An a-luring art form

LIDGERWOOD – Is it a work of art to place on display, or should it be plunked into the water?

The answer is – both.

Rick Whittier of Lidgerwood has been a woodworking enthusiast as long as he can remember. In 2004, he turned his skills toward making lifelike fish out of wood. Since then he has won numerous national awards for his amazing products. He has displayed his fish carvings at decoy shows, the North Dakota Governor’s office and even a museum in Philadelphia.

“It’s an interesting line of work,” said Whittier from his shop in the basement of his Lidgerwood home. “Not many people are doing it. A lot of people in New York are buying them for the art part of it.”

Whittier tests every decoy in a tank in his shop to make sure it has the proper balance and swimming action. When that test is passed, he completes the detailed painting of the decoy. The finished product is both art and a working decoy for spearfishermen.

A number of customers are so impressed with Whittier’s work that they buy one fish decoy for display and another for actual use. According to Whittier, one fisherman from Minot got so much grief for forgetting to latch one of Whitter’s yellow perch decoys to a tie line and then losing it beneath the ice, that he did everything possible to make amends.

“He said they had limited (hit the maximum number of fish) several days in a row spearing pike using one of my yellow perch decoys,” said Whittier. “He drove all the way down from Minot but we didn’t have any. We only do orders, so he ordered a dozen of them.”

Whittier works seven days a week during the spearfishing season, creating about 200 decoys a month. He says 100 would be a lot more normal but he understands the necessity of the season.

“One guy called and ordered 20 decoys,” said Whittier. “We’ve had so many customers in the Minot area that it has been unbelievable. They are buying mostly yellow perch and walleye. I’d say 30 percent of the decoys are used for art and the others for both purposes, fishing and for art.”

Whittier participates in Pride of North Dakota events and makes appearances at a few fish decoy carver shows each year. Among his awards is recognition as Minnesota “Carver of the Year.”

“The North Dakota Council on the Arts gives me grants to teach what I do,” said Whittier. “I do this different from anybody else. I use only aerosol paint. I don’t use an airbrush. I actually mix the paint in the air.”

Detail painting, such as stripes and spots, is done the old-fashioned way with a brush and pallet. The images are stunning. To date Whittier has created more than 400 different species of fish, including 170 different trout.

“I actually find the rainbow trout is my favorite, not only to make but to use,” remarked Whittier. “The ones with hot pink on the side, kind of a bloodish look, really seem to bring pike in.”

The art and functionality of Whittier’s decoys also continue to bring in collectors, fish and fishermen. The working pieces of art have proven to be as exceptional in the water as in the display case. Small decoys, approximately 6 inches long, sell for $25. The 9-inch versions are $35. According to Whittier, spearfishermen have shown a preference for the larger decoys.

“The reason they go for the bigger ones is that, while little decoys bring in a lot of small northerns, up here they are really into the 9-inchers for bigger fish. They’ve had a lot of success,” said Whittier.

Whittier and his wife, Connie, made the move from Wisconsin to Lidgerwood in 2004 when retirement was knocking at their door. Now he is busy making fish decoys, a passion he thoroughly enjoys.

“I like to compete,” stated Whittier. “We make the most realistic decoys of anybody.”

That opinion is confirmed by a growing number of successful spearfishermen who are hooked on Whittier decoys. More information on Whittier decoys can be found at (www.whittierdecoys.com).