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.