George with his pet rabbit, circa 1931George Knebel Brakhage was born June 2, 1925 and grew up in Watertown, South Dakota. His mother, Mattie Gertrude (Peggy), was a nurse and his father, George Fredolf, was a well driller. He loved animals and kept many pets growing up, including rabbits, pigeons and a little dog named “Skippy”. He started driving a car when he was 12 years old and helped his father with the drill rig.

Along came World War II and in April 1943 George volunteered for the Navy while still only 17. He was called up shortly thereafter and missed his high school graduation ceremony as a result. He served on a destroyer, the U.S.S. Sicard, in the western Pacific until the war ended. He was a Mechanics Mate, serving in the engine room of the ship and although he made it through the war largely without mishap, the constant noise in the engine room forever affected his hearing.

After being discharged, he spent a brief time back in Watertown. Although his father wanted him to take over the well drilling business, George had other ideas. His love for animals and hunting led In the Navy, 1943him to enroll in the University of Missouri in 1946 to major in wildlife conservation. He graduated in 1950 and continued his education at the University of Missouri to receive a Master’s degree in 1952 under Bill Elder specializing in waterfowl biology.

This was a time when the foundations of waterfowl management were being laid and the concepts of flyways, habitat management and populations were just beginning to be understood. Although George was not in the group of the earliest waterfowl pioneers, men like Art Hawkins, Al Hochbaum, and Frank Bellrose, he knew them all well and followed their teachings and traditions. His research at the Delta Waterfowl Station (DWS) in Manitoba on the efficacy of using hatchery-reared birds to boost waterfowl populations contributed to a re-focusing of DWS into what for many decades was to be the premier waterfowl research station in North America.
George started his career in 1952 with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
After completing college, George began his professional career in waterfowl conservation when he was hired by Ted Shanks to work for the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1952. He began as an Assistant Biologist stationed at the new Duck Creek Wildlife Area near Puxico. A year later he was promoted to Area Manager and spent another eight years helping to develop and then manage Duck Creek.

Colleagues at the time included Homer McCollum stationed at the nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, Junior McSpadden, Bill Steinmeyer who ran a local diner and bait shop, and John Rogers who directed research at the newly built Gaylord Memorial Laboratory located at Duck Creek. That country was still pretty wild in those days with poisonous snakes common. Hunting and fishing at Duck Creek were fabulous and life was good.

This was also the time that George began his family. He married his college sweetheart, Nancy Huhman, in 1953. A year later, their first child, Peter, was born followed by Julia in 1956, Jean in George married Nancy in 1953.1957, and finally David in 1959.

His career with the Missouri Department of Conservation shifted in 1961 when he left Duck Creek for a new assignment as Waterfowl Research Biologist. Stationed initially at the Trimble Wildlife Area in northwest Missouri, his job there was to study the nesting ecology of tub-nesting giant Canada geese. The research was part of a broader effort to understand what would be necessary for successful re-introduction of this nearly extirpated population of non-migratory Canada geese. On the side, he wrote management plans for other wildlife areas.

The Trimble program was highly effective; the local flock that numbered less than 400 birds in 1961 is now distributed statewide and provides abundant opportunity for waterfowl hunting enthusiasts. The summer geese we see today are here in part George studing the nesting ecology of giant Canada geese in Trimble, Missouri.because of this work. Those early Canada goose pioneers, including George, achieved success beyond their dreams.

Still with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), George took on statewide responsibilities for duck and resident Canada goose management when he moved back to Columbia in 1965. He was very active in the affairs of the Mississippi Flyway Council’s Technical Section. He traveled widely in those years attending Flyway meetings, workshops, and making several trips to Canada to help band and survey waterfowl. He developed an extensive network of professional colleagues throughout North America, many of whom became close friends. He and Nancy were active members of the George collected quite a few antique decoys.Countrysiders, a group of mostly MDC employees and families who would gather regularly to socialize.

At this time George developed an interest in decoy collecting and carving. He carved several dozen cork scaup decoys as his contribution to the hunting rig used by him and his close friend and hunting partner at the time, Glenn Chambers, as they eagerly awaited the diver flights on the Missouri River each fall. During his travels, George gradually accumulated a remarkable collection of antique working decoys.

Although many ended up being quite valuable monetarily, the decoy collection was important to George because of the stories behind each piece. He was forever on the lookout for interesting Shorebird decoys carved and painted by George.decoys and acquired the collection by digging through attics or old boat houses or yard sales, or trading with friends. George always maintained a shop in his basement for woodworking with the decoys on display. Whenever he entertained colleagues at his home, a tour of the decoy collection was a highlight and many stories were told and retold.

When George acquired some antique shorebird decoys, it sparked an interest in carving replicas of shorebird hunting decoys and he produced many over the years of his own style. We don’t think he ever sold a single one of the shorebirds that he made, nor wanted to. Instead, they were always gifts to friends or something that he might trade for another decoy. Always a meticulous record-keeper, he maintained notes on the origin and fate of every decoy that he ever collected or carved.

