- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

MAPLE GROVE, Minn. (AP) - Eric Wallace loves carving fish decoys so much he has decided to put his college education on hold to focus on it.

For the foreseeable future, the 22-year-old Maple Grove resident will try to build his burgeoning business, Wallace Decoys (WallaceDecoys.Com), by carving and painting decoys used by “darkhouse anglers” who spear fish through large holes in the ice.

Yes, it’s a niche market.

But a growing one.

Darkhouse angling, which long carried the image of grumpy old men in self-imposed solitary confinement on a frozen lake, is undergoing a surge of popularity in Minnesota, with more than 27,000 licenses sold last winter, up from fewer than 16,000 a decade earlier. Once outlawed in many lakes, it’s now legal to spear pike and rough fish like carp in nearly every water in Minnesota, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1UH0kyj ) reported.

The growth is spawning not just a new generation of spearers, but also a new wave of kids and young adults making their own decoys, which can range from primitively functional to nothing short of works of art.

Some do it for fun, some for show and some for money.

Wallace does it for all of the above.

“It’s that whole concept of ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’” said Wallace, who was never certain of his preferred avocation but knew he enjoyed art, woodworking and fishing.

It was a course - Minnesota Outdoor Connection - at Maple Grove Senior High School in 2012 that introduced him to darkhouse angling and the discipline of decoy carving.

“I was getting pretty serious about art, and I had sold a few fishing lures, but when I found decoys, here was this 3-D canvas I could use, and it was like both,” Wallace said in his workshop in his parents’ garage after a morning of spearing on a west metro lake. He soon won awards at regional decoy carving competitions and felt a calling. “I realized this is what I was supposed to do with my life: a utilitarian combination of fishing and art and woodworking.”

There was also a potential entrepreneurial angle. Wildlife art, he realized, is a field saturated with artists and artwork, while decoy carving seemed to have room for more decoy-makers, nearly all of whom hand carve and paint their works, especially with a growing population of spearers. In addition, he saw a void in attractive websites where the artistry of high-end decoys could be on full display.

Functional, spartan decoys can sell for as little as $10, with mass-produced Bear Creek decoys selling for closer to $20 at big box retailers. But most spearers expect to spend more than that, while collectors might spend close to $1,000 for exceptional decoys. Wallace’s range in price from $35 to $800.

Wallace hopes his signature “working decoy” will be a simple enough fish with a flashy paint job. The unique decoy appears to change color, from hues of green to shades of purple, depending on how the light hits it. The effect is the result of chrome illusion paint, a product he stumbled upon from an acquaintance who does auto body work. It sells for about $500 a pint. He expects the decoy to cost around $75.

Following a breakout year last year at a number of regional competitions, where collectors and aficionados gather to show, judge and buy and sell their wares, Wallace can claim some 500 units sold. Each took hours if not days to make. Three retailers, including Big B’s Bait & Tackle in Plymouth, stock his decoys. And his name is growing.

“I think Eric is part of a group of up-and-coming carvers who share information, and he has been able to cut the front end of the curve off quite a bit,” said Tony Stifter, a 49-year-old spearer from Blaine. I think Eric has competitive decoys that compete with almost anyone, and he’s a young kid.”

Stifter met Wallace at a decoy show - there’s a circuit that includes venues such as Perham and Grand Rapids - several years ago and challenged him to make a certain type of decoy. “I requested he do a natural colored northern pike that swims slow and straight, and he did it,” Stifter said. “That’s the beauty of Eric: He’ll build one however you want. It truly is made to order. Ordinarily in the decoy world, a carver will build what he wants, and then he sells them off a table, and there may or may not be a tank to test it in.”

“Competition decoys,” as they’re known, are the most labor-intensive and detailed - and expensive. Often, they’ll never see the icy water. But in his workshop inside his parents’ garage, where Wallace has an aquarium (for “float testing”) and a large steel water-filled basin (for “swim testing”), Wallace said he ensures even those high-end decoys will perform as a decoy should.

“If I call it a decoy, I want it to be a working decoy, even if no one will ever use it,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s not really a decoy. It’s folk art.”

The oldest of six children, Wallace earned his associate degree in fine arts from Hennepin Community College and was working toward his bachelor’s in fine arts from St. Cloud State when he began to do the math. “I was taking on debt with school, and all the money I was making from decoys was going into that,” he said, adding that his decoy sales were taking off. “It got to the point where it was either school or the decoys. It wasn’t an easy decision. I thought long and hard about it and talked to my parents.”

Last month, he decided not to enroll in classes and focus solely on decoys.

Earning a living entirely from making darkhouse angling decoys isn’t unheard of. Not quite. A handful of names from the last century surface when the question is posed in decoy circles. Wallace’s peers admire the idea.

“He’s chasing a dream,” said Luke Swanson, a 19-year-old from Monticello who carves as a hobby while running his fishing guiding business, Livin’ the Dream Guide Service. “He’s trying to make what he loves to do as a living, and that’s awesome. He’s working as hard as he can to do it.”

What does Wallace’s girlfriend think?

“No girlfriend. I don’t meet any girls in my shop or my darkhouse, and that’s where I am all the time.”

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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