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Decoy craftsman: Fargo man turns carving hobby into labor of love

Duane Steinkopf's motivation for carving his own spearing decoys was hardly storybook stuff, far less romantic than good old-fashioned German frugality would allow.

Duane Steinkopf's motivation for carving his own spearing decoys was hardly storybook stuff, far less romantic than good old-fashioned German frugality would allow.

"I started because I wasn't going to pay what they were asking for them at the store," Steinkopf said, laughing. "And that's the truth. I wasn't going to pay $18 or $20 for a decoy when I knew what they had into them."

Isn't that why Picasso got into painting?

Joking aside, it is now a couple of years later and Steinkopf's labor of thriftiness has become one of love. And beautiful craftsmanship. The Fargo resident has honed his once-rough skills into a hobby that garners orders from spear fishermen and collectors in the area and as far away as Texas and California.

Steinkopf said he might be the only decoy carver in North Dakota. Dave Beighley, a carver from Fergus Falls, Minn., said that could be true.

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"There are a lot here in Minnesota," Beighley said, rattling off perhaps a dozen names of carvers from the Fergus Falls and Detroit Lakes areas. "But he might be it in North Dakota. Maybe there's a couple of others, but there is not many."

Just don't ask Steinkopf if he makes his decoys as a commercial venture.

But more on that later. First, let's begin with the story of how a retired Northwest Technical College custodial engineer started cranking out fish decoys that people will fork over as much as $100 to buy.

It was in 2001, shortly after North Dakota opened a spearing season on northern pike. Steinkopf, a native Minnesotan who spent much of his life as an avid spearer before moving to then-spearing free North Dakota, was champing at the bit to get back into spearing.

But, as he said, Steinkopf refused to pay what retail stores were asking for decoys -- pieces of wood carved to look like small fish that larger fish eat. Spear fishermen jig decoys beneath a large hole in the ice in hopes of enticing pike into spearing range. So Steinkopf shelled out a couple of thousand dollars in equipment and set it up in a shed-turned-shop in his south Fargo backyard.

"Really, for the money I spent on equipment I could have bought many, many decoys," Steinkopf said. "But I really enjoy making them."

The decoys are nothing more than pieces of wood (pine, in Steinkopf's case) with tin fins and lead inserted into the belly for ballast. Even with paint and polyurethane coating, there can't be more than a few dollars in each one. So Steinkopf's original stimulus is easy to understand.

And it's not like pike require some kind of elaborate, detailed work before they'll be interested in getting up close and personal with a decoy. The aggressive predators are not that picky. Any chunk of wood painted with a red head and white body, the tried and true old Dardevle colors, would be enough to lure a hungry pike under a spearing hole.

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Steinkopf admits some of his early efforts weren't much advanced beyond that.

"A little rough around the edges," he said.

But his skills with wood tools increased and so did his prowess with a paintbrush. Soon the simple two-color decoys with a black slash for a "gill" became a perch or sunfish pattern. While it's true pike don't necessarily care how detailed the paint job on a decoy is, Steinkopf's work became more pleasing to the human eye.

Quickly enough, Steinkopf began producing not only decoys to be used for spearing, but decoys that could be used for decoration around the house. And his wife, Melva, got into the act. She painted flowers on round, sunfish-shaped decoys. When Steinkopf brought those decoys to a carvers' show, he found women loved them.

Now Melva is a partner with her husband in making decoys, Steinkopf said. She paints the sides of decoys with flowers, strawberries, frogs and even Nemo, the fish of movie fame.

"That's one the kids really like," Steinkopf said. "If you're at a show and a kid sees Nemo, they've got to have it."

While old-time carvers whittled decoys from pieces of basswood or butternut, Steinkopf employs what he calls "power carving."

Steinkopf begins with a chunk of pine, much of which he scavenges from construction sites with the blessing of contractors. He traces a pattern on the wood and cuts the rough decoy with a band saw. Then comes three steps of power sanding, each with a progressively finer paper, to hone the decoy into shape.

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Next Steinkopf punches a hole in the underside so he can insert lead, which balances the decoy in the water. He has a large Rubbermaid container filled with water in his shop for testing decoys before finishing them.

Then Steinkopf puts on the fins, made of tin. Either he or his wife paints the decoy and it is sprayed with several coats of polyurethane.

The finished product is good enough to attract pike. Steinkopf has a photo of himself holding a 17-pound pike he speared from Devils Lake using one of his own decoys.

Or the decoys could spruce up somebody's bathroom or den. Steinkopf said more people buy his work for decorating or collecting than for spearing.

Beighley, the Fergus Falls carver, bought a Steinkopf decoy at a show a couple of years ago because Beighley collects the work of all the carvers he meets.

"Duane's work is folk-artsy," Beighley said. "It's unique, just like all carvers' work. I can usually tell who carved a decoy just by picking it up. Everybody has their own style.

"Some of Duane's things are pretty wild. I pick them up and say, 'What is that painted on there?'"

Steinkopf's favorite decoy is a simple shape he calls the "pregnant shiner" -- meant to emulate a favorite food of predator fish -- but he makes walleyes, trout, pike, perch, sunfish or crappies. His most common-sized decoy is seven inches long, but he makes them as short as three inches and as long as 48.

Steinkopf, who said he made about 1,000 decoys last year, charges $10 for a decoy to be used for spearing. Larger, decorative ones are more. While he said he makes some money from his work, he said it is not his main motivation.

"The mistake I made was that I did some shows. When people see your work, and it's quality work, then they pester you to make them decoys," Steinkopf said. "But this is really just a hobby for me. I sell most of my decoys by word of mouth. People will call me up and say, 'Hey, can you make me such and such?' And I'll make some extras and have them in the basement and somebody will knock on the door and say, 'Can I buy a decoy?'"

Soon to be 63 and retired for nearly a decade, Steinkopf said making decoys strictly for money would be too much like a full-time job. He wants free time to spear and do other activities.

Last year on Devils Lake, a spear fisherman on the ice bought a decoy from Steinkopf and proceeded to spear a large pike. The fisherman carried the fish and decoy to Steinkopf's dark house and said, "I suppose you want to buy the decoy back again."

"I said, 'Why? I'll just go home and make another just like it.'" Steinkopf said.

Which is sort of why he got into making the things in the first place, right?

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5580

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