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Decoy carvers gather to show off colorful wares

Denny Eckert shows off his signature use of collectible coins embedded on the sides of his fish decoys. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Like the economy, the market for collectible decoys has been soft.

"I'm certainly not doing this for profit," said collector and seller Albin Katzner. "It's the poorest paying job I ever had."

At last weekend's 12th annual Decoy Carver Show & Raffle in Park Rapids, duck decoys are almost becoming a thing of the past as collectors and carvers focus on fishing decoys. There were few feathers in the sea of fins on the carvers' tables.

For fish decoys, no name is more collectible than Bethel. The Park Rapids area family of carvers has made decoys for decades. They command top prices.

"I started at age 11," said Donald Bethel. "I've been doing it 57 years. I'll be 72 next month."

He carved his first decoy out of a cedar fence post. That was the only wood available, he remembered. He doesn't still have it, but did repurchase an early decoy he carved and sold for a quarter.

"I found it 10 years down the road" after selling it, Bethel said. "I bought it back for $75."

He doesn't seem bothered that his, or his brothers', uncles', cousins' and distant relatives' decoys are being sold on almost every table, competing with his own.

Dennis Bertram's unique decoys are part folk art, part utilitarian. A bright pink and white model he calls his "Easter egg" decoy.

All of his fish have lips.

"I don't know of any other carver that makes decoys with the open mouth," he said. "People can pick 'em out a mile away. They produce a lot of fish, too."

His table was filled with photos of anglers holding their prize catches, alongside the Bertram decoy that lured the fish to the line.

Virg Prestby taught high school biology and junior high art in Bagley for 30 years. The two fields blended together in his retirement hobby. His decoys have trademark copper fins.

"I usually buy more than I sell," he admitted. "I just don't tell my wife."

Oops. The secret's out.

Most decoy collectors also usually trade and sell fishing tackle and gear, which is another collectible market.

"Their value will vary," Prestby said. "Some collectible stuff has depreciated in the last five years. The market got a little soft with the economy, It's like collecting coins - old stuff in mint condition" commands top dollar value, he said.

"Some collectors won't buy anything unless it's in mint condition in the box" it was sold in, he said of the vintage fishing lures he sells.

Wilbur Joy of Many Point Lake was manning a table mainly to dispose of his vast collection of decoys, many of them Bethels.

"I've got to start doing something because I'm not very young any more," he said. His collection, at its peak, numbered 3,500 decoys and pieces of tackle.

Larry Lange of Perham and Denny Eckert of Sebeka engaged in some good-natured joshing between their tables.

"He teaches me how to do it," Eckert said.

"But he makes more money than I do," Lange said.

Eckert adds a special touch to his fish decoys - a collectible coin. He shoed off a fish with a buffalo head nickel gracing each side of the fish.

"For anyone else, $65, but for you, $50," he says.

"But you get 10 cents back," says Lange, trying to seal the deal by pointing to the nickels.

"Hey, these are worth $2.50 apiece," said an insulted Eckert.

Two 9-year-olds were separately eyeing the decoy tables for bargains. Zoey Detmers, however, was more interested in collecting the colorful business cards of the carvers. Clayton Novak was doing some holiday shopping.

The Park Rapids Chapter of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association sponsors the show.