More women are taking aim
at the sport of hunting
Females young and old are contributing
to the dramatic growth in the number of hunters
(November 2013) – When Melissa Trader heads out into the woods to go deer hunting, she is never alone. In her backpack she carries photos of her late father and late stepfather. “They’re always with me,” she says.
Hunting is a sport that has long had strong family connections, and the memory of hours in the woods with a father or uncle is one that has been treasured by generations. Yet in recent years, daughters have increasingly begun to join their fathers in the deer stands, while mothers have been helping their children learn the skills it takes to be successful hunters.
While Trader may not fit the stereotype of hunting’s past, she is part of a growing number of female hunters who are making an impact on the sport’s growing popularity. A study by the National Sporting Goods Association found that while the number of total hunters in the United States dipped .05 percent between 2008 and 2009, the number of women hunting increased by more than 5 percent, with about 163,000 women taking up the sport. The growth was most dramatic among women using bows and muzzleloaders, with those numbers increasing 30.7 percent and 134.6 percent, respectively.
Melissa Trader, 31, her husband, Jon, 32, son, Andrew Stephens, 9, and daughter, Allyson Trader, 7, are dressed for the hunt in their camouflage clothes.
A study by the National Shooting Sports Foundation looked at hunting demographics between 2002 and 2009 and found that women hunters tended to skew younger than their male counterparts. For example, the average age of a male muzzleloader hunter was 40.9, whereas for women it was 32. The group found that the biggest increase in participation over the course of this study was made by females ages 17 and younger.
Even though she has been hunting for many years, Trader is part of this growing trend among women hunters.
Trader’s stepfather first gave her a gun when she was 16. It started her love of hunting. Now 31, Trader, who resides in rural Switzerland County, Ind., says that her motivations for hunting have changed somewhat over the years. “I think when I was younger it was more of a bonding experience,” she said. Now she enjoys the “soothing, peaceful” experience of being out in nature and experiences a pride in being able to “bring home food.”
Trader says that the first deer she killed, a 15-pointer in 2009, was the “best experience.” She and her husband, Jon, 32, were in a tree stand together, and his gun had a scope while hers did not. When the deer came out, she had difficulty seeing it, so her husband whispered, “Trade me guns.” Trader hit the deer, but it ran into a cornfield before it fell.
Photo by Don Ward
Rita Tharp, 63, of Bedford, Ky., has already taken two does this season and says she is anxious for gun season to begin in November.
“It took six of us six hours to find it,” she recalls. While the rack broke when the deer went down, the taxidermist was able to repair it, and the head now hangs proudly on her wall at home.
While she has had a lot of success with the muzzleloader, her favorite way of hunting is with the bow. “You have to be steady, more patient,” she explains. The deer “have to come closer. It’s more of a challenge.” She also appreciates that it’s “quieter, more peaceful” than hunting with a gun. She and her husband and two children, Allyson Trader, 7, and Andrew Stephens, 9, attend bow competitions throughout the summer in order to stay sharp for hunting season. “You definitely have to practice to keep up with it.”
Trader does not fit the image of a traditional hunter. She has a petite frame and is employed as the manager of Fantastic Sam’s Hair Salon in Madison, Ind. She has faced resistance to her hunting from some friends and acquaintances, saying, “They think it’s become a new fad. I’m not one that wears pink,” she adds, firmly, referring to the popularity of pink camouflage.
She has heard accusations such as, “You didn’t get that, your husband did!” And she has heard snide questions such as “How many shots did it take you?” when some people see photos of her with her deer. Such comments don’t faze her, she said.
In Jefferson County, Ind., women who are interested in learning more about hunting and other outdoor activities for the past nine years have been taking advantage of the annual “Outdoor Women” event at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, located just north of Madison inside the former Jefferson Proving Ground. Jean Herron, who has served as coordinator or consultant for the event for several years, explains the initiative behind the event came about because “this area didn’t have any other place where women could go to learn basic outdoor skills such as hunting, archery, fishing canoeing, wilderness survival, just to name a few. We saw a need and wanted to fulfill that need.”
Each year the classes draw about 100 women ages 14 and older.
Herron believes that many factors have played into the long running success of the event. “First is the need to learn outdoor skills, but there is also the fact that women don’t have to compete with men to learn these skills. They like that it is a women only event (with the exception of a few male instructors).
Third, many women come either with other women family members or with best friends so that it becomes a sort of ‘gals day out’ social event. Lastly, they come back because we work really hard to make it fun for all and to pamper them.”
Herron believes that, “Women are most definitely becoming more active in hunting, shooting and fishing,” though she is quick to point out that “these have never been male only sports.” Herron says that hunting has a broad appeal and that increased women’s participation in the sport is simply a natural outgrowth of there being more opportunities for women to take part in the sport. “I think it is because women want to be able to participate in any sport or activity that men do. Just as all kinds of athletic sports are available for both genders today, so it is with outdoor and nature sports.”
