PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. — Mike Valley's wood shop offered a comfortable retreat from the single-digit temperatures and biting wind that howled from the west across the Mississippi River.
Heated by a hulking wood stove, this is where Valley uses white pine and white cedar, power and hand tools, and small brushes to carve and paint spectacular decoys of mallard, merganser and canvasback ducks along with other waterfowl that frequent the nearby backwaters and sloughs.
Valley's work — which fills his Valley Fish and Cheese store and what used to be the back porch of his home next door— can sell for $250 to more than $800 depending on the detail.
So it was quite a contrast when, just minutes before on a stainless steel work counter in his fish-cleaning building, Valley was using cardboard and clothespins to ready the star, at least in these parts, of New Year's Eve. A clear coat of varnish, a smidgen of rouge and a smear of red lipstick will be applied later to Lucky, a 20-pound, 9-ounce yellow carp.
"It's just a regular carp," said Valley, who netted the fish in November. "You want one that ain't all beat up. You want her to be presentable."
This New Year's Eve marks the 13th annual Carp Fest and Dropping of the Carp in this historic river town of about 6,000 people. But Lucky isn't dropped. She's lowered by a crane into a wooden cradle on St. Feriole Island, where hundreds line up to kiss her frozen lips for good luck.
That's why Valley is so particular. He uses the clothespins and cardboard to position Lucky's partially thawed fins so they stand out as large as possible. Lucky is then hung back in Valley's freezer and a few days before New Year's, the clothespins and cardboard are removed and the varnish and makeup applied. After the event, it's back to the freezer until May 1 when she becomes fertilizer for a newly planted maple tree in Lucky Park.
The event started when locals Tom and Cathie Nelson saw a peach dropped at New Year's Eve in Atlanta and thought they could do something similar here. The first event attracted a few hundred but now a couple thousand attend. The week includes bowling, ice skating, ice fishing, bonfires, cross-country skiing, disc golf and a Euchre tournament. For those who can get up on New Year's Day, the Rotary Club puts on a breakfast.
The king and queen, Ken and Jan Meyer, are repeats from last year, said Mike Ulrich, parks and recreation director for the city.
"They made robes and have been in parades and at Octoberfest," Ulrich told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/JER67B). "We really struck it rich when they wanted to be the ambassadors of this."
But Lucky and the Meyers aren't the only stars. Valley is about to get his own shot at notoriety in the form of a reality television show scheduled to air this spring on Discovery Channel and tentatively titled "American River Rendezvous."
A Montana-based production company spent several months this year following Valley and his fishing partner, Brooks Niedziejko, as they traversed the Mississippi River netting yellow and buffalo carp, sheephead, catfish, bullhead and even dog fish, prized for their caviar, that turns black when salted and which can fetch $75 per pound retail in St. Louis and Chicago.
Filming started in May and required 50 hours of work for each 12 minutes used in the show's six episodes. The series also follows a guy who traps hogs and commercial fishes in South Carolina, another who works the Yukon River in Alaska and a commercial fisherman in southern Louisiana who also hunts alligators.
Valley's goal is simply to promote his business as a way to attract more tourists to the area.
"We miss 99 percent of the people that come through Prairie du Chien," Valley said. "They have no idea we're even here."
The same used to be said for gold prospectors "Dakota" Fred Hurt and Parker Schnabel and American Pickers Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz. The gang from Duck Dynasty, known to duck hunters for years because of their duck calls, now have their faces on floor mats, bath towels, coffee mugs, T-shirts, books, furniture and even an $8,500 camouflaged Segway.
A Mike Valley bobblehead may be a few years off but if the ratings work, the production company will be back again this summer to collect footage for 12 to 18 more episodes. Valley signed a five-year contract for the show.
"It's scripted but it's not scripted to where it's not real. It's just how they want certain things done," Valley said. "It has to be real, or I'm not doing it."