The first time Mark Bethel carved a fishing decoy, he didn’t like it. His father, Rod, was a third-generation wood carver.
“I told my dad I didn’t like it. I hated it,” Mark recalled. Mark carved three decoys – one for each of his children – then quit.
“I’d sit and watch my dad carve all those years,” he said.
Rod passed away about five years ago. His chisels, templates, wood blanks and unfinished decoys remained untouched, gathering dust. Then Mark was briefly laid off in November 2014 from his construction job. Since there was a lull in work, he went to his mother’s house. He saw his father’s carving tools lying there.
“The stuff was sitting there. It wasn’t being used,” Mark recalled. “I took a template and carved five with a dull knife. I said, ‘This isn’t all that bad.’” Within two weeks, he whittled an additional 50 decoys. In February 2015, Mark attended his first carving show.
“He’s got the bug. He’s addicted,” says son Cole, a freshman at Park Rapids Area High School, who has also picked up the trade.
Cole enjoys the competitive aspect of the National Fish Decoy Association. He enters his work in the junior division, where decoys are judged by craftsmanship and their ability to swim. In early March, Cole will compete at the 12th annual Bob Johnson Invitational in Little Falls. He must craft a seven- to nine-inch northern pike. The winning decoy from the youth contest will go on permanent display at the Minnesota Fishing Museum.
The Bethels are already featured prominently at the museum. There’s an 8-foot display case “filled with nothing but Bethel decoys,” Mark said. “It’s fun,” Cole said of the hobby. Occasionally, he sells his handcrafted decoys to friends at school.
“Cole sells out at every show,” remarked his dad. “That’s because he doesn’t carve enough of them,” quipped mom Julie.
Julie contributes as well. She cuts and treats the fins. “It takes eight hours to do 20 fish,” she said. “Every little fish has the top, bottom and side fins. That’s four.”
She’s made 700 fins…and counting. Mark’s goal now is to carve 200 eight-inch decoys. To date, he’s made 170. They have plenty of working material. Mark’s dad left behind two year’s worth of basswood and white pine in his workshop when he passed away. Mark and Cole sit around the dining room table in the evenings, whittling together. It takes about 15 minutes to carve a blank, sand it, drill holes and assemble the fins, Mark said. They use toothpicks and glue to keep tail fins in place – a distinctive feature of Bethel decoys. At first, Mark handpainted the decoys. Now they use an airbrush. Julie is the official “detailer,” adding eyes, swirls, curlicues, clouds, waves, large dots.
“Whatever we’re feeling at the time, that’s what we’re painting,” she said. “She’s a good detailer,” Cole said.
All of the Bethel carvings are working decoys that can be used in a darkhouse. “It’s just something that’s been passed down, but I don’t remember two generations carving at the same time,” says Julie. “They didn’t want to infringe on each other’s livelihood.”
That story begins with Cole’s great-great-grandfather, Andrew.
Carving dynasty Andrew Bethel taught his sons – Pearl and Cyril – to carve. These were very crude, roughly hewn decoys, Mark says, but Andrew sold them out of necessity. The extra money put food on the table. Pearl Bethel, born in 1894, came to Park Rapids after serving in World War I. He worked as a stonemason and carpenter, carving decoys during the winter and selling them to Fuller’s Tackle Shop and other bait stores. He charged about a dollar each.
According to the Minnesota Darkhouse & Angling Association, today’s value of a Pearl Bethel decoy is between $120 and $450. Cyril also moved to Park Rapids, becoming a trapper and fishing guide. He carved decoys out of peach crates, said Mark. The collector value for one of Cyril’s decoys is $75 to $200. Naturally, Pearl taught his sons to carve – Rod among them.
Born in 1938, Rod was a local butcher for many years, his skills with the knife lowing into his passion for carving. Rod began carving full-time after he retired, creating more whimsical characters like elk, big horn sheep, ducks, loons along with fishing decoys. Mark remembers helping his dad add lead weight to one of the last decoys his dad every made. Now, Mark and his son use the fin patterns, band saw, drill presses, planer, weights, carving tools and talent they’ve inherited.