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Frank Mizera & Bud Kromer
Friends and fish decoy makers

by Donald J. Peterson

Frank Mizera enjoys a deserved lofty reputation as a carver and painter of spear fishing decoys. The sleek body design of his decoys and his distinctive painting style is immediately recognizable to collectors. Yet few collectors realize that Mizera’s close friend, Bud Kromer, was often involved in this collaborative effort.

  Mizera’s “fish on fish” decoys, painted by his wife Josephine, are most popular with collectors.

Bud Kromer and Frank Mizera became good friends during the late 1930s, first meeting at the Pioneer Mine where they both worked. Mizera had already begun top make fish decoys to supplement his income, a barber in Ely acted as the distributor. Kromer enjoyed working with his hands and shared Mizera’s passion for carving spearing decoys. Alternating visits, they would visit each other’s home to carve, paint, lead and fin their decoys. Bud’s son, Dave, accompanied his Dad during these visits, assisting in whatever the task required him to do.

Kromer produced a number of fish decoys that show a strong Mizera influence. But he and his son primarily assisted Mizera in his cottage industry, helping fill the many orders that his thriving business generated. The partnership was based on friendship and the simple pleasure of carving camaraderie; Kromer never shared in the profits of the endeavor even though Mizera sold thousands of the fish decoys they produced. 

Mizera utilized teardrops and circles with dots to decorate his fish.

Mizera and Kromer created decoys of many different shapes, designs and colors, especially for their own use, but mostly focused on Mizera’s commercial designs and color schemes. The basic look and paint patterns of Mizera’s decoys changed little over the years, although the later fish have thinner bodies and a more pronounced slope to the nose. Each have two pectoral fins per side and a wooden tail – the metal fins and the tail decorated with painted lines. Three painted arcs of ascending size mark the gills. A dried bean or pea was glued in for an eye. The bulging pair is painted with a black iris and a surrounding white circle. 

The majority of the fish are painted red and white, some having red stripes around the white bodies. Mizera also used brown and orange paint for the decoy bodies, and left some in natural wood, vanished with a burned design or painted with contrasting stripes. 

  Red and white fish, some with red lines circling the white bodies, are the most common of Mizera’s fish.

The style most desired by collectors are the “fish on fish” decoys, which are decorated on the backs and sides with tiny fish of complimentary colors. Most are black with yellow and orange fish, a few are turquoise finished the same, and one example is silver with white fish. Frank’s wife Josephine, nicknamed Pepsi, did much of the fine painting on the Mizera decoys, and the “fish on fish” decoys are her greatest achievements. A variation of this effort was another commercial decoy that utilized a tear-drop motif and another that sported a white spot with a black dot in the middle.

Mizera and Kromer also crafted lures. They were used on Superior and other large lakes to fish for trout. They packaged the lures in blasting cap boxes, which were in ample supply at Pioneer Mine. Mizera is also credited with making a metal lure.

It’s difficult to estimate with certainty the number of fish decoys that Frank Mizera made throughout his lifetime. A newsletter at Pioneer Mine estimated that he made 9000 decoys in a nine-year period, likely during the decade of the 1950s. As to the depth of Bud Kromer’s involvement in his total output, that much isn’t certain. However their collaborative efforts, combined with Josephine’s decorative touch, produced some of the finest spear fishing decoys ever created.

A special thanks to Dave Kromer who provided substantial information for this story and generously shared his family’s photos.

For the complete story, please see the March/April 2002 issue of Decoy Magazine.

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