SUTTONS BAY — Chris Smith has been a sportsman his whole life.
He started as a 10-year-old — hunting pheasants in Iowa with his father, Steve, who is a fairly well-known outdoor writer, editor and publisher — and has had the opportunity to sample a lot of outdoor sports. But when all is said and done, he’d rather be duck hunting than anything else.
“There’s just something dramatic about duck hunting, to see a bunch of ducks come into your decoys when they’re properly placed,” Smith said. “That moment before the shot is one of the most dramatic in all of outdoors. Nothing rivals a bunch of birds coming into your decoys.”
Smith, 41, started hunting ducks as a youngster at Shiawassee River State Game Area and, as he explains it, it happened naturally.
“I shot a couple of mallards,” he said. “I was hooked.”
He couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate sport for his line of work. Smith grew up to become a wildlife artist and this year he won two top competitions; his designs will grace the 2014 Michigan Duck Stamp and the 2014 Michigan Ducks Unlimited Sponsor Print.
Most artists would be popping their vest buttons with pride. Smith downplays his success.
“It’s subjective,” he told me, not long ago, as we shared his boat blind for a morning on a northern Lower Peninsula lake. “You’re at the mercy of a panel of judges and if you have the right design on the right day for the right judges, then you’re there. If you win, you’re happy for a day. And then you move on.”
Smith has been pursuing a career in art almost as long as he’s been pursuing ducks. He illustrated a couple of outdoor books for a publisher while he was in college (Lake Superior State University, where he majored in fisheries and wildlife management) and has been earning his living as an illustrator ever since. He’s won both the Michigan duck stamp and the Michigan DU contests before, too. The 2005 Michigan duck stamp featured a pair of blue-winged teal — the male standing on a log, with the female floating nearby. And a similar design — a pair of redheads, a drake on a rock, the hen afloat — won the 2009 DU contest.