MOUNTAIN — George Schmidt’s sturgeon spearing decoys are such works of art that many aren’t even going in the water anymore.
“Collectors have a lot of them and put them on bookshelves or display them,” Schmidt said. “But if I had my way, I’d want them to be in the water as decoys. That’s why I make them — to get them in the water.
“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than someone telling me, ‘Hey, George, I got my sturgeon because he came right in on that decoy you made!’ ”
Plenty of the nearly 2,000 decoys Schmidt has carved since 1955 are surely ending up in the water during the current sturgeon spearing season on Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes.
The season started Feb. 10 and continues until Feb. 25, or until harvest caps are met. A total of 12,979 licenses were sold to sturgeon spearers in 71 out of 72 Wisconsin counties and representatives from 32 states and one Canadian province.
The Winnebago System is home to the world’s largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon (44,000 adult fish). They can weigh more than 200 pounds, making them the largest fish in the Great Lakes. And they’re considered living fossils since they’ve survived, virtually unchanged, for more than 100 million years.
Schmidt hasn’t been around quite that long, he joked, but during his 62 years spent carving sturgeon decoys the 80-year-old man has developed a sterling reputation.
His creations were among the decoys featured in the 2009 book “People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish.”
Over the years, sturgeon spearers have experimented with an array of decoys to lure the naturally curious sturgeon closer to the large ice hole beneath their shanties. They’ve tried everything from baseball bats and bowling pins to Barbie dolls and beer cans. Some even use toilet seats or disco balls. As long as it piques a sturgeon’s curiosity and coaxes the sturgeon, that’s all that matters.
But for sturgeon spearers interested in quality decoys that look as good on a bookshelf as they do in the water, there are a handful of talented carvers who excel at creating sturgeon spearing decoys.
Schmidt’s decoys are carved from basswood trees harvested on his property here in rural Oconto County, in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. “Basswood has a really nice, even texture for carving,” he said.
After allowing the cut boards to thoroughly dry for several months, Schmidt uses a band saw to shape the rough outline of the fish in the basement workshop in his Mountain home (he also has a residence in Appleton). Then, he painstakingly hand carves each decoy with a drawknife, spokeshave and sanding tools. He also inserts a weight, paints them and adds metal fins, along with other detailed finishing touches.
Each carver implements his own style. Schmidt’s work is distinguished by the sturgeon’s upturned nose, which mimics the upturned nose of baby sturgeon, he said.
It’s a process Schmidt has perfected since carving his first sturgeon decoy back in 1955. At the time, the Menasha native and largely self-taught carver had produced about 50 duck decoys he used for hunting.
“When I was a kid, we couldn’t afford to buy decoys so we made our own,” Schmidt said. His boss at the time asked if he could make a sturgeon decoy, “so we went to the maintenance shop at work and I carved my first sturgeon decoy. And I’ve been carving them ever since.”
Schmidt tried his luck at sturgeon spearing for the first time in 1961. For three straight days, he looked through the ice for eight hours in a row, then went to work for his 3 to 11 p.m. shift. On the third night, he was so tired that he fell off his chair. He continued carving sturgeon decoys after that, but he stopped spearing for several decades.
It wasn’t until the opening day last year that Schmidt finally speared himself a sturgeon — using one of his decoys, needless to say.
“We were in the shanty, and I saw this sturgeon, it came in and went right around the decoy,” Schmidt said. “I said, ‘Is it big enough?’ The guy I was with, he said, ‘Yeah, throw the spear!’ So I speared and got it. That was the first sturgeon I ever saw in the water.”
A picture of Schmidt and his sturgeon, along with that decoy (a shad) attached to the picture frame, hangs in the basement workshop of his Mountain home. Also hanging from the workshop’s ceiling are several sturgeon decoys he traded with fellow carvers over the years. There’s a respect and camaraderie, he said, among the people who create decoys for the time-honored Wisconsin tradition of sturgeon spearing.
In 1979 or 1980 — “the years blur together now,” Schmidt said — he began numbering and signing his decoys, and recording them in a notebook. Since then, he estimates he has carved more than 1,500 decoys, most of which are sturgeon about 20 inches long, but some include shad, herring, paddlefish and birds. Overall, Schmidt figures he has carved about 2,000 decoys since 1955.
Schmidt has donated dozens of decoys to Sturgeons for Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization formed in 1977 and dedicated to the conservation and propagation of lake sturgeon.
Since retiring about a decade ago, Schmidt said carving decoys has been a full-time retirement job. He used to make about seven decoys per week, but he said he’s slowing down a bit in recent years. “I’m still doing 10 hours a day,” he said. “I’m living in the basement so much I’ve got moss growing between my toes.”
But he doesn’t plan to stop making decoys anytime soon.
And if you’re interested in buying his decoy that was featured in “People of the Sturgeon,” Schmidt doesn’t plan on getting rid of that anytime soon, either. It’s one of only a handful of decoys he has kept over the years.
“Oh, I’ve had a lot of guys asking me how much I want for that one,” he said. “But like I tell them all, ‘Sorry, not for sale.’ I’ve made a couple thousand decoys and that’s one of just a couple that I still have that I won’t get rid of. I’ve got to keep at least one for me when it’s all said and done.”
For more about Schmidt and his business, Woodland Carvings, he can be reached at 715-276-6964 or 920-739-8083.