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2017-10-11 / Front Page

Newberry Carvers Lure in Customers from Far and Wide


A.J. Downey, Jr., left, holds a Great Lakes Fish Decoy World Champion trophy that A.J. Downey, Sr. won in 2014 while A.J. Downey, Sr., right, holds his latest creation, a larger-than-life-size Musky he carved out of a hollow cedar stump. A.J. Downey, Jr., left, holds a Great Lakes Fish Decoy World Champion trophy that A.J. Downey, Sr. won in 2014 while A.J. Downey, Sr., right, holds his latest creation, a larger-than-life-size Musky he carved out of a hollow cedar stump. This area is abounding with decoy carvers. A.J. Downey, Sr. and his son, A.J. Downey, Jr. are just two of them.

The elder A.J. started carving while he was living in the Thumb area of Michigan. “I didn’t care for what was available in the stores back then,” he recalled. “They just had plastic decoys that didn’t swim well, so I started making a few that I could use myself.”

He ended up with fish decoys sitting on the shelf, along with duck decoys, which started a conversation with friends of his who wanted Downey Sr. to make decoys for them.

“Somehow interest got started in collecting them (fish decoys), and I started to find out who made them and like any collectable it grew from there.”

He started to travel to fishing shows where lures and tackle were sold. “Later they started a couple of fish decoy collecting clubs. I just happened to be in on the start of that.”

Downey Sr. has gone to shows in Chicago and St. Paul. “They were big shows with people flying in from all over the place. There were auctioneers there with these high-dollar duck geese and fish decoys.”

Art, Brad and Scott Kimble, Wisconsin authors, wrote a book entitled The Fish Decoy that included Downey, Sr.

“I had a better write-up than his son did,” he chuckled. “I just happened to be there at the right place and the right time. It was a real lucky break and that’s all it amounts to.”

This all happened in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Downey Sr. eventually moved his family to the U.P. (just north of Newberry on M-123) where he continued to make his own fish decoys.

“I got back into it for the same simple reason: I didn’t care for anything store-bought that wasn’t any good. Hollow, plastic ones that just sat there and didn’t do a doggone thing…

“It’s fun, I enjoy the competitions. You get a following collecting your stuff. It’s been interesting. Its one of those things you stumble into and never get rich at, yet it’s enjoyable.”

Downey Sr. still has a following, although he doesn’t attend shows anymore. As a matter of fact, a fellow from Louisiana who collects his stuff stopped at Downey’s house a few months ago.

He doesn’t carve many decoys these days; it’s mostly repair work on decoys that people bring in to him. He collects old leadbased paint that was used years ago on original decoys and uses a brush instead of an airbrush. “When you make a repair on an antique you’ve got [to use] the same stuff they’re originally made of.”

The money Downey Sr. earns is not his highest priority. “When you make your own stuff for fishing, whether it fly-tying or a decoy it’s just that much more satisfying when you catch a fish with it.”

While he was still going to shows he had a customer order four perch from him for $75 apiece. “I handed him the fish and he handed me the money, and then he turned around and sold those fish for $250 each right in front of me!

“I thought, ‘Andy, you’ve got to make a few adjustments here.’ I realized I was screwing myself, so I brought my price up. Then you start getting the feeling you have to make a better fish because people are paying you more.”

Downey Jr. has been making decoys as well. “It’s a natural progression,” he explained. “I watched [my dad] doing it in the shop growing up as a kid doing my own little things. He’s a really good teacher. I don’t have the talent that he has though, so I’ve got to float down my own path.

“As far as doing ducks and fish restorations, I always saw there was quite a bit of money that floated around on that. So I’ve got a little bit famous bringing the old birds back. I developed a couple of techniques that took off.”

Downey Jr. is able to remove the newer paint on duck decoys from the turn of the century and get down to the original bird. “It doesn’t always work out,” he admitted. “The original bird is quite a collector’s piece. It’s a pleasurable thing. Some of these things were painted during the Civil War. To see them come back to original condition and swim back out of the murk is a really amazing thing. Very few people get to see that.

“This little area right here has contained so many good quality carvers over the last century. Newberry has, next to St. Clare flats, the largest fish decoy carvers in the world, claimed Downey Jr. ”Over the years we’ve had 50 to 60 prominent carvers in Newberry.”

“It’s a winter time sport,” Downey Sr. chimed in, “you got to have ice and there are a lot of lakes and rivers here.”

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Great article, lots of

Great article, lots of quotes. "... 50-60 prominent carvers in Newberry." !!!!!