A Minnesota man’s ornate carved fishing decoys have become famous among collectors and spear fishermen.
Dennis Bertram, the self-taught retiree, has been carving rough blocks of redwood into detailed and varied spear fishing decoys for 35 years. A spear fisherman himself, Bertram tests every decoy in the water to make sure it’s right. And he would know. He’s been spearing for 40 years.
As a backhoe operator for a construction outfit, Bertram generally had winters off, leaving him time to spear fish nearly every day. He noticed that commercially-available fishing decoys were generally only six to eight inches long.
But he was after bigger fish, so he tried his hand at carving his own larger decoys. The largest fishing decoy he made was a 39-inch red and white to attract sturgeon. His most popular fishing decoy, however, is an 11-inch red and white, while his second most popular is an 11-inch yellow perch. Sunfish decoys are also popular choices.
Fishing Decoy Style
Bertram’s fishing decoys weren’t always great, by his own admission. The first designs were smooth and torpedo-shaped and “looked kind of like a bowling pin with some thumb tacks for eyes.”
As his carving skills improved, the tails developed a curve. The tail grooves were carved instead of wood-burned. Bertram started to set glass eyes in the head, surrounded by a starburst paint pattern.
Part of Bertram’s signature style includes fishing decoys with oversized lips and an open mouth. As it turns out, this style attracts fish like crazy!
Rather than mass producing decoys, Bertram cuts patterns from old cardboard boxes and uses a band saw to cut out the wood blanks in his rural Belgrade workshop. Then he uses hand tools (e.g., chisels, knives, etc.) to slowly shape and form the decoys. Tin fins are placed into the groove and set with glue. Lead weight is affixed to the decoy, and then they get up to six coats of oil paint, which is done in batches.
“One thing nice about carving, you don’t have to go to the blueprints and see if you’ve got it right or not,” Bertram said.
His decoys are so much an art form, that he’s even given up on some and tossed them in the garbage, only to go fish them back out and keep carving until they perform perfectly in his underwater test.
Bertram makes a mighty big claim about his decoys.
I tell everybody they’re guaranteed. If you don’t get any fish off them, you bring them back.
That might seem boastful, but he has the fish and photos to back it up. His wall contains several mounted fish and many pictures of a fish in one hand and decoy in the other. Lucky spear fishermen may see one 20- to 25-pound northern pike in their lifetime, but Bertram has seen hundreds. In fact, the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls, Minnesota shows a 20-minute film with some of the fish Bertram captured over a six-year period doing what he calls “watch-and-release” winter fishing.
When Bertram goes spear fishing, he takes a dozen fishing decoys into the spear house and has another dozen reserved in the truck. He stated;
Without a doubt, if I’ve got that gut feeling there’s a fish out there, I don’t play my decoys much but I’ll switch ’em a lot so I have a lot of decoys in the house all the time. Sometimes, that’s just what it takes, taking one out and putting a different one down…I tell everybody red-and-white is definitely the place to start.
Rod Osvold, who founded the National Fish Decoy Association 18 years ago, has a lot of respect for Bertram stating; “He’s kind of one of the granddaddies of Minnesota carvers because he’s spent so much time in the fish house. He knows as much about northern pike and their habits as (Babe) Winkelman and (Al) Lindner know about walleye…He makes one of the best swimming decoys in the United States.”
Bertram carves about 100 fishing decoys a year, and brings about 50 to the National Fish Decoy Association decoy show. Approximately 90 percent of his customers are fishermen, while the rest are collectors.
“The fishermen and the collectors both look for the same thing: It’s got to be a usable, functional, working fish,” Osvold said. “It’s got to work. That’s the key. From there it evolves into art.”
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