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August 17, 2019

7/13/2019 7:30:00 AM
Natural Reaction
A legacy of lures
Jacob Friede
Of The Lakeland Times

Look in any tackle shop or sporting goods department and you'll find aisles of the latest and greatest fishing lures. From plastics and spinners to spoons and crank baits, they come in all shapes and colors, and their manufacturers all promise that they catch fish because they've been proven on the water.

None of those lures, however, are as time-tested as the fish decoys currently on display at the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center in Lac du Flambeau.

Featuring the expert work of the late James Wayman, a master Lac du Flambeau tribal decoy carver, the exhibit is a collection of fish decoys crafted with the use of designs which are centuries old.

Fish decoys, like those on display, helped keep generations of Ojibwe tribes alive through harsh northern winters with their effectiveness to attract prey for ice fishermen to spear.

Now that's a proven success rate, and when you see them you understand why.

They were carved from basswood with astonishing detail and all the decoys, including their finely cut fins and gills, were crafted with only a draw knife and a carving knife.

No mechanical tools were used, and as far as shape, their resemblance to the fish they represent is striking.

This is greatly enhanced by the painting. The intricate details of the scale patterns and various shades of the fish are all captured by Wayman's paint brush. Each individual species of fish is clearly distinct.

The decoy collection at the George W. Brown Jr museum features 23 different fish species, from bluegills to bass and from perch to pike any fish you can find on the Lac du Flambeau chain is represented.

One curious distinction, however, is all the decoys are tinted just a bit darker than their real-life counterparts, appearing as if they are underwater, where their true audience lives.

Make no mistake, the Wayman exhibit is no art show. These decoys are considered the best in the world because they can catch the eye of a muskie, not a critic.

But, as it turns out, their impressive lifelike details appeal to both.

Some of Wayman's decoys also appear in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's fish decoy collection, along with those of some of his tribesmen.

In fact, of the 48 decoys in that collection, 10 of them are from Lac du Flambeau decoy carvers, which is evidence of how respected their work is.

But all that respect is built upon a reputation of practical effectiveness, which, when it comes to decoy carving, is the ultimate standard, and Wayman's designs are tried and true.

Ojibwe decoys, like those on display at the George W. Brown Jr. Museum, have been putting fish on the ice to help feed tribes for hundreds of years, and according to museum director Teresa Mitchell, their true beauty resides in that history.

"It's not just about coming in and looking at somebody's beautiful stuff," Mitchell said. "It's actually a piece of the way we survive."

Jacob Friede may be reached at or

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