By Gary Koehler

Each member of our representative group of five women-ranging in age from 20-something to 96-is a regular in the marsh, and has a story worth sharing.

Meet the fastest-growing segment of the shooting sports. Yes, that's right, women. Many, like those included in this report, hunt ducks and geese. These gunners have also been known to pursue white-tailed deer, pheasants, turkeys, and more. Most also fish. And, when it comes time to go out to dinner, they may or may not be adorned in a dress and high heels.

Tiffany Veenker - Portland, Oregon

Although a few years removed from her tenure as an Oregon high school state track and field sprint champion, Tiffany Veenker has not lost a step. Only the arena has changed.

Hers is a lesson in quick-draw shooting with a 12-gauge semiautomatic. Zooming Columbia River bluebills routinely pay a stiff price while testing the reflexes of this relative newcomer to the waterfowling world.

'When and how I learned how to shoot a shotgun, that was a big difference,' Tiffany says. 'Most people, when they are learning, it's very calm and relaxed. Well, when I was going to the gun club, I was with a group of people who were all very competitive. When you yelled 'Pull,' and you weren't quick enough, they were going to shoot your target.

'We were shooting every Wednesday night, and we were reloading beforehand. We would go through 500 rounds a night. It helped shooting with those guys, because out on the river you've got to be quick when shooting bluebills. You certainly can't stand there holding your gun all the time waiting for them to come by.'

Tiffany, still in her twenties, has been hunting waterfowl for eight years. She currently splits her time afield between a family friend's camp on the lower Columbia River and a Sauvie Island duck club.

'My two older brothers and I grew up shooting, but my dad mostly hunted elk,' she says. 'He never did a lot of duck hunting.'

'My sister-in-law's brother, Robert, was a maniac about duck hunting. Duck season came around, and I wanted to try that. Robert got my dad to go, too. He reintroduced my dad to it. Dad joined a private club so we could go all the time. It was fun. And I found out it can be addicting.'

Tiffany's father, Jerry, has watched his daughter progress from a wide-eyed neophyte to an accomplished wing shot in short order.

'I think she got into it at first because of her brothers,' Jerry Veenker says. 'Duck hunting was something they weren't doing at the time. That made it her thing.'

A move to Chicago provided Tiffany perspective. Illinois River waterfowl hunting at one time was legendary.

'I took my gun and all my hunting gear with me and had an apartment for a year. There was no place to go, because the hunting is pretty much all private. It killed me,' Tiffany says.

'I think that's when I realized how much I needed it. I love fishing, too, but being involved with hunting is something special. It's unfortunate, but people take things for granted until they can't do it.'

These days, Tiffany often joins her father at John Affolter's Columbia River camp. Guests include family and friends. She receives a complete lesson in old-school hunting ethics every time out. Indeed. This group does well on the water, but conversation here never focuses on filling bag limits. Rather, the emphasis is on absorbing the entire experience. Gorgeous sunrises and big-water retrieves by those among the herd of black Labs common to the camp may be savored every bit as much as the birds in the boat at day's end.

'I've been fortunate to hunt with people like my dad, and John, who really have a passion for duck hunting,' Tiffany says. 'There's a lot of work involved where we hunt. But there's so much to see out there, and the setting is great. There's nothing competitive about it. We laugh, we tell stories. It's just fun.'

During the past couple of years, Tiffany has spent considerable time training her own black Lab, Roxy. Though not above occasionally crawling up onto the lap of a visitor, Roxy now is all business while on the water.

'I didn't have any experience training a retriever, but I wanted to do it myself,' Tiffany says. 'I got all the Wolters training books and used them as a guide while I was training Roxy. She's getting better and better. I'm proud of her.'

Tiffany, a Ducks Unlimited member, is also making sure that her niece, Sydney, age nine, is introduced to waterfowling the right way.

'We started last summer, working mostly on gun safety,' Tiffany says. 'I call Sydney my duck hunter in training. She went with us opening weekend and loved it. I think she's my best hope of having a female duck-hunting partner. By the time she's in high school, I think she'll be ready.'

They are among waterfowling's future. It runs in the family.

