It’s never too late to start a new hobby.
In Brian Shallbetter’s case, he started two around the age of 50.
In 2008, he brought an inexpensive flat spear to Pelican Lake near Monticello, dropped a decoy under the ice of a dark house he bought used and waited. Shallbetter remembered thinking he was going to be bored all day.
But soon after, a huge pike clashed on its lure.
Shallbetter speared the fish and had a 10 pound to show for his first time on the water.
“Now I was like ‘this is pretty cool’,” Shallbetter recalls.
Something about the time spent in the spear shack and how the pike and other fish were mesmerized by the lure, clicked for Shallbetter.
Barely two years later, he started carving his own decoys in his studio in New Prague.
“I went hunting and fishing with my dad all the time,” Shallbetter said, “but I never knew I had that artistic ability. I never thought it was in me.
Shallbetter began by consulting a lure carving book with some basic outlines of fish shapes, and then learned to hand carve fish lures entirely through trial and error.
“It’s utilitarian art,” he says. “It’s pretty, but you still use it. “
He begins with a block of wood, which he will often obtain by visiting sawmills. There he can instruct factory operators to cut the blocks to his preferred measurements.
Shallbetter prefers cedar and pine for work lures, or lures that will be used for darkhouse harpooning. Decorative decoys, sought after by collectors and likely to land on shelves, can be carved from linden.
Basswood, Shallbetter says, is easily cut, but if the paint peels off, it will allow water to enter the body of the lure.
Each lure produced by Shallbetter is hand sculpted using an X-Acto knife and a roughing knife. The shapes are cut first with a bandsaw, and Shallbetter applies a hand drawn, pencil-drawn center line to help keep everything even and symmetrical.
The only thing that squeaks is the eye sockets.
The body is finished with sandpaper.
Whether painting or sanding, Shallbetter says, what you do on one side has to match what is done on the other.
The fins are cut from aluminum and a Dremel saw is used to finish them. The scales are burned with a wood tool.
All of the painting is done by hand except for one tool Shallbetter uses to roll over the trout spots.
“A lot of people are surprised to hear that it’s hand painted,” Shallbetter told me. “A lot of people assume my decoys are airbrushed, but I paint everything by hand. I learned to handle acrylic with water to slow down drying and get layers.
“It’s been a 10-year learning curve. You build up details as you go out. Ultimately, you get your own look and style.
The decoys are finished with a glass eye from a taxidermy supplier, and Shallbetter applies a clear coat at the end for a visually striking finish.
Each lure takes 8 to 40 hours, but according to Shallbetter, it’s a labor of love.
“Other sculptors have told me I’m getting really good, really fast,” recalls Brian, “but it still takes a while. You have to want to improve and improve.
One of the ways Shallbetter improved was to start competing.
“You get comments and reviews,” Shallbetter says, “and you have to swim them. Competing makes you better because you have something and someone to aim for.
The biggest showcase and competition is in Perham. “The Gathering” is held annually as the nation’s largest decoy show and competition.
It is a celebration of outdoor activities, highlighted by artistic competitions for sculptors of fish, birds and other wildlife.
After being canceled for the past two years due to COVID concerns, it is back for April 2022.
The National Fish Decoy Association runs several different competition classes: folk, decorative and work classes as well as arrangements.
Shallbetter has placed a number of times and is taking the chance to visit other harpoons and sculptors and participate in the annual event with fish fry and a few kegs of beer.
It’s a great place to meet sculptors and learn from the best.
“If anyone wants to get into decoy carving, people are there and will help you,” Shallbetter advises. “We want to see young people take care of it. We want to transmit sculpture and harpooning; it is sport and art.
Shallbetter’s winters are spent doing what he loves, harpooning and trimming decoys.
The timing is perfect. Shallbetter works in the construction industry, tendering for roofing and exterior projects, so he has downtime in the winter.
He says he’s best known for his ciscos, but he’s carved many species including suckers, chub, pike, crappie, bass, perch, walleye, and salmon.
“This is my Redneck 401K,” Shallbetter says. “Selling sculpted decoys allowed me to also become a collector. I can invest in the hobby that I love and support other sculptors.
You can find Brian’s work on “Shallbetter’s Decoys” on Facebook.
Scott Mackenthun has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. Email him at [email protected]