2024 Ducks Unlimited Photo Contest presented by Drake Waterfowl

Overall Category

Winner: Craig Machholz - Big Lake, Minnesota

Drake blue-winged teal landing in wetland. Photo by Craig Machholz

Craig Machholz

Craig Machholz was just a youngster when he began hunting with his father. That’s where his passion for waterfowl began, and he says those early experiences contribute to his enthusiasm for photographing ducks and geese today.

“My dad passed along all of his outdoor experience when we moved to northeastern Iowa and started hunting Sweet Marsh,” he says. “The smell of that old two-stroke engine and hot coffee as we headed out before light will forever be etched in my memory. I can still see the silhouettes of those predawn ducks landing in the decoys and still hear my dad saying ‘keep your head down’ as he hit the chuckle when the birds were really working. It was those early days that have led me on this path to becoming a waterfowl photographer.”

Machholz says he travels thousands of miles throughout the Midwest every year, chasing the migration with his camera. He’s not afraid to haul his gear into the marsh in search of a perfect image, and his winning photo proves that.

“This shot was taken on Devils Lake in North Dakota last spring. The full-plumage birds were thick, and the drake blue-winged teal were chasing hens like crazy,” he says. “This guy came sliding into the frame, and I knew I had something special. The light was amazing that afternoon, and I felt so lucky to capture this drake that was showing off his colorful spring plumage in great detail. This is the true trophy I now passionately hunt for. It hangs in my office, and I will carry the memory of that day for a lifetime.”

Sitting in a blind or boat in a marsh by himself or with his retriever is Machholz’s “happy place.” It’s where he admits to finding his peace. “You know, it is really a culmination of my love for the outdoors and waterfowl specifically. I do have to give my dad a ton of credit for my love of waterfowl,” he says. “I get a lot of enjoyment out of hitting the shutter rather than the trigger. I’m really honored to win the DU magazine contest. Really honored.”

Equipment: Canon R3 600mm F4 Prime lens

Runner-Up: Bill Garwood - Bridgeton, New Jersey  

Snow geese in a marsh at sunset. Photo by Bill Garwood

Bill Garwood

Bill Garwood grew up an avid waterfowl hunter, trapper, and fisherman in the marshes of Delaware Bay. These days he’s retired and doesn’t hunt much, but he still enjoys spending time in the marsh. Now, he just does it with a camera rather than a gun. “I learned to love the marsh through duck hunting and trapping,” Garwood says. “It’s a special place to me. Being retired, I happen to have much more time to spend in the marsh with a camera.”

Garwood is not new to photography. He’s been shooting images of waterfowl and shorebirds for more than two decades, and his passion for chasing waterfowl has remained steadfast. “I shot this in winter on a cold day,” he explains. “There are times when the snow geese really get in the marsh, and when I see that I immediately get my camera. This sunset shot worked out.”

Garwood explains that the marshes surrounding Delaware Bay are an ideal place for photographers to take advantage of both fall and spring migrations. He hasn’t submitted an image for any contest in close to 20 years, but he says this image is a good representation of the area and his work. “I felt like this image had a very artsy look in the way it portrayed the geese. I’ve always loved Ducks Unlimited magazine due to the waterfowl images,” he says. “It is the best magazine out there for that in my opinion, and to be included is a really big honor.”

Equipment: Nikon D200 with 500mm lens

Waterfowl Hunting Category

Winner: Adam Edwards - Clearfield, Utah

Harvested northern pintail. Photo by Adam Edwards

Adam Edwards

Adam Edwards and his hunting partner had been scouting a few spots along the edge of the Great Salt Lake, not too far from Ogden Bay, when they managed to find an area holding a good number of ducks. The next day they set decoys and settled into their coffin blinds. “The day started pretty slow,” Edwards explains. “We weren’t 100 percent sure this plan was going to work because it was so calm, but 20 minutes into the hunt the wind picked up and the mallards started dropping in. As the wind increased, it started to snow, and that’s when the pintails showed up.”

And that’s when the hunt turned magical. Edwards describes the blowing snow stinging their faces and ducks pouring into their decoys. “We both shot our pintails and then we just started picking out drake mallards,” he says. “Obviously, we got our limit, but I was laughing because I remember when I was trying to take this photo, I was half out of the blind and my buddy kept yelling at me to get back into the coffin. I was pretty sure there were enough ducks around and I’d be alright taking a few pictures.”

Edwards typically shoots a Canon Mark 7D, but due to the incoming weather he took this image with his phone. “It was a great day. The snow was just dumping on top of us, but it was warm enough to melt when it hit the ground. That’s how this image was created,” he explains. “This was my first time submitting to the contest, so this is great.”

