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Show highlights art and science of decoy carving

Carvers from Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes, New York Mills and Wadena, among others, gathered to sell their handiwork at a Saturday, Dec. 4 show hosted by the Park Rapids Chapter of Minnesota Darkhouse & Angling Association.

A Park Rapids carving dynasty – the Bethels – presented their legendary decoys at Saturday's show. Mark and his son, Cole, are the fourth and fifth generation of a family tradition. Shannon Geisen / Park Rapids Enterprise

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Anglers and collectors ambled to the Park Rapids American Legion for the 24th annual decoy carving show, hosted by the Park Rapids Chapter of Minnesota Darkhouse & Angling Association.

The Dec. 4 event was a fundraiser for the Community Fish House.

Carvers from Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes, New York Mills and Wadena, among others, gathered to sell their handiwork.

Mark and Cole Bethel – fourth and fifth generation carvers from Park Rapids – are carrying on their family tradition. Their legendary decoys “are guaranteed to bring fish in or get wet trying.”


Mark Bethel learned how to carve from his father, Rod, and uses the same chisels, templates and style.

Mark’s wife, Annette, has joined the enterprise. They were married a little over a year ago. She paints Christmas designs on some of the decoys. A holly and ivy design and another with Christmas lights were popular with buyers at the show.

Bethel decoys are featured at the Minnesota Fishing Museum.

“Those would be the non-weighted ones for Christmas trees,” he said. “I had to twist her arm a little bit to do them. She started making them, and then I got her to do a snowman. She’s doing the detailing part of it.”

Wayne and Ryan Leaderbrand are another father-son carving duo from New York Mills. Their specialty decoy performs somersaults in the lake.

Wayne Leaderbrand of New York Mills specializes in a decoy that somersaults in the water.


“This is just a hobby,” Wayne said. “You ain’t gonna make a living at it.”

He started carving a decade ago. He’s a farmer by day.

The Leaderbrands attend about six carving shows in Minnesota each year, including Alexandria, Grand Rapids and Perham.

They carve their decoys out of pine.


“I made 60 of them in one week,” Wayne said. “I try to get about 60 to 70 decoys for every show.”
Red and white decoys are usually sought after, he said. “The old guy we learned from says, ‘It’s always such a good one because everybody uses it.’”

Rick Wirth, of Detroit Lakes, specializes in patchwork, quilted decoys – inspired by his mother’s love of handmade quilts. She passed away several years ago.


Rick Wirth of Detroit Lakes hand paints his uniquely "quilted" decoys. This particular decoy has 510 colorful patches. Wirth uses a special technique, called jeweling, on the copper or brass fins. (Photos by Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

He counts every patch – whether it's 320 or 510.

Wirth has been carving since he was 9 years old. He learned from his dad, and still has the very first decoy he ever made.

Paul Sparks is a longtime carver from Wadena. He competes nationally, winning Best of Show against carvers from around the U.S.

An avid spearer, Paul Sparks of Wadena has been carving since the 1970s. He strictly carved decoys for his own use – until he carved one for a friend.

Sparks began competing in 2008, focusing on working class decoys. “That means how the decoys swim,” he said. “I may not be as good at making my decoys fancy like these guys, but I can make my decoys swim.


A tank at the show allowed Sparks to demonstrate. His decoys naturally dip, then rise to the surface.

Sparks demonstrates the natural motion of his perfectly weighted, working decoys in a pond.

“It’s all about balance and weight,” he said. Lead is precision-poured into two cavities in the body of the decoy.

“I compete in the nationals in Perham, and send out stuff to both Michigan and Ohio,” he said.

He has won Best of Show twice – in 2007 and 2011 – at the national contest held annually in Perham. “That’s against a lot of carvers that come to Perham,” Sparks said. “That’s a big show.”

For decorative pieces, Sparks uses basswood. He utilizes either white pine or red cedar for working decoys “because they’re more water resistant.”

Sparks adds detail to his work – scales, fin rays, whiskers.


He has over 100 blanks awaiting attention in his workshop and six hanging on a paint wheel. “They’re all at different stages,” he said. “If I want to carve, I carve. If I want to detail, I detail. It’s a hobby. It’s a hobby gone wild.”

Sparks entered this decorative decoy in the Park Rapids competition.

Sparks is a radiology tech at Tri-County Hospital.

He likes coming to Park Rapids. “It’s a nice, small show. It’s a fundraiser for their chapter. It supports the darkhouse chapter,” Sparks said. “If I can help support all that, I’m on board.

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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