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Spearing decoys blend art, science

DULUTH -- The decoy, made to imitate a tullibee, swims in lazy circles as Paul Nelson lifts and drops the line that suspends it in his spearing hole. Sunlight that penetrates the snow and 18 inches of ice on this Itasca County lake reflects off the decoy's aluminum fins.

Nelson, 37, of rural Grand Rapids, built the decoy from scratch himself, something he's been doing since he was 10. He sells decoys through his business, Wabana Fishing Tackle (wabanatackle.com), and at decoy shows.

In his shop, he has pre-cut enough decoy forms for another two years' worth of sales. Soon he will add fins, and perhaps scales, then paint the decoys. They are works of art, but they are first and foremost working decoys designed to attract northern pike close enough to spear.

"If a decoy doesn't swim well and have the ability to attract fish, it's just a wood carving," Nelson says on his website.

During the course of a recent spearing trip, Nelson switched decoys often — a bright green decoy, a popular red-and-white, a copper-colored model, the silver tullibee imitation, a ladder-back green decoy, a vibrant orange model and several more.

"He has almost a manufacturing process," said his friend and fellow decoy maker Marv Johnston of Deer River. "He has such good quality control. I think he makes the best wooden decoys I've ever seen. I admire the guy all to pieces. He's such an innovator. He's actually furthered the sport."

There's both art and science in making a decoy. On his website, Nelson diagrams and explains the way he weights his decoys and why he suspends them from a precisely placed point. An engineer by education, Nelson leaves nothing to chance.

The result is a decoy that seems to "swim" effortlessly. Some swim in a clockwise direction. Some swim counter-clockwise.

They sell for about $25 to $30.

"He's very innovative, always trying out new things," Johnston said. "I would say he's the most interesting spearer I've met in my life, and I've been spearing for 70 years."

A spearing family day

A "Family Day on the Ice" to acquaint the public with the sport of spearing will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 on Big Jay Gould Lake near Cohasset. The event is sponsored by the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. To take part in spearing, anyone 18 years of age or older is required to possess a valid fishing license and spearing license. Those who just wish to observe spearing are not required to have a license.

The day's activities also will include free dog sled rides from noon to 4 p.m. The event is free. Food and drinks will be provided. The event will be canceled in the event of a severe snowstorm, wind-chill factors below zero or poor ice conditions. For more information, call Rick Guertin at (218) 259-0457.

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