Equipment: Samsung Galaxy A13

Runner-Up: Jay Foster - Mont Belvieu, Texas

Drone shot of waterfowlers in a boat, accessing their duck blind. Photo by Jay Foster

Jay Foster

Waterfowl Category

Winner: Kris Branter - Pepin, Wisconsin

Drake black duck landing in wetland. Photo by Kris Branter

Kris Branter

When frigid temperatures were bearing down on the Upper Midwest in early January 2024, Kris Branter took full advantage of a waterfowl migration. Duck season had closed, but his passion for shooting waterfowl with a camera offered a sort of extended season.

“This was taken a little closer to the Twin Cities, along the Minnesota River,” he says. “I found some open water in some backwater and the ducks were concentrating there, as most of the rest of the water was freezing. There were a bunch of mallards, and then a handful of black ducks came into the hole. Black ducks are my favorite ducks to hunt, so I focused on them.”

Branter began shooting images of hunting scenes with his mobile phone, but he met a couple of professional photographers at a hunting expo and they talked him into upgrading his gear. “I got a pretty decent camera and lenses, and I’ve stepped up my equipment ever since,” he says. “Talking with these guys, they kind of became my mentors and it was a huge help. I have never entered any contests because, like most photographers, I’m pretty critical of my images. These mentors convinced me my stuff was good enough.”

This winning image jumped out at him because of the way the “angel wings” flared off the extended wingtips. He knew he had something special. “Just like duck hunting, I love getting out there when it’s cold,” he says. “That day was no different. I always try to take advantage of the ice because it adds a different element, and after the season you get to see ducks being ducks, in their natural state, with no one shooting at them or decoys flaring them. It’s the perfect time.”

Equipment: Canon R5 with RF 100–500mm lens

Runner-Up: Joshua Baklund - Hutchinson, Minnesota

Flock of drake mallards. Photo by Joshua Baklund

Joshua Baklund

Retriever Category

Winner: Ashton Taylor - Williamstown, Kentucky

Black lab retrieving a harvest drake mallard during a duck hunt. Photo by Ashton Taylor

Ashton Taylor

It was the final day of the 2023–24 waterfowl season when Ashton Taylor and his hunting partners were hunting a slough just off the Ohio River near Carrolton, Kentucky. Not only was it the last day; it was the final duck of the season. “We had full limits except for this bird that had sailed off into the marsh,” he says. “So I sent Molly [his retriever] out after it. As she brought the bird back, I knelt down in the marsh and started shooting pictures. I probably shot hundreds, but this one certainly stood out.”

Taylor explains that he and his father spend a lot of time traveling and hunting ducks, including trips to Canada. His passion for waterfowling is why he purchased a camera, and it’s why he shoots so many images of his hunts. “Our area isn’t great for ducks, so it’s mainly deer hunters here,” he says. “I love telling people about my duck hunting experiences and I try to explain it to them. I know people who want to get into duck hunting, so I try to share those experiences with my camera. I like to give people who have never hunted a taste of what it’s like.”

Taylor gives a lot of the credit for this image to two-year-old Molly. It was a great retrieve, but her mannerisms are what seem to generate so many good images. “I’ve never had a dog that constantly stares right into your eyes when you talk to her,” he explains. “That’s what jumped out to me with this image—her eyes. It helps that she is always looking right at me when she is retrieving.”

While Taylor is relatively new to photography, he was ecstatic to earn top honors in the retriever category. His father and some friends had encouraged him to submit the photo, and Taylor was shocked to learn that he had won. “This is awesome,” he says. “My dad had been asking me if I had heard anything about the contest, and then I got the email. I was so excited. I look forward to seeing the image in the magazine.”

Equipment: Sony A7S3 24–105mm F4

Runner-Up: Brad Siemens - Grand Forks, British Columbia

A yellow lab retrieving a harvested duck on a duck hunt. Photo by Brad Siemens

Brad Siemens

Honorable Mentions

Duck hunter in marsh on a boat. Photo by Dan Kutchin

Dan Kutchin: Winneconne, Wisconsin

Drake northern pintails taking off for flight. Photo by Wade Ringo

Wade Ringo: Lewisville, Texas

A child and retriever. Photo by Nicholas Mills

Nicholas Mills: Hanover, Virginia

Duck hunters in marsh on a boat with a flock of waterfowl in the distance. Photo by Anthony Scardigli

Anthony Scardigli: Edina, Minnesota

Drake goldeneye loafing in water, Photo by Tom Samuelson

Tom Samuelson: Mound, Minnesota

Up close image of the wet coat of a labrador retriever. Photo by Saydee Brass

Saydee Brass: Moscow, Idaho