With a warm send-off from his friends in Missouri, George moved his family to Minnesota in 1967 where he began the federal phase of his professional career. He joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as Assistant Regional Supervisor-Management in the Division of Management and Friends and colleagues signed George's Farewell "card".Enforcement stationed in the Minneapolis regional office. He helped supervise 30 Game Management Agents conducting migratory bird management activities in an 11-state region and in Canada. He continued his involvement with the Mississippi Flyway Council and helped work through some tough issues of the day including Canada goose harvest allocation.

By then the family was getting old enough for some serious camping and enjoyed several trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. He built a cedar strip canoe to take on these trips, which remains a family heirloom that his daughter Jean now has.

George moved the family (except for Peter who had by then enlisted in the Army) once again in 1972 to northern Virginia. After five years in the regional office, he had accepted a transfer to the central office in Washington, D.C. The Fish and Wildlife Service had recently established an Office of Migratory Bird Management with John Rogers as George at desk in Buzza Building, Minneapolis.Chief. George came in as Assistant Chief and together they dealt with many important issues of the day, including strengthening cooperative relationships with the Flyway Councils, introducing the non-toxic shot program for waterfowl hunting, and development of a National Waterfowl Management Plan. He enjoyed the challenge and the staff working in the migratory bird office and developed close friendships with many including John Rogers, Dick Pospahala, and many others.

George was particularly proud of his leading role in the National Waterfowl Management Plan, for which he was given a Special Service Award by the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1982. That plan was a precursor to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan that has guided waterfowl habitat conservation in North America for over 20 years now and serves as the model for landscape-level conservation of migratory birds across the North American continent.

During his time in Washington, the rest of his children grew up and left the nest. He introduced David to hunting and they spent many a day in the field together hunting ducks, deer, and turkeys. Shorebird decoy Hunting on the Eastern Shore carving was in full swing and he even carved a few full-bodied turkey decoys, one of which he actually hunted for many years.

Nancy loved to see things grow and would spend a lot of time, as George would say, with brown knees and a green thumb. She was the “gatherer” and George was the “hunter” and both pursued whatever was in season. With no more kids in college and a little more free time on his hands, he started to take hunting trips to the western U.S., and Alaska to pursue elk, mule deer, and caribou. He and Nancy made many trips to the eastern shore to catch blue crabs and to fish in the waters off the Chesapeake Bay. He also started to supplement home heating with a wood-burning stove while living in Virginia. From then on, collecting firewood became an annual pursuit. He was constantly on the lookout for firewood trees to scrounge and always cut and split his own wood.

George retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1985. He and Nancy moved back to Columbia, Missouri, and there he began the next phase of his career, working as a fundraiser forNancy & George in 1885. Ducks Unlimited (DU). Though very different from what he had done previously, George liked people and people liked George and so it was no wonder that he took to his new role like a duck to water. He achieved the same success that marked his entire career.

As the Regional Director for North Missouri, he worked with about 60 DU chapters who conducted about 80 fundraising events annually. He always said that “fundraising starts with fun”, and he had lots of it for the next seven years. George truly enjoyed working with the dedicated volunteers of Ducks Unlimited to raise money for waterfowl habitat conservation. He kept a sign in his home office that said, “MO bucks for MO ducks!”

But you can only eat so much prime rib and dodge so many deer on late night drives home from DU banquets before you decide it’s time to retire for real. And so, in 1992 after 40 years working for waterfowl conservation, George retired from DU, thereby ending his professional career at the age of 67.

In the years that followed, he continued to enjoy hunting and fishing, especially with his friend Bob Breitenbach. He was regular visitor at the MDC research center in Columbia, often showing up just in time for the morning bGeorge and his son Dave spent many a day hunting together.reak so they could buy him a cup of coffee. He also spent a lot of time visiting with a close friend and professional colleague, Tom Baskett, particularly as Tom’s health began to fail.

He made regular trips to Florida to visit grandchildren and chase turkeys or ducks through the Florida swamplands with his son David. He also volunteered his talents in many arenas, including the local DU chapter, Missouri Native Plant Society, League of Women Voters, University of Missouri’s School of Natural Resources Advisory Council, and as a driver for Meals on Wheels. He was a well-known figure in the Hillcreek neighborhood where he lived south of Columbia, and remained healthy by walking neighborhood streets every day and in any weather.

George had a wonderful sense of humor and was good at making people laugh. Although religious in his own way, George never had much patience for the trappings of organized religion. His church was the great outdoors and his tithing was a dedication to conservation. George believed in One of the last pictures taken of George with Nancy.conservation to the very core of his being. It was evident in the career he had, the lifestyle he lived, and the daily choices he made. He never wasted a thing.

Age catches up with us all. In the last 10 years of his life, his memory started to fade, his health began to deteriorate, and he was just no longer the man he once was. Those that knew him and loved him, his friends and family, will remember and admire the man who gave so much of himself, took such good care of his family, remained a true friend, and was an icon in waterfowl conservation. And while we all may shed a tear at this passing, ducks, turkeys and deer are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

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