By Gary Koehler
If records are indeed made to be broken, Ducks Unlimited magazine readers have taken that adage to heart. For the fourth consecutive year, the number of entries in our photo contest rose to new heights. This year's count surpassed 900, including nearly equal numbers in the waterfowl, retrievers, and waterfowl hunting categories. Combined, these images made for an intriguing collage framing just about all things common to duckdom. They serve to preserve special moments occurring in special places—all treasures in their own right.
To view an extensive collection of honorable mentions in our photo contest, visit ducks.org/photocontest2013.
Best Overall Winner
Chris Knight's job requires him to travel regularly all over northern California. He has made it a point to visit some of the state's most revered duck hunting venues, including Butte Sink and Suisun Marsh, among others. "I get up really early, hunt with a camera for a few hours, and then go to work," Knight says. "I've always been partial to waterfowl, and my job puts me in the middle of great duck country."
Knight photographed this pintail courtship flight in late December on the Llano Seco Unit of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge near Chico. "I spend a lot of time out there. It's one of my favorite spots," Knight says. "You never know what you are going to get. Just like hunting, you have to be in the right place at the right time."
This remarkable shot was taken from an observation platform. "I like photographing birds in flight," Knight says. "At that particular spot, pintail courtship flights will swing right by you. There are at least a few thousand birds on that pond on any given day."
Best Overall Runner-Up
Elk River, Minnesota
Steve Oehlenschlager did not have to go far to find suitable subjects in his quest for dramatic waterfowl images. "I photographed this wood duck on a seven-acre pond right in my backyard," Oehlenschlager says. "Woodies are about the only ducks we get back there, but we have a lot of them. I'm literally surrounded by wood ducks."
This photo comes complete with a scintillating mirror image. "It just happened," Oehlenschlager says. "The pond was dead calm and that wood duck drake just kept swimming right at me. It was like he was a new duck in town. Normally, they stay away."
Oehlenschlager put up a blind for three weeks last spring. Each morning, after returning home from work, he'd head for the hide with his camera. "The pond is at the edge of a mature red oak forest. There are many natural cavities in the hollow trees—so many, in fact, that the wood ducks don't often use the houses I've put up for them. In the spring, the wood ducks fly from tree to tree. It's a lot of fun just to watch them."
Waterfowl Hunting Winner
For the past five years, the Harrison family has ventured to western Manitoba to hunt waterfowl. Cheryl Harrison has become the official trip photographer. "It's a new hobby, actually," she says. "I'm going to school to learn more about photography. It's been a nice addition to our hunting trips."
While her husband Rick, son Duke, and daughter Ella were set up to hunt divers out of a boat blind on the lakeshore, Cheryl positioned herself in a stand of natural vegetation, camera in hand. "That flock of bluebills was enormous," she says. "From when the flight started until all the ducks passed it was well over a minute. We had never seen anything like that before. Everyone was really excited."
Cheryl shot dozens of frames to preserve the moment. "When I photograph a hunt, we get to go back and relive the experience over and over," she says. "Plus, they like having me with them. It's nice to have the whole family together doing something that we all enjoy."
Waterfowl Hunting Runner-Up
San Diego, California
Middle River, Maryland
While his family has always had gun dogs, Paul Stumpf was never in charge of the training. At least not until he acquired Hank, a chocolate Labrador retriever, a little more than a year ago. "This was the first dog I trained from scratch," Stumpf says. "My father and grandfather had always done the training. I wanted to train Hank on my own."
At age 10 months, Hank was officially introduced to waterfowl hunting in a marsh along the aptly named Bird River. The outing turned out to be one for the books. "It was opening day and his first-ever hunt," Stumpf says. "That drake wood duck was the second duck he retrieved—the first was a banded mallard. That made the day really special."
Stumpf hunts off and on from October through January. His camera is always close at hand. "I have always taken pictures while hunting, including photos of other people's dogs. They've been surprised how well they turn out," Stumpf says. "When people invite me to go hunting with them, they always tell me to bring along my camera."
To view an extensive collection of honorable mentions in our photo contest, visit ducks.org/photocontest2013