Hunting is for girls

Eleven percent of American hunters are now female, and they’re starting young

Eleven percent of American hunters are now female, and they’re starting young

By Richard Grant

Photos by William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

Edited by Jayati Vora, Mark Rykoff

Amber McMillen, 26, left, Cadi Thompson, 25, center, and Erin Potter, 27, right, on the Thompson family property in Holmes County, Mississippi, Jan. 10, 2015.

Published on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015

THORNTON, Miss. — Cadi Thompson saw the deer first, but she wanted to give her friend Amber the chance to kill it. It was a frozen winter dawn on the Thompson family farm and hunting property. The two nursing students were concealed in a box stand, a simple wooden structure with openings to shoot through. The deer was a brown smudge on the tree line 200 yards away.

Cadi, a fresh-faced, confident 25-year-old, has been hunting white-tailed deer since she was 7. She lifted up her rifle and checked the animal through the telescopic sights. “It’s an eight-point,” she said, meaning it was a mature buck with eight tines on his antlers and a good deer to shoot. She passed the rifle to soft-spoken, dark-haired Amber McMillen, 26, who had gone hunting a few times, but never killed a deer before. “My adrenaline’s pumping,” Amber said.

Erin Potter, 27, another friend from the nursing program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, was half a mile away in another deer stand. A petite blonde with manicured nails and a wry sense of humor, Erin is an experienced deer hunter, and like Cadi, she shoots a .243-caliber rifle — “the girl gun,” as she calls it. The recoil is minimal, but there’s enough power to get the job done. Nearly all her female hunting friends shoot a .243 for deer, unless they’re hunting with a compound bow and titanium arrows. They like to hunt together, and with their boyfriends and with the younger generation of girls, passing on what they know.

The deer stand where Cadi Thompson and Amber McMillen wait for deer, left, and Thompson with 12-year-old hunter Annsley Smith, right. (Click to enlarge images)

All over the world, since the dawn of time, killing big animals and bringing home the meat has been thought of as a quintessentially male activity. That idea is fading now among American hunters. Over the last 20 years, a gender revolution has taken place. Eleven percent of hunters in the United States are now female, and their numbers are rising dramatically. The National Sporting Goods Association records a 43.5 percent increase in female hunters from 2003 to 2013, for a total of almost 3.35 million.

After decades of declining or stagnant male participation, the influx of women has been a tremendous boon for the hunting industry. In 2011, a Census Bureau survey indicated that female hunters spent $4.2 billion a year on hunting clothes and equipment, with an average expenditure of $2,800 a year.

Twenty years ago, women who hunted had to wear men’s or boy’s clothing and use weapons designed for males. Now there are lighter compound bows designed for shorter arms and shorter-stock rifles available in pink.

In the outdoor stores and hunting catalogs, approximately 30 percent of the gear is now made for women. There are under-shirt recoil pads that clip on to a bra strap, pink-fletched arrows for breast cancer awareness, special scent-masking shampoos and body sprays and a huge selection of camouflage clothing designed to fit, and sometimes flatter, the female form. Much of it comes with a pink background and trim.

Cadi Thompson wouldn’t be caught dead in the pink camo so widely available in Walmarts these days. She was wearing old Carhartt work pants, layers of black fleece, no makeup or jewelry, and a backwards baseball cap. Amber and Erin, on the other hand, got out of bed well before dawn to do their hair and makeup. They both put on sparkly earrings before climbing into green-and-khaki camouflage outfits. They wanted to look their best and express their femininity while hunting. But most of all they wanted to kill big deer with big antlers and put lots of meat in the freezer.

All three women grew up eating a lot of venison — grilled, battered and fried or ground up into sausages and burger patties — and they appreciate its lean, rich flavor. Cadi’s favorite family recipe is deer-meat poppers. You wrap up cream cheese and jalapeño in a thin strip of tenderloin, wrap that in bacon and grill it.

