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Trout-Loving Artists Lament The Job That Got Away

By Barry Newman
LANGLADE, Wis.-To fish for trout in Wisconsin, you have to pay $20 for a fishing license and another $10 for something known as a trout “stamp.” The stamp used to look like a postage stamp. You had to lick it and stick it onto your license. On its front, the stamp always had a nice painting of a trout.

About 10 years ago, Wisconsin’s 150,000 trout anglers began receiving artless printouts instead.
Asked to see one, Joe Schwartz dug into his vest. Knee-deep in the Wolf River, 175 miles north of Milwaukee, he was fly-casting on a Saturday afternoon. He pulled out a green paper. All it said was: “404-Inland Waters Trout Stamp.”
“It means you paid your $10,” he explained.

For fly casters with a deeper feel for tradition, the state kept printing its sticky stamps-until last year. Mr. Schwartz, 28 years old, could have ordered one by mail. But he didn’t, and hardly anyone else did, either. So this season, Wisconsin has done away with its sticky trout stamp altogether. Only the revenue remains.

“Trout art fell to the bottom when we looked at all the stuff we do,” says state trout specialist Larry Claggett. “We’ve got to concentrate on the things that make a real difference for fish.”
It’s a decision that pains Terry Doughty. Mr. Doughty, who lives beside a lake several hours north of here, is an artist. He paints trout.

“There’s no stamp on the stamp,” he says. “It goes through a computer. Some people today don’t even know what a trout stamp is.”

Mr. Doughty, 69, is a four-time winner of the annual Wisconsin trout-stamp contest, the state’s means of choosing the art for its stamps. His trout have leapt onto the state stamp with each win. For him, like many other workaday artists in the country, selling prints of winning stamps has made a good living. Or used to.

“It’s easy painting trout,” says Mr. Doughty. “No feathers. No fur.” Yet, he adds, “Nobody wants fish art anymore.”

Illinois and Kentucky have canceled their trout stamps, too, and so have 14 other states. Only Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island still run trout contests. Which raises the question: If the trout stamp goes, can the duck stamp be far behind?

Every conservation stamp in America-fish or fowl-evolved from the Federal Duck Stamp. A political cartoonist, J.N. “Ding” Darling, lobbied it through Congress in 1934. The duck stamp is the last tax stamp the federal government has, according to Scott Troutman of the State Revenue Society. And the duck-art contest, begun in 1949, is the only such art contest the federal government runs, according to Pat Fisher, chief of the Federal Duck Stamp Office.

Ms. Fisher came to her job from the National Endowment for the Arts. “At the endowment we were criticized for funding these conceptual artists,” she says. Duck-stamp art must be anatomically correct, but there is only one absolute: “It can’t be a dead duck,” says Ms. Fisher.

Dead ducks are the purview of duck hunters, and they all must buy Federal Duck Stamps, now $15. Duck stamps, all told, have raised $750 million and saved five million acres of duck domicile. Around 1980, the states sniffed this budgetary quarry, and soon all 50 had animal stamps-not only duck stamps but goose, goat, grouse, elk, deer, bear, walleye, bass and trout stamps, too.
Animal artists stampeded. A stamp-contest win meant deals for limited-edition prints with outfits like Wild Wings, the Minnesota mecca for rustic decor. Personal appearances followed at fund raisers for conservation groups like Trout Unlimited or Ducks Unlimited. Signed prints were auctioned off. Prices shot up. Collectors flocked.

Mr. Doughty cashed in. He grew up fishing, bow hunting and copying Sports Afield magazine covers. He dabbled in taxidermy and worked in gas stations until he quit with a bad back in the late ‘80s. “I had a couple of artist friends,” he says. “They told me: ‘You’re out of work, go into trout stamps.’”

He did, and soon painted his way onto seven of them in four states, plus eight Wisconsin duck stamps, numerous sports-bar beer mirrors and thousands of tastefully framed prints. His snowy owl on a snowy night was his biggest hit: 600 sold at $125 apiece.

Scores of other artists also unleashed animal hoards. One did eight prints a year with runs of 22,000. “This thing got out of control,” says Bob Dumaine, founder of the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society. The man caves of America were running out of wall space. “My wife,” says Mr. Claggett, Wisconsin’s trout chief, “didn’t want to see another picture of a fish come home with me.”

To lure collectors, states issued a lot more stamps than they had hunters or anglers. A stamp glut compounded the print glut. The revenue stamps often cost more to print than they raised in revenue. As a result, Mr. Dumaine now counts 15 states that have eliminated duck stamps, on top of the 16 that have dropped their trout stamps.

The federal duck stamp survives by congressional mandate: Within 45 days of online purchase, a sticky stamp shall arrive by mail, like it or not. Deans of duck art still prosper-like the Hautman brothers (Jim, Bob and Joe), whose ducks have won the federal contest eight times, and got a mention in the movie, “Fargo.” Their hyper-realistic originals can sell for $50,000 and up.
But after 20 tries, Mr. Doughty doesn’t enter the federal contest anymore. His limited editions are limited now to $250 ink-jet prints available, one at a time, from his website. Rummaging in his storeroom through drawers full of fish and ducks, he said, “Did I do all this?” Running out of space, he has burned thousands of prints in a trash barrel.

Here in Langlade, the Wolf River chapter of Trout Unlimited will be blowing up beaver dams this summer so the water runs cooler. That’s good for trout. To raise money for the project, it won’t be throwing a banquet and auctioning off art.
“We’re not going after the artistic angle,” says the chapter’s vice president, Jim Waters. Local fly casters plan to set up a stand in front of Mike’s Service Station and sell bratwurst instead.
To read the story on line and view a duck stamp slide show, go to:

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