Go Fish

Bob Johnson's students know how to make art work.

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Sitting for hours on a frozen lake in a lightless shed with a stick in your hand isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, let alone art. But Minnesota teacher Bob Johnson has made it into one of Brainerd Senior High School’s most popular classes.

Bob Johnson and his students
Bob Johnson helps his students appreciate the fine art of spear fishing.
—Steve Kohls

“I’m getting totally different students [who] may not be involved in an art class,” says the instructor. “These are kids that won’t go into your typical drawing class or painting class, but they are learning composition. They are learning value and how to critique their work.”

The work in question is fish decoys: designing them, carving them, painting them, and ultimately ice fishing with them. It’s not a class many states could offer, but in the Land of 10,000 (frequently frozen) Lakes, the practice of spear fishing with decoys is older than Columbus.

Continuing so old a tradition satisfies the longtime “darkhouse” fisherman—so named for the enclosures he and other practitioners shelter in to keep the fish visible enough to be speared. Johnson, who’s a world-champion decoy carver, wanted to teach his students something that’s fun and highly educational, but also relevant to their state’s history.

His ultimate goal is to make the endangered practice of decoy carving a lifetime hobby for students. That’s more likely than it might seem—the class has grown exponentially since he started it five years ago.Administrators eventually allowed Johnson to teach two classes of 25 students each, and last year, 42 additional students asked if they could get in on the action.

Johnson’s class may be an elective, but it’s not easy to get an A. In addition to fulfilling the art requirements, students must keep a journal and do extensive research, including interviews with local spearers and carvers.But with a subject so absorbing, students say they don’t mind the extra coursework. Senior Chris Hoffman’shomework even got his father hooked on fish decoy carving. “[Dad] was asking about it,” Chris says, “and after I brought home some fish, I brought him to the shop and showed him how to make [them].”

Vol. 18, Issue 01, Page 56

Published in Print: September 1, 2006, as Go Fish
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