Ellie Sharp- San Francisco, California

Ellie Sharp spent a portion of her birthday in a duck blind on a private club in northern California's District 10 region near Marysville. This is notable if only because December 22 celebrated her 96th year. Until proven otherwise, consider this 5-foot-tall, 80-pound sprite the oldest active waterfowler in North America.

She is in these fields three days a week. That's the way it has been since 1960, when her late husband, Jim, and her father gathered together a group of friends and purchased a ranch for the sole purpose of hunting ducks. There were nine original members.

'Most of them are gone now. There is only one other original member left besides me,' Ellie says. 'And he doesn't get out here to hunt very often. It's always been nine members, and it still is today, but the people have changed.'

Not so Ellie. She still treks down the rice field levees to the round, sunken concrete pit blinds. No ATV ride. No truck dropping her off. No way. The hike to blind number 10 is a quarter-mile long. And she does that gladly, all by herself, walking staff in hand. She was introduced to hunting some 70 years ago.

'Jim had been shooting since he was a boy, and when we would visit his family he would go off dove shooting. After about two years I told him that if he was going dove shooting, I would stay home and play golf,' Ellie says.

'He said if I would like to try, I could go. So he put me in a corner away from everyone and gave me a gun and shells. The doves came by, and I fired, and of course, missed. And I said 'I like this.' So from then on, I hunted. I guess that was 1933.'

Ellie also hunted ducks with her father at Suisun Marsh. A few years later, she, her husband, and father were among members of a new club called the Flamingo.

'It had eight bunks in it, and one bathroom, and I dressed in the closet,' Ellie says. 'After about 10 years, they decided to build another building so that Jim and I could have a room of our own. I was the only woman member.'

During the 1950's, Sports Illustrated magazine took note of Ellie's duck-hunting passion. A feature story included a photograph of her, resplendent in full gear, including rubber hip boots, holding a mixed bag of birds. The caption described her as such: 'FIRST LADY of Marysville is Elena Sharp, who broke for-men-only barrier at hunting clubs in 1939.'

'The men at the club didn't give me a hard time. They were very pleasant at the Flamingo, but they would never mix me a drink. I went to the bar and mixed my own,' Ellie says.

'I packed my own decoys out to the blind, did what I was supposed to do. Jim never could shoot on Wednesday because he had to stay in San Francisco, so I would come up and shoot with my father.'

Ellie's father died on the current club grounds.

'He had a massive stroke,' she says. 'But that isn't a bad way to die. He shot a limit of birds in the morning and died in the afternoon. He was doing what he loved to do. But, of course, it was a terrible shock.'

The landscape has changed considerably during Ellie's years in this piece of California duck country.

'In the old days at the Flamingo, you'd go out and have fabulous shooting every day,' she says. 'There were only a few clubs, and there wasn't all the water we have today. There's more pressure on the birds now with so many clubs.'

Although she has made the lengthy drive many times from San Francisco to the club by herself, these days Ellie is often accompanied by longtime friend Bob Sciutto, a former Ducks Unlimited senior vice president, or her granddaughter, Clarissa, a professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Ellie encouraged her granddaughter's interest in the outdoors from the start.

'You have to leave it up to the children. Some will like it (hunting) and some won't. Clarissa enjoys it. She started shooting when she was 14. She is an excellent shot and an excellent duck caller,' Ellie says.

'She doesn't get to come up here as often because of her work, but she was here opening weekend, and she will be here for closing weekend.'

After the season ends, Ellie may be found on the ski slopes, golf course, tennis court, or at the bridge table. She is, in the words of current duck club members, an

inspiration to all who know her. Ellie has also been a DU Sponsor for more than 25 years.

This past holiday season, however, was not as much fun as that which Ellie normally enjoys. She lost a beloved companion, Coot, an 11-year-old black Lab who accompanied her on innumerable outings. The dog's ashes are encased in a cedar box that sits on a table in Ellie's duck club cabin. An accompanying color photograph serves as a reminder of their days together.

'Her parents were field champions and her grandparents were field champions. She would go up and down the levee looking for birds. She was a fabulous dog. She never quit. She never gave up,' Ellie says.

