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Carvers coming to the RCC

Wayne Skillings of rural Osakis stands in his shop next to many of the decoys he will bring with him to the Rudy Zwieg show at the RCC this Saturday. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)1 / 3
Wayne Skillings' decoy carvings range from sunfish and pike to those with vibrant colors to offer spearers plenty of options for their days on the ice. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)2 / 3
A silver decoy sits on top of a shelf in Skillings's shop. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)3 / 3

Long Prairie native Wayne Skillings was sitting at his booth at the annual Rudy Zwieg Decoy and Sporting Collectible Show in Alexandria a few years ago when one his fish decoys caught the eye of a younger spectator.

The vibrant color was especially intriguing for the girl of about 4 years old.

"She pointed at the decoy and just said, 'Pink, Daddy. Pink.' Skilling recalled.

The father and his daughter walked by a few more times as the youngster continued to point out those pink decoys. Skillings didn't want her to leave empty handed, so he grabbed one of the bright wooden carvings and asked if that one would work to bring home.

Her father offered a credit card, but this one was on the house. Who knows? Maybe it could eventually get one more child interested in the sport of spearing and the world of decoys.

"If they can see what's going on, get out there and use it, see a fish come in and strike it — that would help," Skillings said. "It's coming back. There's more people doing it and some of these families have been doing it for generations. Now whether it will keep going or not, our rules and regulations will have a lot to do with it. As long as the sport is there, I think there will be somebody out there making decoys."

Skillings was in his shop on his property outside of Osakis on March 10 getting his decoys ready for this year's Rudy Zwieg show that runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Runestone Community Center in Alexandria this Saturday, March 18.

The 13th annual show is hosted by the local Midstate Chapter of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. It brings in artists from all around who display and sell their carvings and collectibles of every kind. There's a carving competition, silent auctions, raffle prizes and the opportunity to meet some of the region's best carvers. Admission is free for the public.

Skillings carves and paints all his own pieces and many do catch the eye because of their bright and vibrant colors.

"These new paints, these brighter paints, I've just been able to get hold of them the last couple years," he said. "Now a lot of people seem to be after those bright colors. They catch fish."

That's ultimately the goal of his decoys. Skillings, like many decoy carvers, got his start as much out of necessity as anything. Now 61, he learned the art of carving from his grandfather when he was about 10 years old in order to use the decoys for spearing.

"I use all my own," Skillings said. "Self satisfaction. It's just fun to watch them come in. I suppose there's a little pride thing there."

Skillings was a butcher in Long Prairie for 23 years, which kept him busy and out of a darkhouse a little more than he'd like. He changed jobs almost 18 years ago, which allowed him some additional time. More spearing and carving followed as he continued to learn the art and create his own lures for use.

A lot of lakes in the area have plenty of smaller pike, which creates the opportunity to see a lot of fish on some days. That's a good place to start with younger kids that are just getting introduced to the sport, Skillings said. He also speared five pike over 30 inches this winter, with the biggest of those being 34.5.

"I had a good year this year," he said. "I can't really complain. Those are nice fish, but you have to put in the time. Next year when I'm retired, maybe there will be more fish."

Skillings hopes to use a few more free hours after his retirement in October to stay active in pursuing the craft. An avid outdoorsman, he also loves to hunt in addition to spearing, fishing and his decoy-making.

"I'd like to keep doing this as long as I can," Skillings said. "When you do a few it's a lot of fun. If you have to do it, it takes the fun out of it. I do it to relax. I'd rather have it where it stays enjoyable and I can come up with more ideas to keep things going."

Skillings, whose pieces go under the name Smurf's Decoys after a longtime nickname, doesn't advertise his pieces or worry too much about turning a large profit off them.

"Some go pretty fast, some take a lot of time," he said. "You don't make any money on them, but it's one of those things. I like doing it. I reinvest the money back into fishing so it's not such a bad deal. I donate quite a few decoys for different things too."

Artists at the Rudy Zwieg show this Saturday will run the gamut from carvers like Skillings who create working decoys for those who want to purchase them to use in a darkhouse to those who create almost life-like pieces of work.

"Sometimes you're trying to catch a fisherman, rather than a fish," Skillings said. "You hope it works. You're trying to catch their eye and everybody is looking for something different."

There's different pieces of art for everybody at the RCC this weekend.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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