When most people think of Key West, Florida, they likely picture sandy beaches, pastel-hued homes, and bright-blue water, but probably not ducks. So Committee Chairman Matt Dowling has become accustomed to the surprised looks he gets when he tells people about the rapidly growing Key West chapter of Ducks Unlimited.

"It's unique to have a DU chapter in a community where there's no hunting," says DU Regional Director Brett Bainter. "It's proof that people believe in our conservation efforts."

What started as a 60-person dinner now draws 300 attendees. Matt, who was introduced to DU by his close friend Tom Fulwider, took over as committee chairman 10 years ago. Matt is a deputy sheriff in Monroe County, and his people skills have been one of the keys to the chapter's success, though he is quick to credit longtime volunteers and original committee members like Tom and Connan Lehmkuhl instead. Over the years these volunteer leaders have honed their events to be as effective as possible in supporting DU's mission.

"Everything in Key West is expensive, so we have to carefully account for every plate. That means we can't host an open event with tickets at the door," Matt explains. "We offer a five-course meal and awesome auction items."

Attendees of the Key West chapter's annual event are predominantly local residents and fishing guides, with a few snowbirds sprinkled in. Local businesses like Hurricane Hole Marina use the event as their annual corporate gathering. The company filled 12 tables last year.

"The fishing guides understand what DU does to protect wetlands, and they understand that if they don't support wetlands conservation, their livelihood will be at risk," Matt says.

The committee members also make sure the event is fun for the whole family. They focus on selling tables rather than individual tickets, offer special Greenwing raffle items, and recognize youth attendees during the event.