Although Robert Hedlund of Garfield, Minnesota creates beautiful works of art, they are also functional: It’s up to his customers as to how they will use the fish decoys he carves and whether they will display them on a shelf or use them to attract an aggressive northern pike.
“Three-quarters of my sales are workers,” he said, meaning decoys that are suspended on a line in the water for winter spearfishing. “One-fourth of them go to the shelf for collections.”
Regardless of how they are used, Hedlund makes them “swim” realistically so they can be used as actual decoys if the buyer so wishes.
It takes many hours to carve, detail and paint the decoys. The key to making them look realistic to another fish is not so much in the cosmetic details, but in the balance and use of lead for weight.
“The more active the decoy, the more chance of a northern coming in,” he said.
In order to test them and make adjustments to the balance, he has a tank in his shop.
“You want it to sink slowly and with forward momentum,” he explained. “You’ve got to swim them. You’ve got to balance them.”
However, he also encourages prospective buyers to try out the decoys in a swim tank, which most decoy shows have.
“I want them to know what they’re getting,” he added.
Hedlund, who has been carving decoys for the past 10 years, has been named this year’s Carver of the Year by the Mid-State Chapter of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. A lifelong angler and spearer, he also serves as president of the Mid-State Chapter.
Getting his start
Hedlund became interested in the craft through some friends who were carvers, as well as by admiring some of the working decoys his grandfather had made. His first decoys were also basic, working decoys.
“The workers are easier,” he said. “When you learn how to do those, you move on to the next step.”
Hedlund typically uses a bandsaw to cut out the basic shape of the decoy, before using sanding machines, sandpaper and Dremel tools to do more intricate shaping. For wood he uses mainly white pine — which he buys from the Amish — because it tends to crack less, he said.
One of the ways he adds fine detail before painting is through the use of a woodburning tool. He also adds fine details when painting and sometimes uses an airbrush for realistic effects.
“Airbrush is great for shading and bringing colors together,” he said.
Hedlund emphasized that he has learned a lot — and continues to learn — from other carvers, who are very willing to share tips and tricks and help beginners get started.
“They’re all very helpful,” he said.
In recent years he also has expanded his carving to include more decorative items, such as ducks, shore birds, loons, sandhill cranes and egrets.
“I’m trying to expand my horizons,” he said.
One of his own designs is a frog with a Mylar tail, which he said has been a very popular spearing decoy.
Hedlund explained that carving is kind of like gardening to him, in that you put in a lot of hard work and can see the final result when you’re done.
“I’m in the shed every day,” he added. “It’s my therapy.”