By Emily Robinson
As a lifelong resident of west-central Iowa, Mike Kleinwolterink is no stranger to the outdoors. He grew up helping his father and grandfather on the family farm, and spent his free time hunting small game. He joined the staff at the local Lake Panorama National Golf Course at age 16, which offered him the opportunity to work outside and led to his introduction to waterfowling.
"My boss took me and two coworkers out on a Thanksgiving goose hunt my senior year of high school," Kleinwolterink recalls. "We had a great hunt, and I was immediately hooked. My enjoyment of hunting waterfowl continues to grow each fall and nowadays seems to be on my mind all year long."
Kleinwolterink was also fortunate to discover his passion and talent for photography at a young age. Shooting a basic 35mm camera, he took a few photography classes in high school and at the University of Northern Iowa. But his interest in photography really ramped up when he became an avid waterfowler and wanted to share his experiences in the blind.
"I started taking photos because it allows you to save a moment forever," Kleinwolterink explains. "I purchased my first digital SLR camera and started capturing hunting scenes."
One such captivating scene was this year's overall winning image. Kleinwolterink shot this breathtaking photo during Iowa's Light Goose Conservation Order last spring. He set up the shot with a Nikon D90 and a wide-angle lens placed on a small tripod behind his hunting party's layout blinds. Using a remote control, he was able to trigger the camera from the blind at just the right moment.
"I had scouted that cornfield the afternoon before and seen many small flocks of snows coming in, so I had high hopes for a good shoot," Kleinwolterink says. "That morning, they all got up at once from a nearby roost and came right to the field. We sat up and shot, but even with all those birds in front of our guns, we managed to bag only one. Right before I called the shot, though, I snapped the photo and captured this exciting image of hundreds of snow geese closing in."
The seeds of Stuart Smith's passion for wildlife photography were planted early. He spent a great deal of time outdoors as a boy in small-town Iowa. He dabbled in photography as part of an elective class at the University of Northern Iowa. But it wasn't until he found himself surrounded by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains in his current home of Aurora, Colorado, that he recognized the grandeur of the natural world and began to capture it with a camera.
"On my drive to work every morning, I would stop and take snapshots of the foothills with my cell phone camera and post them on Facebook," Smith says. "People thought they were really cool, and that led me back to photography and buying my first camera."
That was just over four years ago. Since then, Smith has added photography to his already long list of hobbies, which includes bicycling, motorcycle riding, and hunting.
"I travel back to Iowa every year to hunt pheasants at Christmastime, and I hunt elk in northwest Colorado with my nephew, who was the one that got me into hunting in the first place," Smith says. "The great thing is, even if we never see an elk or a bird, it's just so much fun to be out."
No matter where he goes, Smith's partner in crime is his three-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Nani Koa. "I have a water dog, but I trained her to hunt upland birds," Smith says. "This was the first year the lightbulb went on for her, actually. She flushed a bird, I shot it, and she went and retrieved it no problem. She's a great dog."
Nani Koa was with Smith the day he captured his remarkable winning photo of a drake gadwall. He wasn't seeing much action in his usual photography haunts, so he ventured somewhere new-a small pond that he'd often cycled past on the South Platte River.
"I'd never seen a gadwall before. I went home afterward and had to look it up," Smith says. "Just before I shot this photo, there was another bird that flew over, so the gadwall looked up and prepared to take off. That's one of the best things about photographing wildlife-it's really fun watching the animals interact."
Ontario, New York
WATERFOWL HUNTING WINNER
For those who make their living hunting, it's sometimes better to be lucky than good. Dan Braman, a professional hunting guide since 1987, is clearly the latter. But he makes it very clear that he's the former as well-lucky to be doing what he loves.
"There is no part of hunting that I don't completely adore," Braman says. "The things I enjoy most are the things most people take for granted, the beauty of being outside and the little things people don't see or hear, as well as the camaraderie of friends."
Braman has been a Ducks Unlimited member as long as he can remember. And while he guides for all different types of game with outfitters around his south Texas home, waterfowl top the list.
"Waterfowl hunting is the most beautiful type of hunting," Braman explains. "I enjoy every aspect of it, but my favorite part is hunting with my Lab, Molly. To be honest, if it wasn't for her, I probably wouldn't go out as much as I do."
About 10 years ago, Braman began taking photos while hunting. Outdoor photography quickly became another of his passions. "I've always enjoyed really good photographs, but what made me decide to take it more seriously was that whenever I'd see hunting photography, it wasn't done very well," Braman says. "So I decided to pursue it and to do it well."
Braman's winning image was shot earlier this year with a Sony A99 on a goose hunt in Nebraska. Featured in the photo is Braman's good friend Richard Jankovski bagging a Canada goose. "As the flock was coming in, I set my gun down to get some photographs of the birds decoying," Braman recalls. "As it turned out, when Richard got up to shoot, I couldn't stand up because his elbow was in the way. So I leaned back and tried to get parallel with his gun to capture this shot. Sometimes you just have to hold the button down and hope the stars line up and you get lucky."
WATERFOWL HUNTING RUNNER-UP
Brett Borger's father was committed to sharing the outdoors with his son. Of the many hunting and fishing trips his dad took him on throughout southern Idaho, the waterfowl hunts stand out the most in Borger's memory. Today, he is passing that passion on to his wife, Jamie, and their two sons, three-year-old Bridger and nine-month-old Branson.
"Jamie has been on numerous hunts with me, and Bridger has already shown great interest in hunting and fishing," Borger says. "I want my boys to experience the enjoyment and thrill that waterfowl hunting offers, as well as the importance of habitat and conservation through our support of Ducks Unlimited."
Borger takes photos and video during his hunts in the hopes that he can someday share them with his children and grandchildren. One common thread in many of his waterfowling memories is his golden retriever, Roxy, who's been by his side for the past 12 years.
"From the day I got her as a puppy, I knew she was special," Borger says. "Her natural hunting ability and intelligence is uncanny. We've shared hundreds of hunts, she's retrieved thousands of birds, and we've made memories that will last a lifetime."
Borger captured his winning photograph during Idaho's late goose season. After a long day's hunt, Borger, his father, and two good friends quickly hurried to set up the shot before they lost the light. Despite the rush, the photo turned out to be one of Borger's favorites, and became even more meaningful in light of recent news.
"Earlier this spring Roxy was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. It has been very tough," Borger says. "Last fall was probably her final waterfowl season, and in true Roxy form, her last goose hunt included a limit of honkers and a nice 200-yard retrieve on a sailed bird. Her final retrieve was a beautiful drake wood duck, which I'm having mounted. She is an amazing dog and I'm so glad she's getting the opportunity to appear in DU magazine."
Holly Grove, Arkansas
View more incredible images from honorable mention categories in the 2016 DU Member Photo Contest: