By Emily Robinson
BEST OVERALL WINNER
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Eighteen-year-old Nathan Bender has been a Ducks Unlimited supporter for as long as he can remember. His father introduced him to local DU dinners and his lifelong passion for waterfowling.
"I can remember to this day sitting on my dad's shoulders as he walked through the marsh just before daybreak," Bender says. "I wasn't tall enough to walk in the water yet, but I wanted to experience doing what my dad loved to do so much."
Bender is one of the youngest members of the Avery Outdoors pro staff. He is currently a marketing student at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, and photography is a big part of his free time. "It is one of the things that make me happiest in life," Bender explains. "Sitting on a frozen slough in January photographing mallards is more enjoyable to me than sitting inside watching television or playing video games."
Bender captured this winning photo of his black Lab, Jet, during a duck hunt in southeastern Wisconsin last November. Bender and his dad watched the weather and scouted the area extensively before choosing their spot. It turned out to be an amazing day. "Once shooting time arrived, we had hundreds of greenheads descending on us, and we took turns with each group, picking out one bird at a time," Bender recalls. "But what made the hunt even more memorable was Jet's work in the water. Many dogs begin to slow down as the hunt progresses, but that's when Jet's afterburners seem to kick in—I have never seen a retriever with quite as much drive."
BEST OVERALL RUNNER-UP
Bonners Ferry, Idaho
Sauquoit, New York
For nearly 75 years, Susan Kiesel's family has owned a camp in Old Forge, New York, surrounded by the spectacular scenery of the Adirondacks. The natural beauty of the area's lakes, mountains, and streams has drawn Kiesel outdoors since her youth, inspiring her to take up photography seven years ago after a career as a teacher and floral designer.
"We live on an old 50-acre farm brimming with fascinating wildlife," Kiesel says of the home she shares with her husband, William, in the hamlet of Sauquoit. "When I decided to start taking pictures, my family offered to buy me a digital camera. At first I refused, but they went ahead with it anyway, and I've been hooked ever since."
Kiesel paddles out in her kayak at sunrise and spends many mornings chronicling the movements of the region's wildlife. However, she took this photo of a beautiful drake wood duck from a field blind. "It was the first wood duck I'd ever seen in this area. It was a breathtaking sight," Kiesel recalls. "I feel blessed to be out there capturing the spirit of the Adirondacks every day."
WATERFOWL HUNTING WINNER
Davis, North Carolina
In her early teens, Justine Piner began hunting waterfowl along the North Carolina coast with her father, a local hunting guide. "I have loved the outdoors for as long as I can remember, but when I saw the excitement that hunting brought my dad, I really began to appreciate it," Piner says. "Our family has hunted for generations, and he passed on that passion to me, as well as a deep respect for the animals we hunt and their habitats."
Piner's winning photo shows her brother-in-law and a family friend shooting from a blind while hunting redheads and scaup near her hometown of Davis. "I decided to submit this photo because it captured so much in one picture," Piner explains. "It was a beautiful afternoon and the birds were flying well—it really shows the essence of what it's like to be duck hunting.
"There always comes a time when we're out in the field that I have to decide whether to shoulder a gun or look through the lens of my camera. I am certainly glad I chose the camera on this particular hunt."
WATERFOWL HUNTING RUNNER-UP
Dunn, North Carolina
Chris Montano Jr.
While Chris Montano Jr. was raised under the endless skies of Montana, it wasn't until he moved to California that he became interested in hunting and fishing. "I started hunting about eight years ago when my stepdad took me out," Montano says. "Now my mom and my daughter, Kiersten, join us out in the field for what's become a great family activity."
Montano has been pursuing wildlife photography—focusing primarily on waterfowl—for the past two years, and he donates many of his prints to DU events across the state. His talents have also given him the opportunity to spend time in the field with renowned wildlife photographer Gary Kramer. "I won best in show in a California Waterfowl Association photo contest, and part of the prize was a chance to hang out with Gary," Montano says. "Since then, we've stayed in touch, and just recently we went to Minnesota together to photograph wolves."
Montano says he sorted through dozens of shots of Cain, his friend's black Lab, before choosing one to submit to this year's photo contest. "We were hunting on the Los Banos Wildlife Area that day, and my friend let Cain loose from the opposite side of the lake to retrieve a drake pintail that had hit the water," Montano remembers. "This photo captured just the right combination of splash and dash, and the determination on Cain's face as he went after the sprig."
Summerville, South Carolina
To view an extensive collection of honorable mentions in our photo contest, go to the DU website at ducks.org/photocontest2014