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The Lure Of The Decoy

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That's good news, sort of, to James Cottle, the Wash- ington, D.C., area's entry in the fish decoy-carving field. An English and German teacher at Largo (Md.) High School, 46-year-old Cottle has cut back to halftime teaching so he can spend more hours in his basement making decoys from sugar pine. Still, he has a six-week backlog of orders for his six-inch-long, hand-cut, hand-painted walleyes, trout, bass, bluegills, and suckers, which go for $30 to $90 apiece.

Cottle learned about fish decoys and how to use them growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., spearing whitefish, great northern pike, and the odd muskellunge through the ice. He lured the big fish in with his own colorful, hookless, hand-carved wooden decoys, and spent some of the happiest hours of his life at it.

On the best day he ever had, Cottle saw 20 pike, mostly smaller "hammer handles'' of 18 inches or so, and speared the three biggest. Some came on full bore, attacked the decoy on the fly, and kept going, he says. To spear them, he had to haul them back under the hole by the string with the decoy still in their jaws.

But even in the halcyon days of his youth, when he spent two or three winter afternoons a week and all day Saturday on the ice, Cottle says seeing a half-dozen pike and spearing two was a great day; some days he'd see none at all. Something besides productivity lured him back.

"Primitivism,'' he wrote in a piece for Michigan Out of Doors, "is what distinguishes [spearing] from all other forms of legitimate sport fishing and enhances its appeal to those who need an antidote to our ultramodern society that leaves institutions and traditions floating like bubbles in midstream.''

Cottle was in grade school when his father died of rheumatism. Then he lost his only brother to arthritis when he was in high school. Life was rough on the Canadian border in the dead of winter, he says, and the quiet warmth and peace of the spearing shanties appealed to him, as did the connectedness of a sport that predated the white man's intrusion on the Midwestern scene.

Before history, woodland Indians evidently built teepees over the ice to block out light, he says, then cut water holes and lay on pine boughs, jiggling crude decoys and waiting to spear their dinners.

That's the sort of timeless image that drew Cottle back to carving 10 years ago. He still tests every decoy he makes in a washtub to make sure it floats, jigs, and dances through the water properly before he'll sell it, even though he knows most will end up on mantelpieces.

"When I make one,'' he says, "I want to go spearing with it the next day. If it won't work in the water, then it's just a fish carving.''

And you don't have to ask a woodland Indian to know you can't eat fish carvings.

--Angus Phillips, outdoors editor of The Washington Post (Reprinted with permission)

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