Lessons learned from her master, no doubt.

Tara Quinn - Cordova, Maryland

If ever there was a marriage made in the marsh, the union of Tara Quinn and Sean Fisher may well serve as the ultimate blueprint.

Sean showed up at the church for the nuptials not with wedding license in hand, but with permits necessary in Maryland before legally building a duck blind.

When Tara placed the wedding ring on Sean's finger it was far from common fare. In fact, the ring was a gold AVISE duck band, with their wedding date inscribed as a reminder, lest memories grow fuzzy.

'I had the marriage license and the duck blind permits in my truck. I just grabbed the wrong envelope when I went in the church,' Sean says while explaining the near faux pas. 'She had the ring made for me. That was her idea.'

There's more. Much more. Priorities are never in question here.

'People asked why we weren't going to Bermuda or Hawaii for our honeymoon,' Tara says. 'We went to Chincoteague (a national wildlife refuge), and we looked at ducks. Those who really knew us weren't surprised.'

So what was the origin of this romance?

'I was down at Wye Island, decoy hunting, looking for decoys that drifted from other people's rigs,' Tara says. 'If they didn't have a name on them you recognized, the decoys were yours. Sean saw me, and said 'There's that girl. Let's see what she's got in her truck.' I had a bunch of cork decoys in the back of my truck. And I had a bunch of federal duck bands hanging from the mirror. I guess that got him interested.'

Seven years later, they remain partners-in and out of the marsh.

'It's just something that we both enjoy,' Tara says. 'Waterfowl hunting is an important part of our lives. In our house, everything revolves around hunting.'

Both are longtime waterfowl hunters. Tara got her start at age eight, thanks to an assist from her older brother, Colin.

'We lived on Gibson Island. It was about a thousand acres, and it was great for a child growing up,' Tara says. 'My brother and I had our own little point blind about 15 feet off the beach that we built together. It was a registered, legitimate blind. We hunted that for years, and we had a couple of other spots on the island we hunted.

'We used to ride to the blind on our bicycles with our decoys on the back. It was like a two-mile ride. We did that for about two years, until we got smart enough to find someone to take us down there the night before and hide the decoys.'

When they got older, the Quinns hunted every day before school, until a little matter of being late to the carpool pickup interrupted their schedule. 'My mother put an end to that,' Tara says, 'so we started hunting after school, every day, and Saturdays. We were obsessed with duck hunting.'

An independent sort who enjoyed searching for arrowheads and other artifacts, as well as exploring the island and watching wildlife, Tara bought her first boat at the tender age of 12.

'I went up to Sears and bought a johnboat on credit. I paid $12 a month,' she says. 'The next year I bought a six-horsepower outboard, so I had my own rig. I wanted to be able to go where I wanted to go.'

This was right about the same time Tara put up a shingle and launched her first business. 'I started cleaning ducks. I was trying to steal the duck-plucking business from a local club,' she says. 'Anything to buy shotgun shells. And it was good, because guys would bring their ducks to me and tell me where they killed them. So I always knew where the birds were.'

Tara attended art school, but perhaps it is one of her earliest renderings that remains freshest in mind. Call it the one that got away.

'My brother and I were camoing our clothes in the seventies,' Tara says. 'We would paint cattail reeds and stuff on our hunting clothes with acrylic paint when we were 13 or 14. I wish I would have had insight then, but I didn't think it (camouflage clothing) would take. Can you believe how many camo patterns are out there now?'

These days, Tara, a former Ducks Unlimited area chairman, works at home, crafting made-to-order decoy bags (Bag Limit), painting, and sometimes carving high-end decoys, sewing camo gun sleeves, and engineering custom duck boat blinds. Marlin, a yellow Lab, is usually at her side.

Tara has also taken time to help introduce two nieces, Teal and Lindsey Quinn, to waterfowl hunting.

'I got them started about three years ago,' Tara says. 'My brother has taken them, too, and they love it. They are 4.0 students, and they are outdoorsy. They're more comfortable being outside with a pair of boots on rather than inside watching TV.'

