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Skills with fake gills: Dent brothers to showcase their fish decoys at The Gathering

Tony, left, and Jacob Sazama of Dent, have won numerous national awards for their fish carving skills at the The Gathering, an antique sporting collectibles and art and fish decoy show in Perham. This year's show is planned April 22 and 23 at the Perham Area Community Center. Cost is $8 for adults and free to kids 17 and younger. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS1 / 4
A bullhead, left, is among the fish Tony Sazama of Dent has crafted. Both he and, brother Jacob will again have entries in this year’s national fish decoy competition, part of The Gathering in Perham April 22 and 23. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS2 / 4
Tony Sazama demonstrates how he uses sanding bits to shape the body of a fish before taking a wood-burning tool to define the species-specific markings of the fish. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS3 / 4
Among the tools the Sazama brothers use to create realistic-looking fish decoys are sanding bits and disks to smooth the body and define the species-specific markings. A wood-burning tool helps to further define the body markings. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS4 / 4

Two local anglers will be looking to continue their fish decoy success at next weekend's 20th annual Gathering planned at the Perham Area Community Center.

The Gathering, planned April 22 and 23, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday is put on by the National Fish Decoy Association, along with a number of local sponsors. More than 100 vendors, including carvers and artists, will be on hand at the antique sporting collectibles art and fish decoy show. Featured vendor is Rusty Jesse, a nationally-recognized lure maker and four engraved Henry rifles will be raffled. In addition, the public shopping event will raffle more than $5,000 in fish decoys.

Also part of The Gathering is the national fish decoy competition, bird carving and more.

The Perham Center for the Arts will sponsor its Johnny Cash tribute show in conjunction with The Gathering at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Perham High School auditorium, with opening act, Flashback appearing at 6:15 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. Advance tickets are $18; $20 at the door.

Admission to The Gathering is $8 for adults and free for kids ages 17 and younger.

Among the returning fish decoy makers competing in several of 40 categories, will be two local men, Tony and Jacob Sazama of Dent, who both earned first place finishes at last year's event with their painted fish decoys.

Their hobby can be challenging—and the competition fierce—as they try to create realistic-looking decoys used to draw in fish for spearing during an ice fishing outing. The ultimate goal is that the decoy will look and "swim" like the fish anglers want to spear.

Jacob started carving blocks of wood into fish 16 years ago when he was 14 years old.

"I was talking to my dad while fishing and said 'hey, we could make decoys for spear fishing,'" he said. "Dad had all the tools so I gave it a try."

Now 30, Jacob has been entering decoy contests since 2001, winning multiple awards for his work, including a "Best in Show."

Tony has been carving fish for 13 years and got started after watching his older brother.

"I got into (making decoys) because of Jake," he said. He carved his first fish in 2004, when he was 7 years old, and jumped into the competitive world of decoy painting a couple years later, taking third place in the Junior division in his first year with just one decoy entered in the contest.

The next year he entered four decoys and placed second. He's been hooked ever since.

Using white pine blocks of wood, the two cut the general fish shape and fine-tune the body markings, Tony said, such as the gills and lines of the fish species, using small sanding bits.

To further define those markings the brothers use a wood-burning tool. Each individual scale must be carved with the sanding bits and then lined with the burning tool, Jacob said, adding that the number of scales depends on the species, but it can range from a couple hundred scales to thousands.

"It takes the right person with patience (to carve and burn the scales)," Jacob said.

Indeed, two other brothers, Troy and TJ, tried to create fish but decided the detailed work wasn't to their liking, though Troy exhibits a different kind of patience doing taxidermy work, Jacob said.

With the carving and burning completed, the next step is to seal the wood and create slots for the fins of the fish, Tony said. The aluminum fins are also carved with lines to make them look realistic, and using epoxy, fitted into the slots.

A rectangle hole is carved in the underside of the fish to hold melted lead used to "weight" the fish, Jacob said. The fish is then given a test swim.

"We may have to add more lead," he said, "but the idea is that (the fish) will look and move as realistic in the water as it does out of the water."

Then the painting of the fish begins. Using metallic water-based acrylic paints, the two hand-paint and airbrush the color onto the carved wood. With the epoxy eyes in place, the last step is coating the fish with an enamel clear gloss.

It can take from 10 to 50 hours to complete a fish from start to final sealing, depending on the size and detail of the fish decoy, Jacob said. His schedule with Shearer's Snacks in Perham allows him the time to devote to his hobby. He also has two children, Cason, almost 4, and Mya, 10 months, that keep him busy, but his wife, Kim, said the hobby is a part of who he is.

"He's been doing it ever since I met him," she said. "He likes doing it, so why not be supportive."

Although the brothers said the hobby is relaxing for them, it can also be a source of some extra cash if the decoys are sold, Jacob said.

"Winning gets your name out there," he said, "so more collectors want your fish."

With a few first-place finishes under their belt—and a Best of Show for Jacob as well—the two look to hone their skills as they continue to compete and are entering the contest again this year.

"Everyone is always improving, so you have to keep improving your skills," Tony said. "The competition is pretty tight."

If you go:

20Th anniversary show with more than $28,352 in awards


April 22 and 23, at the Perham Area Community Center

Admission: $8; 17 and younger free

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• Saturday and Sunday Sporting Collectibles


• John Jensen National Fish Decoy Contest

• Casey Edwards National Gunning Bird


• Texas World's Fish Decoy Contest

• PA Keystone World Championships

• NFDA World's Point Series Contest

• NFDA Awards Banquet