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.
Last year, Smith finished second in the competition. He’d painted a pair of black ducks in flight — a style of painting he prefers, he said, because he’s a hunter — but lost out to a single black duck on the water.
“I was really happy with my painting, but I missed it by a few point,” he said.
But it’s almost as though it steeled his resolve. This year’s winners — a pair of goldeneyes for the DU contest and a pair of long-tailed ducks (aka old squaws) for the Michigan duck stamp competition — were birds in flight.
“I always try to enter flying birds,” he said.
It hasn’t been easy. This year’s duck stamp winner, he said, shows what happens when everything just comes to together.
“I needed a male bird to work from,” he explained. “And I got one up in the Upper Peninsula layout shooting. It was a beautiful bird. And a beautiful experience. It shouldn’t have been there — a fully colored bird, early in the year. There was some serious karma going on there.”
Smith isn’t just a duck guy. One of his paintings serves as the 2013 Ruffed Grouse Society Print of the Year. But it’s obvious that ducks are his first love. He has a pocket duck identification guide on the market and he tries to hunt daily — even if it’s only for a few hours in the morning. When the opportunity presents itself, he takes his youngsters (a son and daughter) or his dad with him. The day I spent with I him, Smith cooked sausage and eggs in his boat blind while we waited for ducks that mostly never showed up.
But that’s part of it, Smith said, especially when hunting inland lakes in northern Michigan.
“The amount of time spent shooting a duck is really pretty small,” he said. “If your happiness is based on the number of birds in your boat, you’ve picked the wrong sport.”
And though he’s plenty happy to shoot ducks when the opportunity presents itself, Smith will go out in the spring — when duck season is long past — and set decoys to watch and photograph them.
“I love my ducks,” he says.
Smith works in a variety of media — oils, acrylics, watercolors and, pen and ink — depending on his idea. He does some commission paintings of sportsmen’s gun dogs in oil. He produces watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings for a gallery. And he does his competitive paintings in acrylic.
Although Smith hasn’t won the granddaddy of the duck print competitions — the federal duck stamp contest — he’s finished in the top 25 a couple of times.
“I’m getting closer,” he said. “People seem to equate winning that with being an accomplished artist. And it can help your career. But I’m competitive and it boosts your confidence. I love it. It makes it easy to go to work when you love it.”
But Smith is also convinced that, win or lose, he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing in life.
“If God gives you a talent, you’re crazy not to explore it,” he says. “When you do well, then you know you’re doing what God wants you to do.”
You can check out Smith’s work at www.chrissmithart.com.
Chris Smith and his Lab, Mabel, share a moment in a duck boat.
Chris Smith’s long-tailed ducks in flight will grace the 2014 Michigan duck stamp.