Just like their favorite aunt.

Sandi Beitzel - Manitowoc, Wisconsin

The long-tailed pheasant exploded from the tall grass without providing the benefit of a cackle. Yet only seconds into the rooster's flight, a single shot roared from Sandi Beitzel's over/under. Bird down.

'I thought there might be one in there,' Sandi says, 'because the dogs were working really hot.'

The dogs are a pair of black Labs, named, of all things, Beitz and Zel, courtesy of Sandi's husband of 15 years, Jim. The retrieve went off without a hitch.

But, hey, the dogs have been here before, as have the Beitzels, who spend what seems like every available minute in the field.

'There are times of the year when Jim and I will get up early and first we go duck hunting. Then we might hang out a while longer to wait for the geese to start flying,' Sandi says. 'We'll run and get breakfast before we go out and hunt pheasants. When we're done with that, he will bring me back home and drop me off. I'll change and go sit in my tree stand for deer. Jim will go back out to hunt geese late in the afternoon. Weekends are only two days long, so you've got to make the most of them.'

A full slate? You betcha. And these Wisconsin natives would not have it any other way.

'I was fortunate to have parents who were very involved with the outdoors, hunting and fishing,' Sandi says about growing up in the La Crosse area along the Mississippi River. 'My mother tells me that they started taking me in the fishing boat at age two.'

As she grew up, school, jobs, and other interests pulled Sandi away from the outdoors. But upon meeting Jim more than 20 years ago, her love of wetland and forest was rekindled.

'It wasn't until I met Jim, who hunts and fishes as much as he breathes, that I got back into it,' Sandi says. 'It was a good match, because he was doing something that I missed over the years. It was a lifestyle that started real young and it was always there.'

Sandi's adventures are not limited to Wisconsin's woods and waters. Not by a long shot. Recent trips have included hunting caribou and bear in Canada, and bow-hunting for elk in Idaho.

'About 10 years ago a group of us gals went caribou hunting with our bows in Canada. And that was sort of the start of a friendship for a bunch of us,' Sandi says. 'These gals are from all over the state, and what we have done is plan a hunt every two years. Not everyone can make it every time, but we have fun, and we hunt hard.'

Sandi has also worked extremely hard on behalf of waterfowl habitat conservation. She was recently named the winner of the prestigious Budweiser Outdoorsman of the Year Award. This national honor reflects her ongoing efforts as a Ducks Unlimited volunteer.

Now in her sixth year as a member of the DU Board of Directors, Sandi has set an extraordinary example as a leader in promoting wildlife habitat conservation. Her tenure as a DU volunteer began some 25 years ago, when she started hawking raffle tickets at a dinner in Manitowoc.

'Pretty soon, I ended up on the committee, and from there it was pretty much escalating up the ladder as district chair; sponsor chair; and two, two-year terms as ladies state chair,' Sandi says. She is a state trustee, a national convention delegate, and served as regional vice president of the North Mississippi Flyway from 1998-2002.

During her tenure as state ladies chairperson, Wisconsin's women's events established a national standard for both members and fundraising-including a $1.8 million year.

'We have some very active and committed ladies chapters that do an excellent job of putting on events. These women take pride in the job they do,' Sandi says.

'Very few of these ladies are hunters, but what they have come to understand is the conservation mission of Ducks Unlimited. That, really, is what brings out their loyalty to the organization. They recognize the importance of the DU mission, and they support it wholeheartedly.'

Sandi is often asked to attend organizational meetings in neighboring states and provide insight into how more women can become involved with Ducks Unlimited. Seminars have included stops in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. The first ladies committee in Texas was launched this year with an assist from Sandi.

'I support what she's doing,' Jim says. 'She is extremely committed to DU. We both believe in the work the organization is doing. She also loves to hunt.'

The strongest of her hunting passions?

'Whatever is in season,' Sandi says. 'In the springtime, it's turkey hunting.'

Sitting there, in the quiet of the north woods, she will likely be holding a wingbone turkey call. She makes her own, you know.

