Hooked on Carving Fish
April 25th, 2016 by Craig Reed
Franz Dutzler outlines details on a fish at his workshop. He uses black walnut and attention to detail to create natural-looking carvings of trout and other fish, such as those in the background of this photo.

Franz Dutzler outlines details on a fish at his workshop. He uses black walnut and attention to detail to create natural-looking carvings of trout and other fish, such as those in the background of this photo.

The details of the rainbow trout carving give it a lifelike look. The green and red colors of the fish shine, as if it is swimming through a pristine lake or river. The body is curved, as if moving.

The trout—enclosed in glass to protect its clean and natural look—is the creation of wood carver and painter Franz Dutzler. The 75-year-old artist’s work on hundreds of fish during the past few decades has earned him the title “The Trout Master.”

In his words, Franz has been “crazy about fish and fishing” since he was a kid in Austria.

After a short stint working at a railroad job and many years working as a chef, Franz became confident enough in his artwork to make it a full-time profession.

He combines the natural beauty of black walnut and attention to detail to create a natural medium for displaying wild trout, frogs and other aquatic animals in their habitats.

“Since I was a little kid, I’ve watched trout—swimming, chasing each other,” Franz says. “I’ve been fascinated by them. I just love the colors of the rainbow trout. There are some really neat colors—red, green, purple. All the spots on them are colorful. I was just intrigued by trout behavior.”

Franz began honing his carving skills while working as a chef at a resort in the Snowy Mountains in Australia and then at the Milford Hotel at Milford Sound, New Zealand. His first sculpture was made from butter, wire and wood.

In 1966, he and Launa, his wife of 50 years, married and soon immigrated to the U.S., settling in the Yakima, Washington, area. Franz worked as a chef in the Chinook Hotel and continued to carve butter and ice for table displays.

While there, he met a man who carved upland game birds out of wood and painted them. He encouraged Franz to carve, but something other than birds. Franz began carving fish as a hobby.

A skiing accident left him bedridden for a while, which gave him time to carve and to think about how he could improve his artistry. He began to study “Trout and Salmon of North America,” a thesis written by a fish biologist in Colorado.

“I studied that thesis to improve my knowledge of the fish,” Franz says.

And he continued to improve his wood-carving skills.

Once he was back on his feet and fishing, he put trout he caught in a clear plastic tank to study up close the fish’s mouth, fins and coloring. He took photos of the fish. In many cases, he released the fish back into the water where he had caught it.

“He went out and did his own research,” Launa says. “Carving and painting from a photo of a live fish, not a dead one, is why I think his carvings have so much life to them. He was happy with what he had at first, but obviously he has improved over time.”

Franz eventually was confident and proud enough of his work that he submitted his fish carvings to the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, Oregon, then to an art show in Eugene, Oregon, and steadily to other shows.

When a man bought a whole table of Franz’s carvings at a Spokane show, the artist decided to go full time as a carver and painter.

Franz set up a workshop area at his La Pine, Oregon, home. He created more carvings of fish and took his artwork to more shows around the West.

He traded some of his artwork for trips to Alaska, where he was able to experience salmon fishing. His daughter hooked a 50-pound salmon on one of those trips, and Franz landed the fish. He then carved a replica of the fish. It sold for $7,000.

Another Franz creation—two steelhead in a 5-foot-long display—sold for $12,000.

Launa became her husband’s business manager, doing the bookwork and helping with sales created by the business’ website, www.thetroutmaster.com.

“I support him wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think he has a wonderful talent. A lot of people see his fish and think it’s taxidermy. His fish look so realistic, they think it’s real.”

While Franz has slowed down some in his shop and does not visit art shows anymore, he still takes orders from his website, and has fish carvings on display and for sale at The Wooden Jewell in Sunriver and at a few fishing lodges in Oregon and Idaho.

After living in the La Pine area for the past 25 years, the Dutzlers recently moved to Utah to be closer to their grown children and grandkids. Franz has a workshop at his new residence.

“It’s been a real blessing that Franz has been able to do something he loves and make a living at it,” Launa says. “Not many people get that opportunity. He’ll be carving until he dies.”