By Emily Robinson
Regular readers of Ducks Unlimited magazine may recall this year's overall winner from his two previous DU member photo contest showings, as runner-up in the Waterfowl Hunting category in 2015 and the overall contest winner in 2016. Today, Mike Kleinwolterink's passion for photography remains strong, and the impressive incoming flocks of light geese that graced his other two winning images have been replaced by an awe-inspiring abundance of stars.
"My favorite things to photograph are waterfowl hunting scenes, farming scenes, and the landscapes around Lake Panorama National Golf Course, where I work," says Kleinwolterink, a 35-year-old Iowa native who has been a DU member for 15 years. "I've also recently started enjoying astrophotography and capturing the darkness of the Iowa countryside."
In addition to a fresh style of photography, Kleinwolterink has added a new camera to his collection: a Nikon D750, which he used to shoot this year's winning image. "It was the first time I had tried to capture a starry sky on the marsh because I typically don't carry my tripod in the boat with me. And frankly, putting a new, expensive camera and lens on a tripod in the water scares me," he admits.
As Kleinwolterink embarked on a solo duck hunt in the predawn dark in November 2017, it seemed like conditions were perfect to put his skills—and his equipment—to the test. "I arrived at the local marsh early and motored down to the spot I wanted to hunt. While throwing out a couple of dozen decoys, I noticed that the stars were shining brightly in the sky," he recalls. "So, instead of taking a little nap before shooting time arrived, I decided to try to capture the scene.
"I set up my tripod in a few feet of water and turned on the camera's 20-second timer so I could walk out into the decoys and pick one up. Once I was in position, I waited for the camera to go off and stood as still as possible for the full 10-second exposure. My headlamp worked perfectly to light up the decoy that I was holding."
Green Bay, Wisconsin
If you have a Ducks Unlimited calendar hanging on your wall, you are likely already familiar with Brent Gale's photography. Gale's images of waterfowl have appeared in the organization's national calendar for the past two years, and have graced every page of another calendar important to DU's conservation efforts in his home state of Colorado for the past five.
"I have been working with DU Senior Regional Director Erik Wettersten to create the limited-edition Colorado DU gun raffle calendar since 2013," Gale says. "They're sold for $50 and a gun is given away each week. I have donated all the photos for the calendars, and in the time we've been working together, the program has raised over $300,000 for DU's conservation efforts."
Gale's passion for hunting and shooting began at age six, when he received a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. A few years later, he stepped up to a shotgun. "I remember the first time my dad let me shoot a real gun," Gale recalls. "It was a single-shot Stevens .410. It had a strong recoil, but from the first shot, I was hooked!"
Gale served proudly in the U.S. Air Force, and it was while stationed in Germany that he developed an interest in photography and capturing memorable moments on film. Today, his cameras are filled with incredible images of waterfowl, such as the stunning drake wood duck that earned him top billing in the Waterfowl category this year.
"Wood ducks are one of my favorite species of waterfowl to photograph," Gale says. "This image was taken during the golden hour at one of my favorite ponds in Douglas County. I go to that spot at least once or twice a week when the birds are present. I like to visit at sunrise and about an hour before sunset to capture the best lighting."
Gale is an engineering executive with Dish Network, where he has worked for 35 years. He and his wife, Lucy, have eight children and nine grandchildren, all of whom Gale has taught to hunt, shoot, and appreciate the great outdoors.
Waterfowl Hunting Winner
Many winners of DU's member photo contest were introduced to the traditions of waterfowling at an early age, but Clifford "CJ" Daniel spent his younger years admiring another great tradition in America: automobiles.
"My father was my first influence in the car world. As a child I enjoyed helping him wash our family's cars and change the oil, and we would read car magazines together," says Daniel, who calls himself a classic car enthusiast and is the proud owner of a 1991 Chevy Corvette and a 1996 Ford Mustang. "Classic cars were designed on paper and in clay, not on a computer. They have a soul that you don't see in newer cars."
Much like duck hunting and being involved with Ducks Unlimited, the world of classic automobiles breeds a deep sense of camaraderie. "Probably my favorite part of the car hobby is the people," Daniel says. "My friend Daniel McGuffee and I have spent countless hours side by side taking our cars apart and putting them back together. We go to car meets and the annual Cruisin' the Coast event, where we meet up with good friends we see just once a year."
It was on an early-season teal hunt in 2007 that Daniel began developing a passion for waterfowling. "My first hunt actually started with a little bit of fear," he recalls. "Not only was it my first hunt—it was my first time on an airboat, so riding to the blind in the darkness at five o'clock in the morning was a totally new experience."
Soon, though, Daniel was engrossed in the action of the hunt. "I missed a couple of birds the first hour, but finally shot a beautiful drake green-winged teal," he says. "The rush I felt after realizing I had just shot my first duck was something I will never forget. I go back to the blind to feel that same energy and enjoy the fellowship that comes with sharing a beautiful sunrise with friends as you wait for the birds to appear."
Daniel photographed his winning image during one such sunrise in 2016, when he captured the silhouette of his longtime hunting buddy Blake Hailey, who had taken him on that first hunt nine years earlier. He shot the photo with his smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S6, on another early-season teal hunt on Catahoula Lake, a popular public hunting area near Holloway, Louisiana.
Waterfowl Hunting Runner-up
DU volunteer and Silver Sponsor Edward Wall developed a love of retrievers as a young boy, at the side of his grandfather, Dr. E.R. Wall. Together the two trained bird dogs and took them out to hunt quail on the weekends. Today, Wall is the proud owner of a four-year-old chocolate Lab named Diche, who is a United Kennel Club Hunting Retriever Champion, American Kennel Club Master Hunter, and the subject of Wall's winning photo.
"I have never seen a dog with so much drive; there is no mistaking how much Diche loves his job," Wall says. "For most of the year he sleeps on the bedroom floor and is an excellent pet, but during duck season, he is a hard-driving working dog."
Wall and Diche spent a remarkable 52 of the 60 days of this past waterfowl season in the field, traveling to four states to hunt ducks. Wall says that on many of those hunts, he opted for a camera over a shotgun.
"I bought my first camera just before Diche's first hunting season. I didn't know anything about photography at the time, but through lots of trial and error and some helpful advice from photographer friends, I started getting a few good pictures. I instantly fell in love," Wall says. "More often than not, I don't even take the safety off my gun when we are hunting—I enjoy working my dog and taking pictures even more than actually shooting ducks."
Wall captured his winning shot in January 2017 at the edge of a swath of flooded timber in Holcomb, Mississippi, on land owned by his friend Dillon DeWeese. Wall says mallards and gadwalls are the usual fare for this spot, but on that morning a drake wood duck came zipping by, surprising the hunters in his party. Another friend, Connor Carmody, took a shot and winged the bird, which sailed out into an adjacent flooded field, and Wall sent Diche on the retrieve.
"I grabbed my camera and snapped some pictures as he returned with that beautiful bird. It wasn't until later that I noticed the band on its leg—Diche's first banded retrieve!" Wall recalls. "I excitedly scrolled through my photos and realized I was lucky enough to capture this one. To make the day even better, Connor gave me that band. Diche has picked up a few more since, but none will ever be as memorable as that one."
To view an extensive collection of honorable mentions in our photo contest, go to the DU website at ducks.org/photocontest2018.