McMillen aims out the blind, as Thompson watches the tree line. (Click to enlarge images)

In the stand, Amber was having trouble with the eight-point. She wanted him to stop moving and turn broadside so she could shoot him in the front shoulder. That would be the swiftest, surest kill. But he kept walking toward them in the stand. Cadi whistled. He stopped briefly then continued walking. She whistled again and a third time. Now he took the noise seriously, stopped and turned, and in that moment, Amber centered the crosshairs on his shoulder, held her breath and squeezed the trigger.

She saw the flames leave the barrel, but by the time her eyes refocused, the buck was gone. He had leaped off into the woods. Cadi thought she might have missed, but Amber felt sure her shot had been accurate. They walked to where the buck had been standing. They found the deep track he had made in the ground as he sprang off, but they couldn’t find any blood. “I don’t know,” said Cadi.

They followed his tracks into the woods, and there, 50 yards away, they found him lying dead in a small gully. Cadi welled up with pride and happiness for her friend. Echoing the sentiments of many women hunters, she said, “Girls are less competitive than guys when they hunt. We’re more supportive of each other.”

McMillen, joined by Thompson, poses with her first deer, an eight-point buck. (Click to enlarge images)

Amber couldn’t stop smiling. She kept thinking what a fine big buck he was and how much meat was on him. “My family doesn’t hunt, and they don’t really think girls should hunt, but they love to eat deer sausage,” she said. “I’ll take him to the processor and get a ton of sausage made. They’ll be happy when I bring it home.”

Cadi texted her father, Louie Thompson, a catfish farmer, who set out in his pickup truck to help them load and transport the deer. She took a photograph of Amber holding up the antlers and smiling and texted it to Erin, who texted back, “No way!!!! Congrats Amber!!!” Erin stayed where she was, hoping for an even bigger kill.

Taking an antler apiece, and straining with exertion, Cadi and Amber managed to drag the 180-pound deer out of the gully and up onto some level ground, where Louie helped them lift it into his truck. The next step was to skin and gut the animal, but first they wanted to warm up, eat breakfast and post Amber’s deer on their social-media networks.

The two hunters pull McMillen’s first deer out of the woods, top. The buck is loaded onto the back of Louie Thompson’s truck, then, back at the barn, hoisted before being cleaned. (Click to enlarge images)

Thirty years ago, women who hunted were considered odd, unless they grew up as country girls with a pack of brothers or in a family so poor that everyone was expected to hunt for meat. So says Whitney Wood Hurt, 35, of Outdoor Women Unlimited, an Alabama-based hunting school that she operates with her mother. “You still find some men in the 55-plus age group who don’t want a woman in their deer camp, but otherwise women are welcomed warmly now in the hunting community, especially in the South. There are so many of us that it’s become normal.”

It was her generation that started the trend, and they started young. She was hunting squirrels when she was 7, and wild turkeys at 9. “I was Daddy’s little girl,” she says. “He loved to hunt, and he loved to take me hunting.” It’s a common story. In previous generations, fathers took their sons hunting. During the 1990s, they started taking their daughters as well.

“I think fathers are more closely involved in their daughters’ lives than they used to be,” says Louie. “We have the idea now that girls can do anything boys can do, if they want to.” He has three daughters and no sons, which may have influenced his decision to take them hunting. They were snuggled up in deer stands with him almost as soon as they could lift a rifle. His eldest daughter soon lost interest. His middle daughter turned vegetarian and would have nothing to do with it. It was Cadi, the youngest, who became a skilled and passionate huntress. “I started doing it because it made Dad so proud,” she says. “Then I killed a big buck and got hooked on it.”

Fathers, boyfriends and husbands seem to have introduced most female hunters to the sport, but the male influence is now diminishing, as more women teach and inspire each other. Outdoor Women Unlimited has taught more than 5,000 women how to hunt, and some of their graduates are coming back as teachers. Whitney Hurt says that many of the new students are empty-nest mothers, who had never picked up a gun before and enjoy the social aspect of hunting with other women.

