Gene Davis compares collecting to hunting, the only difference is you don’t kill anything except for your savings account.
For the past several years, the 67-year-old Marshall resident has been able to share his knowledge about his collection of duck decoys and fishing lures, to help others learn about what they have, through a website.
Davis, who grew up in Waterloo, set up the Wisconsin Sporting Collectibles website in 2012 after realizing there was no online searchable database for Wisconsin-made sporting items.
“With so many short-lived lures being made and hundreds of decoy styles created, there has become a need for a way to connect a name to an old dusty decoy or rusty lure that pops up at a garage sale,” he said. “There have been hundreds of books written that detail history and lore about carvers and their decoys and it would require hundreds of those books and a lot of searching for a collector to locate information on a maker.”
The Marshall resident actually has a collection of 100 reference books about Wisconsin lures and decoys, which he has utilized to discover information about the sporting goods. Recent website developments such as ancestry.com and newspapers.com have assisted Davis is finding and verifying the background of the lures and decoys people have found.
People can visit the website to search lures by the name of the manufacturer, which he said is often stamped on the lure. The duck decoy database can be searched by Wisconsin region, duck species or manufacturer name.
Each item has a photograph and some have information about who created the items.
Davis said people are occasionally confused when they visit https://wisconsinsportingcollectibles.com. They assume the images of more than 3,000 items posted are owned by the Marshall man and that all of the decoys and lures are for sale.
His mission is more about providing information to other people, collectors or not, about the history of different Wisconsin-manufactured lures and decoys, not about making sales.
It was the discovery of his childhood tackle box from the 1980s among his mother’s belongings that hooked Davis on lures. Inside the container were bass lures.
“They were not in great shape but they held a lot of memories,” he said, choosing to mount the lures on a board and place it in his garage.
When Davis found a book showing vintage lure values, he became hooked.
“I’ve always been a garage sale and auction rat,” said the Marshall resident.
After finding out there were many collectors looking for lures, he found other collectibles.
“And once I started researching the history of decoy makers, well, I needed a bigger basement,” Davis said.
Based on his research, Davis found the state has a rich fishing and hunting heritage dating back to the 1800s. At the time, sporting enthusiasts created their own lures and decoys as there was limited availability of commercial products.
“With the strong presence of wood products came those individuals who knew how to fashion wood into many forms: wooden lures and decoys, duck skiffs, marsh skis, paddles, shell boxes and more,” Davis said.
According to him, there was a time when people would flock of Lake Koshkonong near Fort Atkinson to hunt canvasback ducks. At the time, commercial duck hunters would shoot large numbers of the species and ship the fowl to upscale restaurants in Chicago and other metropolitan areas.
With the increase in waterfowl hunting in the state, more Wisconsin residents started to carve crude decoys from themselves and other hunters they were familiar with. Davis said when the Mason Decoy Company of Detroit began manufacturing decoys, the Wisconsin decoy makers used the Mason Decoy Company product to as guide for their own rigs that could be made for a lower cost.
“Many of those creative designs are the ones most sought after by collectors today. The designs from the Oshkosh/Lake Winnebago system are some the most artistic and plentiful,” he said. “It really has become a folk art.”
As for the lures, Davis said from the 1920s-1950s, more wooden bait was used for bass fishing and commercial lure makers “began popping up all over the state.” These types of implements often had a limited supply and produced for no more than two years.
The Marshall man said this makes the lures more difficult to find and more expensive to purchase.
Davis has found the most appealing part of collecting vintage lures and decoys are the friendships he has made. Recently, he was able to connect with the granddaughter of a Waukesha carver who was able to verify her grandfather had carved decoys Davis had found.
“She was able to provide photos of him and his hunting group along with pictures of him with his decoys,” Davis said. “So many of the decoys we collect are identified by stories passed down from the 1930s-1950s era.”