When he was a kid, Dave Perkins and his friends speared northern pike on cold Minnesota days. Perkins made all of his own spearing decoys, the wooden fish designed to lure pike close enough for spearing.
"Just a piece of wood and some fins and some lead," Perkins said.
Now, at 73, Perkins is still carving and painting decoys, but few of them see the inside of a spearing shack. His decoys, sold in galleries and antiques shops from coast to coast, are considered folk art. A single decoy might fetch $40 to $500, depending mostly on size.
Perkins' Duluth Fish Decoys find their way to the coffee tables, fireplace mantels and display cases of well-heeled collectors, especially on the East and West coasts, dealers say. His decoys are known for their weathered look and whimsical characteristics -- .22-caliber shells for eyes, buffalo nickels embedded in their flanks.
In March, a book about Perkins' carvings, called "Duluth Fish Decoys," will be published by two Rhode Island men. Brothers Richard and Ray Bonin are fascinated with Perkins' decoys.
"I must have at least 50 of them," said Richard Bonin of Newport, R.I. "They have sort of a rustic look. You can find decoys that almost look like taxidermy, perfect in every way. Dave's decoys have a folky appeal to them."
Tim Spreck of Stillwater, Minn., sells lots of Perkins' decoys through his Web site, www.fishdecoy.net.
"The thing with selling contemporary decoys is you're selling the personality of the guy as well as the actual decoy," Spreck said. "If you know Dave, he's a crusty old dude from way back. Some of that sense of humor and personality shines through in his decoys."
A WELL-TRAVELED MAN
After growing up in Nimrod, Minn., near Wadena, Perkins worked in logging before joining the Navy. After the Navy, he worked at copper mines in Montana. He joined the merchant marine, working out of the Great Lakes, New York and Seattle. Back on land, he picked up a barber's license and in 1961, he and his wife, Diane, took off for Alaska. There, Perkins worked half-time as a barber and half-time on a ferry out of Seward. He also put in two years as a roughneck foreman on an offshore oil rig in Cook Inlet.
The couple returned to Duluth in 1972, where Perkins went to welding school and later worked for Husky Hydraulics in Two Harbors and American Hoist and Derrick in Duluth.
"If I drop tomorrow, I've lived a life," Perkins said.
When he and Diane came back to Duluth, Perkins took to spearing on Caribou Lake. He started making decoys again. He might have seen them as pike bait, but his friends and acquaintances saw them as art.
"People liked 'em, and it started from there," Perkins said. "I got to making fish for more than my own personal use."
He carves walleyes and northern pike and sunfish. He carves frogs and crayfish and mice. Some fit in your hand. Some are nearly three feet long. Some have hinged joints. Some have leather fins. Some have tin tails. Some are painted in an American flag motif. A new series has the 50 states' commemorative quarters imbedded in their sides.
Perkins dreams all of these up himself.
"My wife gets mad at me when we drive down the road and I don't say anything for an hour at a time," he said. "I'm thinking up another fish."
Perkins isn't sure why people like his decoys so much.
"I really don't know, because there's other people's fish I like better than mine," he said. "I'm still amazed -- an old high school drop-out putting out something that people like."
John Sylvia knows the appeal of Perkins' work. He owns Four Winds Craft Guild on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, where he sells Duluth Fish Decoys.
"It's the rawness," Sylvia said. "It's true folk art. Someone who's not trained is making this stuff."
Lizzard's Art Gallery and Framing carries Duluth Fish Decoys in Duluth.
"I took it because it was totally unique," said Lizzard's owner Jeff Schmidt. "People tend to create little collections of his work. They're very tactile. You want to pick them up and touch them."
OUT OF THE GARAGE
Perkins makes his decoys in his garage, first roughing out the general shape of a fish in white pine, then shaping it, sanding it and cutting in the gills and the mouth. He drills a hole in the bottom into which he pours the lead, for weight. Then he begins painting, mixing various colors until he comes up with something he likes.
"It's incredible, the stuff that comes out of there," says Richard Bonin, who has visited Perkins' shop. "It's cluttered. It's dirty. He paints on a little card table. Where he mixes the paint, he's got this mountain that looks like Vesuvius, a mountain about 5 inches tall of paint."
Perkins does all of his painting by hand.
"A friend of mine is a shop teacher at Cotton," Perkins said. "He gave me a spray gun. It's still sitting in the box."
Perkins spends winters in Leesburg, Fla., and does his carving in summer and fall. He doesn't keep track but figures he must turn out 200 decoys a year. In the past year, responding to demand, Dave's son, Jim Perkins of Duluth, also has begun making decoys.
"It's almost like an apprenticeship program," Jim Perkins said. "He's teaching me his technique of blending the paint and making Duluth Fish Decoys, to pass on the tradition of that particular look."
Jim has persuaded his dad to showcase Duluth Fish Decoys on a Web site, and that has attracted more interest in the decoys. But Dave and Jim have no plans to go into anything like mass production.
Dave Perkins sold a few of his decoys to catalog giant Bass Pro Shops a few years ago, Jim said. They sold out, and Bass Pro came back for more. But this time they wanted an insurance policy guaranteeing that Perkins' paint was lead-free, and they wanted to pay him later. Perkins declined the offer.
For now, Dave and Jim are plenty busy, which still surprises Dave.
"I thought they'd die out about 10 years go," he said. "Things go in spurts, you know."
Part of the appeal seems to be in dealing with Perkins himself. People like the guy.
"He's just a crusty old character," said fish decoy dealer Tim Spreck. "He has a great sense of humor. He's down to earth."
John Sylvia on Nantucket Island agrees.
"He's the last of the Mohicans. He's a character. He's old, old school," Sylvia said. "I tell people: If you got to know him, you'd buy more of his stuff. He's one of those guys."