Today’s treasures come from yesterday’s heart, creativity and passion

My friend, John, has a fabulous collection of decoys. Some are primitive, hand hacked wooden pieces which saw early use. Others are more elaborately carved, perfect copies of specific species. Hundreds in all… John’s enthused.

So, when Joe Fossey asked me if I knew much about decoys, I said I knew there were lots and lots of decoys and that John probably had a lion¹s share of the collection.

And it’s a good thing Joe Fossey was a man of modest means…and maybe that’s true of many of the things that were born of necessity but have become priceless treasures today. Joe wasn’t talking about duck decoys. No sirree, Joe was talking about fish decoys. Fish decoys? I’ve talked with avid fishermen who don’t know about fish decoys, an art and fish form that became obsolete with the outlawing of spear fishing.

This past week has been the deadline for removal of ice huts and that’s where the fish decoy was mostly used. Picture this… The ice fisherman (or fisherwoman) would huddle inside the fish hut or tent, Quebec heater or Herter’s stove puffing out warmth. Through a small hole in the roof went a handle that often reached 10 feet in length. Much like a very long rake handle, this device was attached to a slender speer, with barbs resembling those on a porcupine quill. The fisherman would drop the decoy through the ice hold where it would hover inches below the water. As the shimmers of red or silver or blue attracted curious and hungry larger prey, the spear would be thrown. Its long handle made sure at least some of the spear stayed above water so it wasn’t lost completely! Lake Simcoe (its deepest part being Kempenfelt Bay) can date its ice fishing history back to 1815 when pioneer George Cook records natives huddled under robes around chopped holes, using a short spear to capture fish lured by decoy bait.

Cook comments in an early diary that the native fishermen used artificial fish, 8 to 9 inches long, of white wood, with leaden eyes, tin fins and weighted bodies.

This is, indeed, the basic outline of a fish decoy. But time is long in Canadian winters and I’m sure time is long in ice huts. Thus the fish decoy art form. Joe talks of the years (not so long ago) when those inside Lake Simcoe ice huts would pile up hundreds of laketrout and whitefish (some as long as four or five feet) as a day’s work. Vendors from Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market would arrive on the ice to buy the day’s catch… early commerce in a community that built its support on rail and water.

Today, fish decoys are an art form, highly prized and often copied to unrecognizable mastery. Joe Fossey is one of those artists. He has incredible antique prizes made by Busty’s Baits of Parry Sound and Brantford¹s Dizzy Decoy Company efforts. And he has duplicates that he has made himself simply because they were too expensive to buy. Weights were imbedded in the body of the fish and a hook at the top allowed line with which to suspend the decoy. The Dominion Fishing Tackle Company of Toronto merits a full page in the Canadian segment of the ‘bible’ of fish decoy histories and values. Joe wrote this section. He details companies, employee numbers, the striving to perfect finish and weight and flotation. Some decoys were very elaborate and during the metal shortages of World War Two, fish decoy manufacturers had to be very creative.

At one point the Dominion Tackle Company was speared into the Lester Bedford company and moved to Oro Station. Bedford and his son, Douglas, continued the tackle-making business. Les had hoped just to get the thing up and operating again, a temporary measure in his eyes. His work laster for 33 years until the company sold for the last time.

Lest you think that decoy-making was merely a whittler’s idle amusement, it’s worth knowing that tackle companies used mechanical engineering skills and put them to work in industrial manufacturing that produced decoys that will outlast their owners. While punch presses and assembly jigs help in the process, it required artistic ability too.

Joe tells the story that George Washington Wheeler, of Lefroy, is credited with the invention of a decoy which received a US patent in 1921. It was sheer luck that upon bachelor George’s death, his grand-niece dealt with the fishing paraphernalia by handing it over to his friend. Nobody really knew the history of the patented decoy, but lucky, persistent Joe Fossey uncovered its whereabouts… just doors away from where it was invented.

There are as many stories as there are fish, and once spearing was prohibited, many decoy manufacturers added hooks to their decoys so they could still be used.

Today, they grace the shelves of meticulous enthusiasts like Joe Fossey. Beautiful, colourful, sitting on top of their equally vintage boxes, the fish decoy story belongs right here right now on the ice of Lake Simcoe.

Thanks, Joe.