 63 years of turning logs into practical works of art, he has earned himself a reputation in the sturgeon community for attracting fish and making decoys worth staring at for the long dark hours in a shanty.

Fisherman have thrown everything at the evidently curious creatures, from floating decoys to sinkers, toilet seats, disco balls, Barbie dolls and corn cobs. Still, Schmidt attests that his works of art maintain an edge on the corn in terms of keeping the fisherman’s eyes from rolling back in his head.

 

‘Clay’ for sculpting decoys

He paused from his work briefly.

“Cedar,” Schmidt said, gesturing to the block in front of him, before raking off another large peel.

A seemingly trivial detail maybe, but when most of the decoys coming out of his shop are basswood that he’s personally harvested, cut and dried on the Oconto County property where his woodshop resides, it’s a surprise worthy enough of recognition. He later speculates the block came from scraps he’d collected from a neighbor’s old project.

Down in Schmidt’s basement workshop, it was apparent that he practiced such recycling habits often and from it, birthed many projects. Weather vanes, fishing poles, goose, duck and of course, sturgeon decoys, are some of many various explorations.

“It’s the templates that save the time,” he explained, removing the now streamlined blank from the vice.

Step after step, Schmidt turned to his pegboard wall and pull down another one-of-a-kind tool, specialized jig, or custom template – many of which were riddled in scribbled notes, unintended for other eyes. Slipping a series of paper masks over the snout of the block, he’d mark the mouth, gills and eyes, noting the importance of their symmetry.

Next, drill holes to add the weight, and finally over to the paint. Schmidt continues around the workbench holding up other templates and techniques, sometimes explaining, sometimes veering off into a story. Tales of his first decoys on display at the local taverns, and of the history of sturgeon around the Lake Winnebago system. Though there was never a shortage of stories. There is oddly enough, only one story that involves himreaping the reward of his own decoy. And recently at that, after a 50-year hiatus.

 

‘Not for the money’

I’m no stranger to the sheet metal villages that migrate the frozen lakes of the area. But the social rituals and camaraderie that forms around an open hole in the ice, I’ve learned, is something entirely unique to this area, especially with a prehistoric 50-inch prize met at the end of a pitchfork.

So as I stood underneath a mobile of suspended colored decoys in Schmidt’s workshop, I questioned how someone who doesn’t spear would take the time to craft hundreds of beautifully handmade decoys as he has.

Schmidt had been describing one of the decoys in his personal collection, and set down the ruby-eyed, yellow torpedo before answering.

“It’s not for the money,” he laughed. “I do it for the fisherman. I like to carve, and just enjoy seeing people use them.”

His hobby has now reached the point that many of the new decoys he handcrafts won’t actually meet their destiny in the dark, frigid waters. Many collectors are equally fulfilled seeing their unique decoy requests come to life on a mantel above their fireplace.

While most of his pieces sell for about $65, Schmidt now donates decoys in some numbers to groups like Sturgeon for Tomorrow to raise funds for conservation efforts, where at auction they may fetch upward of four times that amount. It’s an admirable way to contribute to the continuation of such a historic pastime in Wisconsin.

“It’s a good thing,” he said. And I believe him.

Of all the questions asked about his motivation, one answer seemed to highlight itself again and again. It’s probably the same reason there’s such a strong community of Carhartt-clad ice warriors, swapping frosty cans and braving the cold. One that complements the nature of those out on the ice.

Smiling and shaking his head, Schmidt says twice for emphasis, “A down to earth, good group of people.”

 

Cooper Radtke is a 22-year-old Wisconsinite who enjoys fresh air, trees, water and the endless activities that allow us to play in them.