The Art of Sturgeon Coaxing
K.J. Houtman 11.11.13
Any number of “things” might coax a sturgeon under a shanty on Lake Winnebago, so the experts claim. Now that my tag is in my hands for the Wisconsin spearing season in February, it is time to prepare—and that means I need a good decoy. At the very least, the right decoy may keep the hallucinations that result from hours of staring down a dark-house hole at bay. Why not look at a work of art?
One good option would be a hand-carved, basswood sturgeon decoy by George Schmidt of Appleton, Wisconsin. He has been carving decoys (duck decoys, sturgeon decoys, and more) since 1955. He started numbering and signing them in 1980, and he is up to 1,049 now. They cost about $60, depending on the size.
Collectors have been purchasing them in good number. “A lot of my decoys don’t go in the water anymore,” said the retired compressor worker. Schmidt traveled all over the world repairing oil-rig pipes, the type used in oceans as well as the Alaskan pipeline. Now he stays close to home and makes decoys.
“It’s really weird; everybody has a different idea about decoys. Some folks like the ones with flotation. They tie those to the bottom PVC tubes and float up,” continued George. More common are the lead-weighted decoys that one ties to the house and lowers them. “Blue, red, and yellow are the best colors, I guess. That’s what I make the most. They’re easy to see in the water.” Not that George would know from a successful spearing outing. He has never speared a sturgeon. “I stared down a hole for several days with a friend of mine a long time ago. The next year he asked me if I wanted to go out again. I told him, ‘Why would I want to do that?’” That was the end for many decades for George. Schmidt prefers to admire the sturgeon through replicas from his well-equipped woodshop in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Apparently, sturgeon are curious creatures. That is the only thing that explains all the oddities—toilet seats, disco balls, and copper gelatin molds, for example—used as decoys. It is more like coaxing sturgeon to come see what this weird thing is; it definitely is not baiting. Sturgeon feed on the bottom and aren’t looking upward for food. Their diet is mostly insects, larvae, small crustaceans, and clams.*
“I was working at a check-in station with the DNR one year and a guy speared a really nice one,” shared Schmidt. “While we were getting the measurements he said, ‘Want to see how I got it?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ Then he holds up two Barbie dolls duct taped together, back-to-back.”
This curiosity trait fuels the use of decoys, not a lure for food or schooling with other sturgeon. I can’t help but appreciate the beauty of George Schmidt’s work and other carvers like him, though, even if a number of the decoys resemble a sturgeon. Perhaps George’s way is the right way to go about this. He makes a work of art.
“That up-turned nose is kind of my signature, or claim to fame, I guess,” George said. “I have about five different patterns that I work with, and I make them in various sizes from 12 inches to more than 18 inches. Whatever people want, I can make them. Weather vanes. Anything.”
Schmidt donates a lot of decoys to organizations that raise funds for conservation efforts, programs like Sturgeons for Tomorrow or Ducks Unlimited. “I like to donate about 35 decoys a year for groups like that. It’s a good thing.”
It is, indeed, a very good thing. This talented wood carver uses his skill in a generous way. Some of his decoys have fetched over $240 at auction.
Now, the question that needs to get answered: do I want mine to look like a sturgeon in the natural gray colors, or do I go with a copper-look to reflect light like the famed gelatin molds? Or do I get a little funky and order one with a “God bless the U.S.A.” look? Or do I look for two Barbie dolls at Goodwill?
Choices. One decision is made, though. My own, custom-made decoy is next on my sturgeon-spearing preparation list.
*From People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish by Kathleen Schmitt Kline, Ronald M. Bruch, and Frederick P. Binkowski (pages 10 and 114).
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.