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Sturgeon fisherman will use anything to capture the big fish

Posted: Thursday, April 04, 2002

STOCKBRIDGE, Wis. (AP) -- Few folks can rival sturgeon fishermen when it comes to innovation. Given only a hole in the ice to work with, those fishermen have been known to use practically anything -- toilet seats, brightly colored toys, coffee mugs or Jell-O molds -- to draw the big fish out of the murky depths.

''Sturgeon are nosy,'' said Karla Gebhart of Stockbridge.

For three years, she and her husband, Vern, have capitalized on that niche, crafting intricately designed sturgeon decoys on a variety of wood. He got the idea from a friend who made decoys.

''I wanted to see if I could make one myself,'' Vern said. ''The first one wasn't much.''

''All he ever built was a barn -- how he can build something like this is beyond me. It's one of those hidden talents,'' Karla added.

Vern has made about 100 decoys, the latest from laminated gunstock, which includes a variety of dyed wood glued together. The wood is multiple colors, including red, white and blue; black and blue; and rose and green.

About 4,000 types of domestic wood are available and the Gebharts have made decoys out of about 30 of them. Some of the wood is from their own land and some is purchased from a friend in Redgranite.

''Sumac is gorgeous, apple wood is hard and orange tree is very orange,'' Karla said.

The decoys are weighted with about a ''cupcake's worth'' of lead, and they start at $20. They're pretty enough they don't have to be thrown into the water, she said.

''A guy has to have a knickknack for his wife to dust off,'' she said.

Vern has made a decoy for a silver wedding anniversary, carving the bride and groom's names on one side, the children on the tail and the wedding date on the top. He uses his imagination.

''He'll make a curve in the tail, a kink in the body,'' Karla said. ''Some trees have a twist or a bend in them and he'll leave that in there, so it looks like the fish is turning.''

Vern said his biggest challenge is to see how many different colors he can get out of a piece of wood. Vern does the bulk of the work, although his wife brushes on water seal and peddles his wares.

''The decoys sure are different,'' said Sharon Gunther, co-owner of Do North in Appleton. ''A lot of folks asked us for anything sturgeon, anything.''

Do North, the only store selling the decoys, started offering them when Vern began making them.

''Most sturgeon hunters buy them,'' Gunther said. ''I had some people up here from Chicago, and they said, 'These are great. I'm not even a sturgeon hunter.'''

Do North closed its storefront in February, but continues to sell wares online. The Gunthers are looking for another location. Besides Do North, the Gebharts also sell the merchandise out of their home.

''This is more of a hobby business,'' Karla said. ''We sure aren't making a living on this.''

Word just spreads, Vern said.

''But this year was slow,'' he said. ''(The season's start) doesn't make a difference to sales. Everyone has their own thing they want to hang in the hole. Mine are mostly gifts.''

Married 22 years, they farm between Sherwood and Stockbridge. Vern also makes 10-inch-tall decorative sturgeon shanties, which have a spearing hole cut in the bottom.

Vern isn't the only one in his family hooked on sturgeon. His brother Gary also makes a couple of sturgeon spears and gaff hooks each year.

''We're only about 2 miles from the lake,'' Karla said. ''We're a sturgeon family.''

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