|American Fish Decoys
by Steven Michaan
Author Steven Michaan clearly states the intent of his latest book, “American Fish Decoys,” in the introduction: This book “does not attempt to offer new scholarship,” since that has already been adequately covered in other books on the subject, but rather “to create a book that illustrated these decoys in the most detailed possible way…(to) allow the reader to appreciate the workmanship and ingenuity of each piece.”
Utilizing a unique six-color printing process that reproduces the illustrations in incredible detail and clarity, the author accomplishes just that. In fact other than minimal text that introduces each chapter, this is basically a picture book, and it’s dramatically designed with minimal purpose: each two-page spread contains a photo of one fish on the right hand page with a descriptive caption on the facing page, each presented on a stark black background.
As Michaan did in his first book on fish decoys, “Beneath the Ice, The Art of the Spearfishing Decoy,” which was the accompanying catalog for an exhibit that began at the Museum of American Folk Art in 1991 before traveling to other locales, he draws exclusively from his own collection for examples, most of which were actively purchased during the mid to late 1980s when he noticed an opportunity to “create a collection that would define the art form” before others had been hooked by their lure.
The book itself is organized into six chapters, with a brief historic or biographical introduction preceding each photo portfolio. The first chapter is on Native American fish, who made them of bone and ivory and whose use likely originated in the area of the Bering Sea before spreading south to the Great Lakes area.
The second chapter focuses on the decoys of Upstate New York, the earliest documented fish decoys employed by non-Native Americans. Noted for their muted colors, copper fins, brass tack eyes and leather inxserted tails, the use of these deadly lures was outlawed before the end of the 19th century because they were decimating the inland lakes of many species of game fish.
The third chapter is dedicated to Oscar Peterson of Cadillac on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, probably the best known, and most prolific, of all the Michigan carvers of spear fishing decoys. A true master craftsman, Peterson produced thousands of spearing decoys in a streamlined “candle” shape now known as the Cadillac style. Peterson’s best work is arguably his trade signs and miscellaneous decorative carvings, yet Michaan decided to illustrate only his spearing decoys, except for one sign used in the front of the book.
The fourth chapter is dedicated to the carvers from Mt. Clemens, Michigan, which in the 1920s and 1930s, at its heyday just 30 miles north of Detroit, billed itself as “The Ice Fishing Capital.” The spearing decoys of Yock Meldrum, Tom Schroeder, Grandpa DeFer, Augie Janner, Theodore VanDenBossche, Gordon “Pecore” Fox, and Andy Trombley are among those included in this chapter.
Chapter five highlights the work of Hans Janner Sr., also of Mt. Clemens, who the author refers to as “one of the colorful and gifted artists to have ever graced the Great Lakes area.” Unlike Peterson, Janner’s decoys were only for his own use; therefore they are very rare to come by. Janner utilized an overlay of colors on his fish decoys, often applying the paint with his fingers and small sticks, which created a “ghostly” apparition under water. But it’s the metal work on the fins of his fish, elaborate and extravagant with only a vague relationship to their actual counterparts that make them most recognizable. He’s likely the author’s favorite maker, as one of Janner’s fish decorates the book’s dust jacket and endsheets.
The last chapter features other Michigan fish decoy makers whose work didn’t fall into one of the other sections, including Jesse Ramey, Ken Bruning and South Bend, the only factory fish included in the book.
If you collect and enjoy spearing decoys, “American Fish Decoys” will hook you at first glance. And if you’re the type that just likes looking at pictures, this book is perfect for you.
“American Fish Decoys” by Steven Michaan, 208 pages, 110 full color photos, Pound Ridge, New York, Available exclusively online at www.fishdecoy.com.
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