Kara Perkins, 29, of Owenton, Ky., has already bagged a deer this season. She works at the front desk of the Kentucky Speedway with co-worker and huntress Jamie Covey (below), who also has a deer this season.
Michael Sparks, who has served as a deer scorer for about the past five years in Switzerland County, said he has seen an increase in women hunters. “I know a lot more women hunting, personally. I think that it is because hunting is perhaps becoming more acceptable.”
In October, the two were out in the woods together, and Trader shot a doe. “She was excited,” says Trader of her daughter. “She kept saying, ‘Mommy, I’m so proud of you!’ And the next words out of her mouth were, ‘Now it’s my turn!’ ”
Sparks says that he has seen some women who “married into a hunting family. I know a lot of men whose wives are starting to hunt.”
While some women are taking advantage of these new opportunities, for others, their hunting is simply something that grew naturally out of their family experiences. For instance, Spark’s son, Bryan, is passing the family tradition of hunting down to his son and 9-year-old daughter, Lily.
“During the first 45 minutes of her being an official hunter, she shot a turkey,” he says proudly. “It was a special day – just like it was meant to be,” he recalls of the flock of birds that came up. He admits that he “was kind of surprised” when his young daughter announced that she wanted to go hunting with him. But he has found it a greatly rewarding experience to teach her the skills and responsibilities of the sport. He is impressed not only with her dedication and ability, but also with her willingness to accept the inevitable disappointments that come along with hunting.
On a recent outing, she missed the shot on a buck that they had been “chasing around the woods” on multiple hunts. “She was a real trooper – way better than I was at that age.” The experience also allowed him to drive home an important lesson of hunting: “A clean miss is better than a messy hit.”
Rita Tharp, 63, of Bedford, Ky., traces her interest in the sport back to her childhood when her father would go rabbit hunting. She herself has been hunting “seriously with the deer” for about 20 years.
In 2004 she was fortunate enough to be drawn to take part in the Kentucky elk hunt and enjoyed a remarkable success. She shot an elk with antlers that scored 310 and 3/8 inches, setting a state record. She said that she had no idea that her elk was anything special. “It was the first time my friends and I had ever seen an elk! We wouldn’t have known a big elk from a little elk.”
Tharp said she particularly enjoys the time in the woods that hunting offers. “Nature is wonderful. The Lord has blessed us with such great things out there.”
Elk hunting had been a long time goal of Tharp’s, but now she says, “My dream hunt is going out the back door and having a good time.”
Kara Perkins and Jamie Covey, co-workers at the Kentucky Speedway’s reception desk in Sparta, Ky., are both dedicated and experienced hunters. But each came to the sport in a different fashion.
Perkins, 29, of Owenton, Ky., explains her interest in deer and turkey hunting, saying, “It’s just a family thing.” Her father, brothers, husband, and 7-year-old son are all involved in the sport. When she was younger, she would go deer and squirrel hunting with her father. But it has only been in the past two years that she has ventured out on her own.
She says that she has had a lot of family support. “Even my mom, who doesn’t hunt, is so proud. Everyone is really accepting. They think it’s neat to have a woman hunting.”
Covey, 25, says, “I always wanted to go hunting, but no one would take me.” It was not until she met the man who would become her husband that she was able to take up the sport about five years ago.
“Since I go hunting out with my husband, it’s kind of a bonding experience,” she said. “We rely on each other.”
While some women have had a bit of difficulty being taken seriously in what has been seen as a male dominated sport, there is nothing quite like a successful hunt to prove you are a force to be taken seriously. “Last year, instead of getting teased, I teased the boys,” Covey said, laughing. She said of her other co-worker-hunters at the Kentucky Speedway office, “Nobody got a buck but me and Kara! We got to turn the tables a little bit. Everybody was just shocked.”
Some hunters believe that women actually take to the sport a bit more naturally than men. Covey says, “I think it gives us an advantage.”
Perkins adds, “Women are more patient. My uncle has told me before he thinks women have more of a steady hand when it comes to bow hunting.” But she doesn’t really believe that one gender has any advantages over the other.
In addition to helping the sport of hunting grow by their own participation, women are also passing on the tradition to their children and relatives. Perkins says that one of her best memories of hunting came last year with her son. “Just to see how excited he was to get his first deer.”
Tharp has been helping to train her 10-year-old grand nephew, and is proud to say that he recently got his first deer. “Seeing young guys get their first animal, it’s hard to believe how thrilling that is.”
For Trader, she says her true “dream hunt” would be to pass her love of the sport “down to my children.” Her daughter certainly seems eager to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
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