Charlotte Merritt - Searcy, Arkansas

Charlotte Merritt remembers well her introduction to the world of duckdom. Traipsing around in flooded timber, standing on tiptoes so water would not spill over the tops of her hand-me-down hip boots, lugging her grandmother's 20-gauge pump gun. All beginning about age 7.

'I don't think I ever really had a choice,' Charlotte says. 'My dad just said, 'Come on, we're gonna go huntin'.' I loved it the first time I went. It was unbelievable. I can't remember ever not wanting to go, even when it was cold, rainy, horrible weather. I have a sister a year younger than me and she hated it. I guess it's the mentality of the kid.'

That Charlotte grew up near Stuttgart, and that her father, Charles Jackson, was a two-time Arkansas state duck-calling champion and part-time guide, are not incidental to her evolution as a duck hunter.

'Daddy managed a grain business, so he had a lot of friends who were farmers. People weren't leasing places to hunt in those days-you'd just ask the farmer, and then go hunt. We had a lot of hunting opportunities,' Charlotte recalls. 'I remember days when ducks were funneling into the woods like a tornado.'

That passion remained ingrained, even after the family moved farther north, away from cousins and friends with whom they had shared innumerable outings.

'We didn't have as many places to hunt, but I can't remember any winter that I did not hunt some,' Charlotte says. 'I guess when you have the fever, it never ends.

'When something gets in your heart like that, you want to pass it on,' she says. 'I wish I could take every kid in the world hunting. One time, and they're going to know if they like it or not. But I'd like all kids to have the opportunity to see for themselves.'

Eight years ago, Charlotte and her husband, Steve, purchased rural acreage south of Searcy, with only one initial goal in mind.

'Our greatest fear was that our kids were going to grow up and not have a place to hunt,' Charlotte says. 'Public land . . . we don't know what might happen to that some day. We were looking for a place to hunt as a family.'

Two years later, Black Mallard Outfitters was born on this same property. While Steve maintains a private business in town, Charlotte turned in the scrubs of a registered nurse to dedicate more time to their commercial hunting operation.

'We've got about 500 acres, then lease a lot of other land around it,' Charlotte says. 'We can hunt timber, skid blinds, pit blinds, a stationary cypress blind . . . all kinds of different places.'

The lodge is finely appointed and sleeps 18. Meals are included in the package. Quail hunting is available afternoons.

And some guests put in a special request to have a world-champion caller serve as their guide. That would be Charlotte, who won the women's division competition in 1997, 1998, and 2000. Or her teenage son, Tyler, who, a few years back, captured the world's intermediate duck-calling title.

'My dad taught me how to call while we were hunting,' Charlotte says. 'I never really had a burning desire to get into competitive calling. But when my father was sick several years ago, I thought if nothing else, I was going to do it for him.'

Charlotte has openly shared her expertise. Thursday is duck-calling night at her house. Up to eight youngsters show up every week for instructions on proper duck call operation. She has also helped local adults, providing calling tips during their respective lunch hours. But it always comes back to the children.

'I think for any kid, if you do it the right way, and they have a desire to go, it can be a good thing,' Charlotte says of taking youngsters hunting. 'In a duck blind, you have no TV, no video games, no telephone. You're almost forced to talk to one another, or sit and watch and listen to nature. Those are good things.'

Charlotte coaches two youth league softball teams, including her daughter Taylor's. But last year also marked the inaugural Black Mallard Outfitters Conservation Camp for Kids.

'It was very successful,' Charlotte says. 'We had 76 kids in five weeks. They came in on Sunday afternoon and would leave on Wednesday. This year, I think we are going to have to add some weeks because of the demand.'

The curriculum for these 8- to 16-year-olds focuses heavily on gun and boating safety. Students build wood duck nest boxes, and there is also bow and firearm shooting, duck banding, nature hikes, orienteering, swimming, and duck calling.

Her efforts to introduce children to the outdoors have not gone unnoticed. In 1999, Charlotte's Ducks Unlimited Greenwing event ranked number one in the state. Just last year, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation named her Conservation Educator of the Year.

'People say 'Take your kids hunting and you won't have to hunt for them.' I believe that. I really do,' Charlotte says.

She recommends spreading the word.