Hunters Victoria Jones, Kaitlin Zoida-Bowen, Emily Jackson, Chelsea Chillas.
Victoria Jones organizes hunting outings for herself and friends, many who are members of the group Sisterhood of the Outdoors.
It’s a frigid Saturday morning in late January in a decimated cornfield near Kennedyville, Maryland. Jones, the leader of the troop of hunters—she laughs at the term “pit boss”—has assembled the women for their favorite pastime—hunting. Today it’s geese, but as they share experiences, it could be deer or duck, rabbits or pheasants, bass or trout, changing out their shotguns as necessary for rifles, crossbows or fishing rods. In a couple of days, Jones, a former Delaware State Trooper and, more recently, a temporarily furloughed employee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will be headed out west to hunt elk.
“Most of us like waterfowl hunting in particular because it’s more social than, say, deer hunting,” says Kaitlyn Zoida-Bowen, who has driven in from New Jersey earlier this morning. Chelsea Chillas, like Jones, lives in Delaware, while Emily Jackson and Nikki Plum have come down from southern Pennsylvania. In a lapse between shooting, Plum passes her smart phone down the line to those assembled in the narrow, 15-yard-long pit, showing off photos of her traditional white wedding gown in anticipation of her upcoming spring wedding.
Earlier, at about 5:30 a.m., the five women sit at tables in the Royal Farms store in Cecilton amid a revolving cast of perhaps 20 hunters in camouflage, mostly men, drinking coffee and having a last snack before heading out to their own blinds to set up before sunrise. It seems that Jones knows most of them. “I can’t promise we’ll get anything because it’s so late in the season,” she warns me, before breaking off to hug one hunter and do a fist bump with another.
By the time the group abandons the pit around 11 a.m., laboriously putting the goose decoy village back into the trailer that Jones hauls around behind her Ram 2500 Super Diesel, they will have bagged seven geese, three under their two-per limit, all happy if not completely satisfied.
Nikki Plum calls in geese from the group’s blind.
Since time primeval, women have hunted game for meat. In recent years, as fewer families live on farms, hunting has become a conscious choice and no longer a necessity. Yet many women in Delaware remain or have become avid hunters, if fewer in numbers than their male colleagues. For many, they started young, mostly tagging along after their dads into the fields or woods or in a boat as soon as they could handle a gun or a rod. Among sportswomen, the majority still tilt toward fishing, but the number of women who hunt has steadily increased since 2001, according to a 2015 survey by Southwick Associates. Deer, wild turkey, small game and upland game birds ranked among the most popular prey.
“I was probably 14 when I first sat in the deer stand alone,” says Samantha Broadhurst, who sells real estate in southern Delaware, where her family has lived for generations. “My dad believed hunting would teach character and responsibility, and he was right. Whether it was deer, rabbit or duck hunting, it was always beside my dad.”
Martha Waldron, who lives in Newark and works as a paralegal, says, “When I was in my teens, I would go with my dad to hunt deer in the deer stand, but I would normally fall asleep. Then I fell in love with bird hunting, which is much more active.” In the case of Emily Vacris, who is regional sales manager for Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes, her father, James, was associated with the Ducks Unlimited organization, which he currently heads in Delaware. “At a young age, my parents realized how much I loved being outdoors, so my dad would take my brother and me on his hunting adventures,” she says. Those adventures included day hikes to Ramsey’s Farm in Wilmington, where they would find deer tracks and go off path to follow them.
Although most women hunters gained early experience from their parents, many have continued in educational programs or training. Vachris became involved with the Delaware Trap Shooting Team and traveled up and down the East Coast, shooting 25 out of 25 at a Florida competition. “Trap shooting is one of the reasons why I am still hunting today,” she says. “When I was old enough, my father enrolled me into hunter safety at Ommelanden Hunter Education Training Center [in New Castle],” Waldron says, although she had already been hunting for years.
But, not all women hunters came into the sport through family ties. Jones and most of her colleagues in the goose blind are also members of an organization formed by three women hunters that started out calling themselves Babes, Bullets and Broadheads, now more genteelly known as the Sisterhood of the Outdoors (SOTO). “We offer a variety of hunting, fishing, and shooting adventures throughout the year and all around the United States,” Jones says. “On average, we annually provide 150 or more unique opportunities for women to learn and enjoy outdoors adventures.” Many women who never hunted before, including many in Delaware, now come to the sport through the outreach programs SOTO provides, Jones says.
Finding the right firearm is important, and not always easy. “My first shotgun was a Benelli 12-gauge pump,” says Waldron. “I won it at a Ducks Unlimited auction, because the person bidding on it outbid me on the Phillies tickets that I wanted. So I outbid him on the gun. It was way too big for me and way too heavy. My dad helped me learn how to shoot it and understand that, since I bought this gun, it was the gun I was going to use. Once I mastered the Benelli, I went to Shooter’s Supply on Route 13 and purchased a Remington 12-gauge pump that they modified the stock to fit my size. My dad and brothers call it the Fisher Price gun because it is so small. Recently, I just won another Benelli Super Nova 12-gauge pump at a DU event.”
Kaitlin Zoida-Bowen with her hunting party’s take for the day and chocolate lab Miss Emmy. Bowen travels from New Jersey to hunt with her friends.
Broadhurst says she prefers to deer with a Matthews bow, a lattice metal contraption that looks like a medieval torture machine. For waterfowl, she uses a 12-gauge Beretta A400. Vachris hunts with a Remington BT 99 single shot or a Browning gold, both 12 gauge. Some women may start out with a lower gauge, such as a 20 or 410.
Unlike rifles, which are used for larger game, shotguns with their pellet-loaded shells are mainly used for shooting waterfowl and other game birds (pheasant, grouse) as well as rabbits and squirrels. That means that in addition to plucking and gutting birds and skinning and gutting small game, whoever is going to prepare the meat for dinner needs to have a pretty good eye for picking out shot.
