Franz Dutzler - The Master Trout Sculptor

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"How Much Is Passion Worth?

The work of this artist points out the importance of wild trout

By Teryl Moyer

The great jaw gapes toward a school of stampeding shiners. Reeds bow in homage to one sweep of the powerful tail. A crimson crayfish backs cautiously into its stone fortress, wary witness to an imminent feast. Wild and intent, the glistening eye of the ravenous brown locks you in an age-old drama of the river

“It's a Dutzler.” The reverent whisper of a gallery keeper informs. You are wondering just how long you might have stood there had the parchment exhibit card not been thrust into your hands. “Franz Dutzler.' IT READS. “Brown Trout Wood Carving-$8,000”.

“Eight THOUSAND dollars?” “That's one helluva lot of money to spend on a fish!” And you are right. But Franz Dutzler doesn't carve fish. He carves passion. How much is a passion worth?

Franz Dutzler is hoping that his incredible woodcarvings will be worth enough to spark a broad based outcry for the protection of wild trout. Unmatched in his attention to infinitesimal detail, this staunch conservationist and multi-talented wildlife sculptor imbues his aquatic creations with an uncanny realism that has become the unmistakable hallmark of his work. Discriminating collectors from all over the country are clamoring for an original “Dutzler” – at any price.

Because he has chosen to restrict his themes solely to the underwater world of fish (mostly trout) and their supportive species – the insects, minnows and crayfish, etc., on which they feed, Dutzler has been able to focus and fine-tune his techniques to a precision that satisfies even his own demanding standards. He competes with no one but himself.

“Nature is the real artist,” he says, acknowledging his human limitations. “Those are the colors that God gave us to look at. You can try, you can get very close, but you can never duplicate them.” Yet he continues to minimize the gap.

“That's the most exquisite job of taxidermy I've ever seen!” is a classic comment Dutzler now fields with a patient grin. He recognizes it as a compliment of the highest order, especially when it comes from an expert who should be able to tell the difference.

Dutzler tried his hand at taxidermy years ago but abandoned the technique, disappointed with the restrictions inherent in the process itself. “A fish begins to lose it's natural coloring the instant it leaves the water,” he claims. “Preservation, no matter how skillfully done, can never hope to restore these delicate hues.” Driven onward by a perfectionist's nature and a relentless curiosity, Dutzler set out to find a better way.

In 1975 the miraculous accomplishments of famed bird-carver Floyd Broadbent seized Dutzler's attention. He sensed a potential for the animation and the vitality he had longed to capture waiting for him there, in the wood. Returning from Broadbent's studio with an armload of pine and alder and some generous instruction in the fundamentals of woodcarving, Dutzler began a decade of exhaustive experimentation that would lead him to national acclaim.

Charged by his lifelong fascination with trout, he now works from an immense stockpile of detailed notes, photographs, sketches, and callipered measurements he has gathered from thousands of specimens over the years. When challenged by an unusual commission for which his references seem somewhat incomplete, he gladly indulges himself with a refresher course on the river.

Well-versed in the potential offerings of myriad locations, he selects the body of water most likely to yield a vigorous example of the species he intends to carve. Approaching the river with all the stealth of a wild creature himself, hours might pass before he makes his silent entry into the water. A master caster and fly tier as well, he never has to wait long before a screaming reel signals the anticipated result. He plays the fish as he begins to dip fresh river water into the homemade plexi-glass study tank waiting on a lush hummock nearby.

Once the barbless hook is gently removed, the trout is temporarily confined between the narrow walls of the tank. It is studied, measured and photographed, then quickly returned to its watery home unharmed. Invigorated by this brief respite, Dutzler returns to his own confines – the Central Oregon workshop in which he sets to the arduous task of transporting another living memory into wood.

If you are one of the fortunate patrons occasionally invited into this artist's home, prepare yourself for a rare delight. You will be greeted at the door with a warm handshake and the immediate impression that you are in the presence of someone who knows something you don't. The intensity of his ice-blue eyes will draw you like a riffle you've longed to fish. An easy smile, and ageless vitality, a fascinating aquatic realm you never fathomed to exist.

In Franz Dutzler's converted family room, a ceiling-high stack of kiln-dried alder awaits its enviable debut. He explains that each select piece must demonstrate the ideal density, grain, and dimension required to accommodate the composition he carries in his mind. Through hours of ever-refining saw-cuts, chiselings, sandings, and wood-burnings the project eventually takes form. Finally it is time to insert the delicate fins. These have been carved separately from Eastern Maple, many shaved to a scant translucency measuring less than one-sixteenth of an inch. Each is complete with the specific ray count that insures it to be an exact replica of an authentic fin. There is no room for error now. One slip and days of tedious effort will be lost.

