Handmade decoys still work like a charm, if you can get them to water
NEW LONDON -- Vern 'Bub' Coss hasn't changed a thing about the way he carves his decoys for spear fishing or waterfowl hunting, but every year it gets harder to get them to the water.
"I make working decoys," said Coss, "but some people just want to hang them up."
That includes curators at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. They acquired a lime green sunfish from Coss in 1996 to include in the national collection on fish spearing through the ice.
Yet many others are still purchasing his decoys for their intended purpose, and are being rewarded for it.
His sleek, copper- and brass-finned renditions of sunfish, sucker minnows and even small ducks are enticing targets for northern pike. They invariably will show the scars of "hits" by hungry predators.
His waterfowl decoys are equally effective at luring everything from canvasbacks to mallards into shooting range.
It's been that way since Coss, 69, was a kid.
He started carving his own decoys for waterfowl hunting and spearing as a youth growing up in Willmar because that's how his dad did it.
"He always said, 'why buy something when you can make it yourself?' " said Coss.
He makes many of his fish decoys from the "recycled" walnut stocks of firearms. He continues to chop away at a cedar utility pole for many of his canvasback and mallard waterfowl decoys.
There is no place better to buy your authentic Vern Coss decoys than the small shop he built alongside a duck hunting pond two miles east of New London along Kandiyohi County Road 40.
Coss built the small shop in 1986 while he was working full-time. He's retired now from work in construction and glass glazing for Harmon Glass.
The shop remains his place to work as gunsmith and dealer, collect hunting and fishing stuff, and to carve the waterfowl and spearing decoys that landed him in the books of Donald J. Petersen, now of Palacitas, N.M.
As a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, Petersen took on a challenge. He began hunting down those still hand crafting traditional fish decoys, and featured photographs of their works and short biographies on them in two books.
Petersen said that while the number of people who spear fish through the ice has declined since its heyday in the 1950's, there are probably more people than ever who collect the hand-carved decoys of craftsmen such as Coss.
And of course, there is no shortage of those who know the value of a good decoy like those made by Coss, according to Bob Halvorson of rural New London, avid spear fisherman and part of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. Halvorson said many still prefer to make their own decoys or purchase hand-crafted versions from others, although the low cost and availability of commercial versions probably make them the most used.
Coss grew up in Willmar, and his father Vernon Senior made sure he could spend as much time as possible fishing and hunting. His father was a yard master for the Great Northern Railroad.
Coss said he began a life-long passion for gunsmithing and dealing as a fourth-grader at the Lincoln School in Willmar. A classmate wanted a jackknife that he carried to school, and offered to swap a small, but working French pin fire handgun for it. Deal made.
Coss graduated from Willmar High School in 1959, and gave college a try. He also took a correspondence class in gunsmithing.
When the Marines turned him down, Coss joined the Navy in 1967 and served in the Vietnam War. He came close to settling down in California after his service, but decided he missed the change of seasons too much and returned home. For a time he used his handyman skills to work as a repairman when Sears, Roebuck and Company had its store and fix-it shop across from Rice Memorial Hospital.
He worked construction jobs, took in gun shows and returned to his former ways of hunting, fish spearing through the ice, and always, making his own decoys.
He and wife, Nancy, raised two sons and a daughter and he made sure to introduce them to the outdoors. Until recently, Coss said he had remained an avid hunter.
Every autumn included a two-week hiatus to South Dakota for both waterfowl and pheasant hunting, but no more.
"Now I'd rather watch 'em and feed 'em," he said, laughing. "Same with the deer."
But don't be worried. After all of those years of chopping, carving and shaping wooden blocks into replicas of waterfowl or bait fish, he knows better than ever what it takes to capture the eyes of both man and beast.