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Published May 10 2013

Spearfish decoy business booming for Lidgerwood man

LIDGERWOOD, N.D. - Rick Whittier’s business keeps him so busy making fish, he barely has time to catch them anymore.

“We even got a brand new spear this year, and we never even got to use it,” he said.

Not that he’s complaining. Business is booming as his hand-carved replicas have become some of the most sought-after spearfishing decoys in the angling world.

In the basement of the Lidgerwood home he shares with his wife of 25 years, Whittier fashions white pine into northern pike, walleye, perch, crappie, sunfish and dozens of other fish species.

It started as a hobby after he suffered a heart attack in 2004 and needed something to pass the time during his recovery.

He began whittling wood, but he said his foray into fish carving didn’t begin until an acquaintance showed up drunk at his door one night wanting to go spearfishing in the morning. The man was carrying an antique fish decoy and asked Whittier if he could replicate it.

Whittier did some research and found that few people were making contemporary decoys.

“My wife was showing me some of the carvers that were doing it, and I said, ‘Well I can do better than that,’ ” he said.

“And I said, ‘Yeah, you just go ahead, honey. We’ll see,’ ” said his wife, Connie, laughing.

Whittier had experience with woodworking but not woodcarving, and he admits his first decoys were “totally hideous.” His wife still likes to show the pictures to visitors.

“It’s like your baby pictures when you’re naked. It’s embarrassing,” he said.

But his skills eventually improved and his process became more refined.

He starts by using a scroll saw to cut out a rough fish shape from a block of pine, then pre-shapes it with a large belt sander. From there, he does all of his carving with Dremel rotary tools.

Whittier carefully inserts a lead weight into the belly and tests the decoy in a pool to confirm that it will descend slowly and swim in a circle.

“It’s really not a fish decoy if it doesn’t swim properly,” he said.

Unlike most other decoy makers, Whittier spray-paints his decoys instead of airbrushing them. Choosing from a palette of about 100 colors, he must move quickly to blend the colors before the fast-drying paint sets up. He sprays onto a paper plate and uses a brush to add the spots.

His wife also plays a role, using a wood-burning tool to add the fish scales one at a time.

The realistic results became a full-time business for the couple in 2005. They now ship decoys around the world, including to Australia, London, South Africa and Japan.

“A lot of them go to New York just for the art and the decoration,” he said. “I’ve got buyers who want one of every fish I make, and there’s 400 of them.”

Demand has grown since 2009, when the North Dakota Game and Fish Department lengthened the darkhouse spearfishing season by two weeks and increased the number of lakes it’s allowed from 37 to 52. Darkhouse spearing is now allowed on all but eight lakes and three waterways, including the Red and Bois de Sioux rivers.

“It is getting so popular,” Whittier said.

The 51-year-old Whittier and his wife try to produce 150 decoys per month. They sell the larger decoys for $35 apiece and the smaller ones for $25 apiece, while some bait shops carry the decoys for a bit more.

“I want the quality for the collector, but I want the affordability for the guy who actually uses it,” he said.

Whittier has won nearly 80 awards for his work, and his decoys have been displayed at the state Capitol. He’s considered a master artist and has taught three apprentices for the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

Starting in June, he will participate in the council’s “Art for Life” program, bringing his craft to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to help engage and stimulate their elderly residents.

“It’s really nice when your art not only brings you money, but it can actually help people,” he said.

Despite his increasing workload, Whittier said he and his wife have no plans to hire help.

“Everybody says you’re getting so busy, you should hire people. But it is an art, and people do expect what you’re giving them to be made by you,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528