At last the fine-finishing marathon can begin. Oil paints are meticulously layered and blended to create the illusion of iridescence in each and every silvery scale. The lateral line of the typical inland rainbow may contain 180 of these. Franz Dutzler knows; he's counted them one by one - all the while inspired by his boundless reverence for wild trout.

And it goes, with one painstaking step following another until the final coat of Varathane is drying and Franz Dutzler settles back to survey his latest masterpiece.

“At first I had to keep a favorite sculpture for six months or a year before I could part with it. It was like selling a piece of my soul. But it soon got to where my techniques were improving so fast that I grew dissatisfied with any previous effort. I am my own worst critic. So I've learned to feast my eyes on them for a week or two, and then it let them go…”

Dutzler no longer attempts to keep records on the whereabouts of his various carvings. “Now I know there will be others just as beautiful, more beautiful,” he says. “The real pleasure is in the creating… I am always concentrating on the piece at hand. There is little time for anything else.”

Franz Dutzler carves every day, whether it is with the actual chisels and blades of his chosen trade, or with the creative tools in the workshop of his gifted mind. “I couldn't find a wood-burning tip small enough to do this delicate detail here, at the corner of the jaw,” he explains. “So I made one.” European-born, the son of an Austrian blacksmith, this modern renaissance man finds great satisfaction even in a momentary delay if it will eventually lead him farther down the road toward perfection.

What about Dutzler's marketing philosophy? “I don't have one,” he admits. “I just make my sculptures so good they have to buy them!” He chuckles, obviously entertained by a blatant naivety that seems to work so well. He remembers the dilemma of a gentleman at his 1982 Kansas City exhibition. He wanted the carving of that cutthroat so desperately, but he just didn't have the $2200.00 to buy it. He came back two days later, cash in hand. He'd found a way to make it happen. The quality just sells itself.




In a brief encounter with Franz Dutzler the artist, you will meet Franz Dutzler the scholar, the historian, the entomologist, the biologist, the conservationist as well. But, above all, you will discover, Franz Dutzler, the teacher – the teacher who hopes that the lessons of his impassioned artistry will emphasize the need for dramatic conservation reform to protect the wild trout.

Now you are beginning to comprehend the real impetus behind Franz Dutzler's remarkable work. He is running out of time. We are all running out of time.

“I am trying to make people see, make them aware that there are ‘wild' trout and how much more beautiful they are than the stocked fish…just make them aware that these creatures do actually exist so they can appreciate what they would be missing if wild trout should ever disappear.”

Franz Dutzler has dedicated his life to making sure that this will never happen. Wild fish have evolved in specific areas, adapting themselves over many thousands of years to surviving in a particular environment. They have adjusted to the chemical make-up of the water, to the seasonal fluctuations in temperature and volume, developing camouflage patterns necessary for protection, perhaps even learning to rely on a variety of uncommon food sources in their valiant quest for survival.

The miraculous capability of these creatures to adapt to an ever-changing environment provides a continual source of wonder and inspiration for Franz Dutzler. “Man can learn a lot from these simple creatures,” he contends. “When the water's no good for a fish anymore, it's no good for a man either.” If humanity can learn to value and protect the domain of wild trout, might it not also gain a new respect and appreciation for its own fragile species in the process? Dutzler is convinced.

Because you are gaining an immeasurable appreciation for the meticulous care with which this man builds anything - his sculptures or his convictions, you find yourself increasingly willing now to consider the rest of what he has to say.

And Franz Dutzler has some profoundly unorthodox things to say about direction of current trout management policies. “The catch-and-release programs may be of some help during this transition time,” he speculates. “They could buy us a little time. But catch-and–release alone offers little hope for the long-range protection of wild fish.” Dutzler recalls a case in point. He observed one paranoid 12-inch rainbow approaching, then denying a natural insect eight times in one popular catch-and–release stream. “That poor little fish never did take that fly,” he laments. He'd been hooked so many times that he just couldn't bring himself to take another chance.” That's a sad commentary on the far-reaching implications of catch-and-release fishing.

But Dutzler expresses a real sympathy for the double-bind in which wildlife agencies find themselves caught. On one hand, they are asked to supply a demanding public with more and more fish to catch. On the other hand, these same agencies have been charged with the stewardship of a delicately balanced natural resource. The problem is that people scream louder than the fish, and people pay the bills.