“My family has a rule that whatever you kill, you clean it, preserve it and then eat it,” Waldron says. “So we are responsible for cleaning and breasting the birds. From there, I will either freeze the meat for later cooking or give it to family. Just recently, my brother came over with two giant bags of venison stew that he made from the deer he just killed.”
Broadhurst says, “One of the most exciting parts of the hunting experience is being able to watch the animal in nature, and then be able to feed your family with that animal. It really is completely organic. It is one of the healthiest and humbling experiences you can have.”
A few years ago, I went on a foraging trip in the California redwoods with Hank Shaw, author of the blog “Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook” and author of books about foraging and hunting, including “Hunt, Gather, Cook.” He says the idea that hunting shouldn’t be a wasteful endeavor but instead a source of food appeals to many young people new to hunting.
“Most of my hunting audiences aren’t really survivalists—I call them the hook and bullet people,” he says, because they plan to survive any disaster by hunting and fishing. “I encounter both audiences—hook and bullets and vegetarians—at my book-signing parties. But some readers who are vegans have told me that, for people who do eat meat, hunting for food, not for sport, is probably the most honest way.”
Before the hunt begins, the group places dozens of decoys to help lure geese.
Chris Williams is a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and has long studied the sociology as well as the ecology of hunting. “When students first talk about a career in wildlife sciences, what they have in mind is what they see on ‘Animal Planet,’” he says, sitting in his office on South Campus one afternoon in the brief break between winter and spring semesters. “They have ideas of becoming veterinarians or doing something to save the wolf. But, increasingly today kids don’t hunt, either boys or girls, so I have to give them a bit of a history lesson.”
Williams explains that some of the biggest advocates for maintaining wildlife habitats, including large national parks, forests and preserves, have been hunters such as President Teddy Roosevelt, who helped set aside vast tracts of land particularly in the western states. The de facto constitution of American hunters is the Pittman-Robinson Act of 1934, which created an excise tax on hunting that provides funds to each state to manage animals that were once hunted to near extinction by preserving their habitats.
“It was the monies raised by duck stamps that provided conservation dollars that paid for the wildlife refuges in Delaware,” Williams says, noting the paradox that the hunters who stalk and kill game are the ones who also fund the survival of that animal. He tells of a friend who ranted for 30 years about no money to protect certain shorebirds before coming to the conclusion that their survival would be guaranteed if hunters paid to shoot some of them.
“So, what do we do now when the hunting population ages?” Williams asks, “Where do the hunters come from to pay for the maintenance of these habitats?”
Bowen says waterfowl hunting is more social than hunting other types of game like deer.
In answer to his own question, Williams and a few of his colleagues across the country are determined to be part of the solution by offering classes in hunting education classes for first-time hunters, although at Delaware they must be wildlife ecology majors. It turns out that almost all are women. “Last year, we had 10 students, and nine of them were women,” he says, “and this year’s class which we’ve just finished had a total of 13 students, 10 of them women.”
For three days, their classroom is a hunting camp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “Unlike people who grew up in hunting families, when these students call home to tell their parents about the hunt, they would say, ‘You’re going to do what?’” Williams laughs. “I require them to first read ‘Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Dinner’ as orientation.” The book is a recounting of Lily Raff McCaulou’s transition from working as an indie film producer in New York to a journalism job in central Oregon where she first learned to fish and then to hunt.
The first two days of Williams’ outings are educational, teaching students about the world of the hunter and firearms safety. “We have speakers such as the state biologist, the game warden and people from Ducks Unlimited,” he says. “On the second day, they are taught how to shoot using 20-gauge shotguns and how to use a gun safely. And they get to see how the [retrieval] dogs are trained.” Their equipment, including guns and camouflage gear, is largely donated.
The last day they hunt three to a blind with two students and an instructor who helps call in game. “We don’t make them shoot,” Williams says, although so far only one has decided not to. “I tell them this isn’t intended to make them hunters, although some will want to be, but it’s to let them understand what hunting is about,” as many will become involved in conservation programs. “It will make them better biologists. For some of them, it also makes sense, even if they haven’t hunted, because they feel much more in touch, like it’s part of the organic movement.”
“About 75 percent [of the students] harvest a duck or a goose,” Williams continues. “They learn to clean the birds, take the meat out, and then we have a feast. We eat, then take an hour or two to talk about hunting, now that they’ve actually done it.” Like a proud parent, he shows me the photos from this year’s banquet.
Williams sheepishly admits that, although the course went through all the approvals, there are some in the administration who may not want to know. “I’m sure I would get a lecture from our lawyers about the risks,” he says.
Williams contemplates doing a retrospective study after a few classes have gone through the experience to see how many continued to hunt on their own.
Among those those women who grew up hunting, some will eventually fall out of love with the sport. Well, almost.
“When I moved to my house in Newark, it was in a neighborhood that has ‘residential geese,’ and I fell out of goose hunting,” Waldron says. “I would drive over an hour into Maryland or lower Delaware at 4 a.m. to go sit in a blind in the freezing cold waiting for geese that would never come. Then I would drive an hour back home and see over 10 geese in my driveway that I could literally catch with my own hands,” she continues. “But now, I’ve been hunting wild turkey with my dad for the past two years.”
Yet Waldron remains part of a new generation of women hunters who will be the ones, not their husbands, imbuing their children with a love for the outdoors and instructing them in how to shoot and hunt, suggesting that the shell does not often fly too far from the shotgun.
“I am currently teaching my 6-year-old daughter about hunting and shooting,” Waldron says. “She has the fishing down and loves it. She got a bow and arrow for Christmas, and her first BB gun last fall.”