Troy Helget smiles and shakes his head when asked if he could have imagined a career in fish decoy carving taking off like it has when he jumped into this less than 10 years ago.
"Never," Helget said. "I'm living the dream. How can it not be? I get up in the morning, and I head to the shop. I don't have to punch a clock. If I want to make a bass tomorrow, I'll make a bass. If I want to make a crappie, I'll make a crappie. That's the best part about it."
Everyone wants to earn a living doing something they love, and that's where Helget finds himself. Two of his latest fish decoys he sold on eBay went for almost $500. His carvings sell online all over the country for an average of about $380 apiece.
That value comes with Helget's drive to improve and perform well in competitions all over, as proven again at a recent decoy and collectible show in Perham this April.
Helget, 47 of Kensington, won a Best of Show in the service working category for a crappie decoy he carved that was one of 18 categories he entered his work into. He won many of those individual categories, and all 18 were voted among the top five in their field.
"This category is judged a lot on the swim," Helget said of his Best of Show winner. "It's judged 90 percent on the swim, so basically it's the best swimming decoy at the show. It's got a nice, slow glide. Sometimes you'll get a bobble in them, but this thing just makes a nice four foot circle and glides so nice."
Most of the carvings Helget creates are bought as collectibles, but all of them are decoys that can be used in a darkhouse by spearers if they choose to use them.
The realistic look of a piece like the crappie that won him Best of Show is what catches a person's eye initially about Helget's work. Getting the decoy to swim perfectly comes down to properly weighting the piece with lead and getting the fins placed exactly right.
Helget credits his training in taxidermy with helping him understand the anatomy of multiple fish species that he now replicates with his carvings. His wife, Patty, has also won competitions over the years with her decoy carvings, and both love to fish. It's not uncommon for Helget to stare a little longer at a crappie, bass or walleye he catches as he searches for the finest characteristics of a fish that might help him create a more realistic piece of work.
Helget can see how that attention to detail has paid off for him through the eight years he has been doing this now. While he was always artistic, Helget's original work came through chainsaw carvings of fish and other wildlife.
It was those chainsaw carvings that he brought with him to the Rudy Zwieg Decoy and Collectible Show in Alexandria in 2010 that got him noticed by a couple longtime decoy carvers, Larry Lange and Rod Osvold. Helget recalls them seeing the potential in his work when it came to carving fish decoys. They invited him into their shops to help him get started.
Helget entered six or seven of his decoys into competitions at shows for the first time in 2011. From 2012 through 2014, he won the world points championship that is based on how a carver does at multiple shows across multiple categories throughout the year. In doing so, Helget became the first carver to win the points title three straight years.
"I was blessed with a talent, and I'm very lucky," Helget said. "It's natural. When I first started carving, to scale this fish I would actually draw, lay out all my scales. Now I just grab my tip and start going."
Helget works out of a small shop at his home. His decoys are made out of white pine, and the initial cuts are made with a band saw before he shapes them with a grinder and sands them. The details of the fish are hand carved. The scales are burned into the wood, and the painting is both airbrushed and hand-painted to create the best piece possible.
"I look at my decoys from back (when I started), I've still got a few of my first ones, and it's like, 'Wow, I've come a long way,'" he said. "The anatomy is better, I've stepped up on my paint jobs. I'm always looking to improve, and I'm getting better all the time. I can see it from year to year."
Most of the competition pieces Helget produces take between 20-30 hours to finish. He prepared for the show in Perham by spending almost 16-18 hours a day in the shop for a week and a half to perfect his entries.
That's what it takes for a chance to win. Helget said one of the best things about these shows is meeting people from all over who are willing to share tips that can help a carver improve, while they push each other to be at their best.
"That's what makes it fun for me," Helget said. "Most carvers at the Perham show, probably 80 percent of them are from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. You get to the world show, you get guys from all over the United States competing there. You got to be on your game."
That upcoming world show is in Michigan this September, and Helget will produce about 20 new carvings for it to enter into multiple categories. He has entered his carvings there in the past and had individual entries take first, though never came away with a Best of Show.
"That's my goal this year," Helget said. "They take the Best in Show in every category, and then out of those categories, it's best decoy in the world. That's what I'm gunning for."