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Illinois hunting and fishing

A different kind of decoy

January 18, 2009 at 02:03 AM


MACOMB — The fish in Tom Dunstan’s home aquarium are relieved he’s finally practicing ice fishing elsewhere.

That’s because the retired Western Illinois University professor emeritus packed his wooden fish decoys and headed for his childhood home near Grand Rapids, Minn.

Right about now he’s probably sitting in the darkness, over a hole in the ice, dangling decoys in the water to lure northern pike and white fish into view so his cousin can bring them in with a pitchfork-like spear. 

Dunstan, 66, has spent many months painting, weighting and testing the swimming patterns of a new batch of handmade decoys. Swim testing was done in a large aquarium in his basement office, much to the dismay of the fish living within.

Because Dunstan is not a resident of Minnesota he can’t spear fish. But his cousin Bobby Lawson of Coleraine, Minn., can.

That’s OK with Dunstan, a wildlife biologist and ecologist. He enjoys watching the behavior of fish just as much as he enjoys discovering which size decoy works best, how they swim and which paint color draws the most attention.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Spear fishing history
The art of spear fishing began with Native Americans hundreds of years ago and has been passed down through generations in families like Dunstan’s. Along with knowledge comes necessary tools such as the spears and the treasured decoys. Several decoys in Dunstan’s arsenal were handed down from his father and grandfather.

Dunstan began spear fishing at age 4 and now takes his son Marcus, 33.

“There’s not many of us left from that generation and if it’s not passed down it won’t continue,” Dunstan said.

Spear fishing is illegal in many states — including Illinois — but is allowed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Spear fishing in Dunstan’s Minnesota home area was expanded by immigrant iron miners forced to take time off from work by the harsh weather.  

“They had time to dark house spear fish so they used the ice spears they made to feed their families,” he said. “They also started making these decoys and anything else that would work to attract fish.”

In a region where winter is a season to be celebrated, fishermen set up metal, wood or canvas houses on a lake, drill holes in the ice and spend hours sitting in the dark, staring at their ice holes and waiting for fish to swim by.

“Your shack becomes your world, your life,” Dunstan said.

A lifetime of knowledge
Dunstan has made his own decoys for about 60 years and appreciates them as much for their folk art as their practicality. Before building his latest models Dunstan visited older anglers in Minnesota and asked them to describe their four favorite decoys.

“What I’m after is the shape, the size, the motion and the color pattern,” he said.

He then built three basic forms, using a pine wood shell carved by Larry Kerr of Macomb. For his painting techniques he relied on lessons from the late Dick LeMaster of Chillicothe.

Dunstan’s decoys are all weighted with lead in the front. Each body shape has different swimming characteristics. Some are long and lean, others short and sporty.

Dunstan said there is “an art and a rhythm” to making the decoys swim.

“When the fish see something in their world that’s new they’ll come in to check it out,” he said.

Recently Dunstan took his antique decoys to Macomb podiatrist Dr. Idol Mitchell for a closer inspection. Mitchell, also an avid outdoorsman, X-rayed the decoys so Dunstan could see how the fins and interiors of were held together.

“I was trying to discover what the old masters did,” he said.

Illinois hunting and fishing

A dedicated life
Dunstan has dedicated his life to studying animal behavior, including establishing eagle habitats along the Mississippi River. He said he also enjoys watching the larger aquarium under the ice, known up north as “Finnish TV.”

While in Minnesota, Dunstan and his cousin will gauge the success of each new decoy based on 15-minute trial runs.  “We’ll run the statistics and see … we’ll test them in a way a science guy would do it,” he said.

Cousin Lawson, 57, said he takes pride in the art of spear fishing, in using decoys and in passing down the knowledge to future generations.

“When you get into fishing like we do you’re always trying to enhance your skills,” Lawson said. “There’s the painting and the weight and making them look like real fish. It’s a challenge I enjoy stepping up to. When I think I’ve got it figured out, by golly, things change real quick.”

Dunstan said that while spear fishing may seem primitive and some view it as controversial, it has a storied history and is done with care by the true sportsman.

“It’s a privilege to be able to take fish and game, whether it’s in Illinois or Minnesota and you have to respect that privilege,” he said. “The educated dark house spearmen are those who have been brought up by generations of respectable mentors.”

Jodi Pospeschil can be reached at 686-3041 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Illinois hunting and fishing



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That spear fishing sounds cool, does anyone know of any outfitters for this so I can go. I would be willing to pay $2000 for a three day spear fishing trip.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/25 at 09:13 PM

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