The hunting media have also driven the trend. Eva Shockey, the glamorous co-host of “Jim Shockey’s Hunting Adventures” on Outdoor Channel (Jim is her father), is a role model for young female hunters. Dubbed the “New Queen of Hunting,” she recently became the first woman to appear on the cover of “Field & Stream” magazine since Queen Elizabeth and her hunting dogs in 1976. Other celebrity TV hunters include Tiffany Lakosky, who has a show with her husband on Outdoor Channel, and the multisponsored Brenda Valentine from Tennessee, who has trademarked herself as the “First Lady of Hunting.”

Janice Baer is the vice president of WomenHunters, an online forum with advice, recipes and articles that attracts 80,000 visitors a day. Bowhunting is the hottest new trend, she says, and attributes it to the movie “Brave” and “The Hunger Games” trilogy, which feature strong, deadly, beautiful female leads pulling back bowstrings. Another major new demographic is health-conscious locavores who want to procure their own meat. “Wild game is naturally low in fat, and free-ranging animals have no hormones that have been added to their diet,” she says. “We know exactly what we’re getting when we harvest our own food."

Erin Potter, Thompson and McMillen pull the hide from the deer carcass, top. McMillen’s cheeks are daubed with blood, commemorating her first kill. The three hunters take photos of the deer’s heart with their cell phones. (Click to enlarge images)

With the buck hoisted upside-down in a farm shed, Cadi Thompson dipped her fingers in its blood and smeared it on Amber’s cheeks, commemorating her first kill in an ancient ritual. Amber wrinkled her nose and looked forward to washing it off. Cadi and her dad did nearly all of the skinning and gutting, working without gloves, heaving the organs and intestines into a bucket. “Cadi’s such a badass,” said Erin. “I’d want surgical gloves up to my elbows and maybe a mask.”

Amber said, “I could do it in kitchen gloves, if I knew what I was doing.” Periodically, she checked her phone. Congratulations were pouring in, and hunting friends were posting and texting their own photographs of dead bucks and does. Parents were posting pictures of deer that their small children had killed. On Louie’s Facebook page there was a video of a little girl, 6 or 7 years old, pulling up the ears of a dead doe. “I shot it!” she exclaims. “I love it!” Her father sounds close to tears as he says, “I’m so proud of you.” Her mother commented under the video, “My precious baby!”

That afternoon, a local farmer named Jason Smith took his 12-year-old daughter, Annsley, to hunt with Cadi, Erin and Amber. “When I was growing up, women were forbidden at deer camp,” he said. “No one even thought of asking a girl if she wanted to go hunting. Now there are nearly as many girls who hunt as boys. When Annsley was 8, I just went ahead and asked her. She wanted to go, so I took her. Now she’s more into it than her brothers.”

Annsley Smith carries a rifle to a deer stand. (Click to enlarge images)

Small, skinny, blond and pretty, Annsley is very careful and serious about her hunting. She killed her first deer last winter and her second in November, a huge buck that she shot with a youth rifle propped on stabilizing sticks. Jason made sure she was wearing plenty of clothes and then entrusted her to Cadi, who took her off to a deer stand in hopes of getting another buck. As they waited, they played tic-tac-toe on Cadi’s phone, ate chocolate and texted with Amber and Erin, who were in a different stand. Cadi was impressed by how quiet and still Annsley remained during this process and how quickly she noticed a fawn stepping out of the trees.

“If its mama comes out, I’m not going to kill her,” Annsley said. “I don’t want her baby to be left alone.” But that was the only deer they saw. Amber and Erin had no luck either. They all met up again at the Thompson house after dark and changed clothes.

Cadi had only half an hour to get ready for a friend’s engagement party. She took off her bloodstained, gore-spattered hunting clothes; showered and washed her hair; and put on a stylish black dress and brown boots. Standing in front of the mirror, quickly and expertly putting on her makeup, she reflected on the day.

“Girls hunt differently than guys, and in some ways we’re better,” she said. “We’re more careful with gun safety. We don’t drink while we hunt. A lot of guys don’t care about killing a doe with a fawn. But Annsley won’t do it, and neither will I.”

She put on a thin gold necklace and turquoise earrings. “Most of us were taught by our dads or our boyfriends, and now we’re passing it on to each other. I’m so proud of Amber. And Annsley for killing that huge buck. It makes me feel just as good as killing a big buck myself.”

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