TRAVERSE CITY — Side-by-side with his dad, that's how Brian Irwin learned to carve. And it's how he intends to teach his two sons the century-old craft of carving ice fishing decoys.
Irwin, 34, recalls a childhood spent sitting at a small workbench abutted to one where his father worked. The pair shared few words, but grew a bond that lasts.
"You didn't have to sit there and talk," Irwin said. "He's an old school dad, not the lovey-dovey type. It was the coolest."
Irwin's work was rudimentary — sanding and carving what a kid would accomplish — but it helped build a foundation of skills. Eventually, high school, cars, college and girls drew Irwin's interest away from carving, he said.
But three years ago, something changed.
Irwin was perusing a hunting and fishing market with his dad when he laid eyes on new handmade ice fishing decoys for sale. The carvings — some of them really more a work of art than anything else — were bought and sold by collectors.
The 6- to 10-inch-long carved and painted fish are used by some ice fishermen to attract and spear Northern Pike. But during recent decades, enthusiasts have begun to hoard the works both old and new. And small groups of craftsmen have begun to try to save what once was a dying art.
Irwin specializes in a style called Cadillac, named after the Michigan town where the flat-finned decoys originated. In the past, fishermen took to carving their own decoys. Some took their time and created intricate look-alike fish precisely weighted so they "swim" like a real fish.
Irwin's models feature flat bellies and fins formed from painted galvanized steel that jut away from their bodies on flat planes.
His decoys are the product of a few years of trial, error and lots of research.
"I'm still kind of making my own way," he said, pointing out the drastic difference between his first renditions of trout and the ones he carved most recently.
It's a point of pride for most decoy carvers to create renditions that match form with function. Irwin struggled with balancing his first renditions by filling their bellies with lead. The weights need to be placed precisely so the decoys hover straight instead of going belly-up.
Irwin said he was lucky enough to cross paths with some of northern Michigan's most renowned decoy carvers.
The young carver's enthusiasm is exciting to men like Dave Kober of Cadillac. Kober learned to carve decoys from his grandfather and later perfected his craft.
"It's something that primarily was passed on," Kober said. "I got started with my grandfather way back as a kid. You fuss around with it off and on throughout your life in the background. Now it's front and center in my life. I tell everybody I'm a ridin' on my grandpa's shirttails."
Kober worked for years making decoys and selling them in local and regional galleries. Today, his works make their homes in collections across the world.
Now I can't hardly keep up with my own shop," he said. "I've got a year's backlog. I want to go fishing too sometimes. If my granddad could see what happened with it, he would do wheelies."
The 74-year-old outdoorsman works in his home shop 7 miles south of Cadillac. His son Travis has also become an accomplished carver, although his day job occupies most of his time.
And Kober recently began to school his 11-year-old granddaughter in the family craft.
"She makes the fifth generation in our family," he said. "I used to spend time with gramps when I was a kid in the shanty. You never forget those good times. We never expected anything more than just a family hobby."
Kober said he is happy to see younger men like Irwin take up the craft that recently has been dominated by those who've reached retirement.
It's help that has helped the young carver launch his work into the spotlight. But the success is just a fringe benefit to Irwin whose carvings have made their way into one very important collection — his dad's.
"He loves it," Irwin said. "He wants to keep every one."