So what is the answer? According to Dutzler, the only hope is to educate the public, and fast. The days are long gone when this diminishing resource can survive the unwitting demands of a “meat-hogging” mentality

“Twenty percent of the fisherman take 80 percent of the fish,” quotes Dutzler. “They take their two-week vacations and their six ice chests and they go and clean out a river.” In essence, Dutzler feels that we are subsidizing those few fishermen who clearly prize quantity over quality. Expensive stocking programs are being asked to keep up with this unreasoning demand. With the current focus on stocking programs, the critical issue – the protection of a precariously balanced wild fishery – is being pushed to the back-burner. “That pot is about to boil dry.” Warns Dutzler. “ If we let that happen it will be too late to add a little more liquid to the stew, wild trout will be gone.”.

As long as the average fisherman cares only that “something silver” is flopping in the bottom of his creel, nothing will change. Dutzler realizes that it is going to be difficult to change some people's attitude about fishing, probably impossible. So he suggests that certain areas be designated exclusively for those who prefer to measure the quality of their fishing experience by the pound. “Stock those areas to the gills,” he puns, “and let ‘em have a heyday! Let ‘em haul them home by the trailers-full if that's what they want. But let them pay for what they take…and let them leave the wild trout alone!

As it is now, he says, probably half of those hoarded fish eventually wind up in the garbage can during next year's spring cleaning, the hapless victims of freezer burn and the unconscious abuse of a rapidly declining resource. Many of these victims are wild trout.

Dutzler doesn't object to the man who wants to feed his family. He enjoys a nice trout dinner once in a while himself. But he is always cognizant of when and where he keeps his fish. “If I'm fishing in an area where I know that wild populations are threatened, I won't keep any. I may not even fish there. But if I am in an area where the wild fish are still plentiful, then I might take home one or two nice trout that night for a special treat.” And that's what wild trout must become for everyone – a very special treat.

“When you go fishing,” he says, “there should be a sensitivity involved. First, when you enter the river, take a good look around at the surroundings. Enjoy the birds and the wildflowers. Feel the peace and the tranquility there. Then, if wild fish are present, attempt to catch one and admire the beauty of it. If you decide to take some home to eat, well fine, but appreciate it for what it is instead of just a non-thinking process. There has to be more to it than the momentary excitement you get out of the way a fish fights, just hitting it over the head and putting it away.

Unfortunately, most people don't even recognize a wild fish when they land one. If more of the tax dollars could be earmarked for public education and less for stocking of hatchery trout, the public might have a chance to learn and appreciate the real value of a wild fishery.

“I don't know,” puzzles Dutzler, “Maybe it has to start with the children, in the schools - with conservation presentations, that kind of thing. Maybe the children will have to teach it to their parents.”

But before we can teach anyone to respect wild fish, we must guarantee that there will be wild fish left to respect. Dutzler would implement drastic measures immediately to insure the stability of dwindling wild trout populations. Paramount to this effort would be the need to establish accurate wild trout counts on all affected waterways. “Only then will we know the true extent of the problem and how to best combat it.” Dutzler concedes that gathering the date for such a project would be an enormous task, but such information would be vital for the ultimate redemption of the resource.

Dutzler would not sop there. He would place a temporary moratorium on all indiscriminate hatchery stocking programs until current population statistics are in. “These wild fish are keenly territorial,” he explains. “When you dump a load of hatchery fish into a wild section, the wild fish are crowded out. The hatchery fish compete for the limited food sources, of course, but more importantly, as the wild fish attempts to chase away the new intruders from his territorial feeding stations, he may eventually exhaust himself and die.”

There is more, Dutzler would dramatically restrict and possibly close the angling on certain highly-pressured streams until vigorous populations of wild trout could be securely re-established. He wouldn't win any popularity contests. Not next week. But in five or ten years down the road, when an average day's angling might include at least one spirited encounter with a feisty 40 pounder…who would you vote for then.

Franz Dutzler envisions a time when you may even be willing to surrender your barbless hook for the truly “hookless” fly. “You'll get points for the delicacy and accuracy of the cast, for the consistency and the ferocity of the strike,” he promises. “There won't be any harm done to a wild creature in that process. Fly fishing will be a real sport then!”

And so Franz Dutzler carves. And he ponders. And he sets you pondering too. What will become of the wild trout? Will they be loved the way so many things are loved – loved carelessly, soon “loved” to death? Will Dutzler's graceful sculptures serve as a talisman or epitaph? Are you prepared to purchase the bigger picture by paying the short-term price? It really all boils down to this: how much is a passion worth?

Reprinted by permission of Teryl Moyer and Cascades East.




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