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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1996

Forging their own way

Women who want to hunt and fish find new ways to help themselves.

Peggy Kell

A chilly wind gusted in the first hint of fall at a shooting range in Tomahawk early last September. Fifteen students watched as instructors demonstrated the actions on various shotguns they would use that day. The students had a wide range of shooting experiences and expectations. Their ages and backgrounds spanned from 20-something and looking for work to 65+ and happily retired, but they shard a bond: all were female and all wanted to learn more about pastimes that had largely passed them by. These women and more than 100 like-minded ladies had traveled to Treehaven Field Station outside Tomahawk for a weekend outdoor skills clinic.

Courses like "Becoming an Outdoors-Woman" (BOW) offer the opportunity for women to gain the confidence and skill to participate in activities including shooting sports, angling, canoeing, orienteering and archery.

The concept, developed by Associate Professor Christine Thomas of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1991, has served as a model for similar workshops across North America. This year 40 states and four provinces will hold BOW workshops to bring together skilled female instructors and professional outdoorswomen with newcomers who want to enjoy the outdoors in ways that were formerly closed to them.

The popular courses show that women are as interested in expanding their skills as hunters and anglers as they are in other outdoor pursuits.

Nationwide, women are more active than men in getting regular exercise and enjoying the outdoors. Just as female athletes forged their own path to receive greater recognition and respect in collegiate and professional competitive sports, female hunters and anglers are finding ways to get training that "the hunting fraternity" failed to provide.

By tradition, grandfathers and fathers introduced their nephews, sons and brothers to the fun of hunting and fishing experiences. For men, part of the outdoor experience was getting away from their family for a few days. In the long run, both families and resource management professionals realized it was a tremendous mistake to leave wives, daughters and girlfriends at home. It discouraged females from exploring experiences they could have enjoyed for decades.

Wildlife and fisheries managers want to tap into women's interests in outdoor exercise and environmental stewardship to build a larger base of license buyers, conservation leaders and advocates for the range of outdoor opportunities that resource professionals typically provide.

As populations become increasingly urban and more people lose access to rural lands, family traditions of hunting and angling begin to decline. Likewise, with a 70 percent increase in single-parent households headed by women, family involvement in hunting and fishing continues to dwindle.

"It's very clear to me that the outdoor traditions will be lost if we don't make opportunities for girls and women to join the hunting and fishing ranks," says Dave Gjestson of the Wisconsin DNR. "Hunting and fishing, like camping, gardening and nature study, can serve as a catalyst to learn more about the things around you essential for our future survival, including tropical forests, ozone deterioration, climate warming, and habitat fragmentation," he added.

In a Fall 1986 issue of this magazine, Wildlife Specialist Doris Rusch asked "Where are the Women?" in the world of hunting. Statistics at that time showed women made up less than seven percent of Wisconsin's deer hunters and even smaller percentages of the small game and waterfowl hunters. Today, the estimates are only slightly higher; around 10 percent of all hunting licenses are issued to women. The ranks of female anglers is much stronger as 37 percent of fishing licenses were sold to women in 1994. (View a chart listing sports participation by gender.)

Still, it's worth examining why relatively few women hunt and fish at a time when a host of other outdoor activities from kayaking to skydiving are attracting newcomers. Let's look at some of the unique barriers hunting and fishing pose.

Few role models

Thumbing through the multitude of fish and game periodicals, we could well ask the question Doris Rusch voiced nine years ago. It's rare to find articles, photos or columns aimed at females. Very few publishers have caught onto this potential market. Females interested in hunting and fishing identify with few of the publications they find in the marketplace. Positive role models a– an integral part of promoting success in any new endeavor – are few and far between.

Academicians and resource professionals who examined the issue at a 1990 conference came to the same conclusion. Sixty five professionals from state agencies and sporting groups focused on "Breaking Down the Barriers to Participation of Women in Angling and Hunting." The group was invited to identify potential hurdles that curtail women's access to hunting and fishing:

  • lack of positive role models and mentors
  • fear of looking stupid (Can I really expect to do this well?)
  • lack of information (My mother didn't do this and my friends don't talk to me about outdoor experiences they find fulfilling.)
  • isolation as the only female in a group (I don't know any other women who will hunt with me.)
  • fear of guns (In my family, the men hunted, and women weren't allowed to touch the guns.)

Talking to women at the BOW workshop reaffirmed these points. Many of the women enrolled in the shooting, archery or angling clinics said they had limited opportunities to try these activities as young people because other female family members weren't involved.

Shelly Bradford, 32, of Eau Claire, told what spawned her interest and access to hunting. In Bradford's family, "Grandma was brought up baking pies and staying in the kitchen. I got to walk with my father squirrel hunting, but carrying a gun was not part of the experience for me." Smiling, she remembers, "I helped skin the squirrels, but I never shot them."

She always wanted to be more than an observer. "I used to babysit for a lady who deer hunted with her husband. She always dressed really nice and had pretty hair and I thought, 'When I grow up, I want to be like her.'" Bradford signed up for the workshop to gain the skills she needed to try her hand at bow hunting.

In addition to offering expert instruction, such course leaders can become mentors and entrepreneurs.

Suzy Smith, a wildlife biologist and outdoor clothing designer from Colorado is one of those leaders. During an evening outdoor clothing presentation, Smith shuffled before the audience draped in camouflage gear that was two sizes too big. She broke into a warm grin and asked, "Now does this look familiar to anyone? Can you relate?"

Amid the murmurs from women who recalled trying to find something that fit from the ratty hand-me-down boxes of clothes from their male hunting partners of past seasons, Smith said, "been there, done that." She now designs outdoor clothes especially tailored for women.

Shedding the old camo garb, Smith revealed a practical, warm and attractive camo jumpsuit hidden underneath. The designer demonstrated that utility can go hand in hand with comfort when it comes to outfitting female hunters. Her audience erupted with applause as the mere mention that the light but warm clothing had a built-in "drop-seat" for outdoor convenience. It's clear there's plenty of room in the marketplace for outdoor suppliers who see a growing clientele in women and children as customers.

Psychological barriers

What about the women who just don't groove on the idea of the harvest? Can we make allies of women who don't choose to hunt or fish, but appreciate why others like these activities?

Many women and men who don't live in rural areas may not see much wildlife and never actually observe people hunting and fishing. They get a narrow vision of hunters from the mass media and school materials, and it's rarely a positive image. The hunting public is often portrayed as having little feeling for wild creatures. The urban experience can lead people to "ally" themselves with animals they view as defenseless.

"Studies confirm that females especially value wild animals as objects of affection and are more likely to voice concern about consumptive use of wildlife," stated the late Robert Jackson, professor of Psychology who studied how hunting attitudes form at UW-LaCrosse.

Fall Creek's Tammy Koenig was one of these women. Koenig, a warm-hearted animal lover, held strong anti-hunter sentiment as a teenager. She didn't view any elements of hunting as sporting and she doubted claims that hunters respected game animals.

As the story goes, you never know until you try. At 16, Koenig met her future husband Peter, an avid bow hunter. She was open-minded enough to join Peter's hunts. In fact, she hoped to sway him to view hunting as a crime against beautiful wild animals.

Things didn't go as planned. Koenig began to see that hunting entailed more than tramping into the woods and dragging out a trophy. As she observed hunting challenges first hand, she found she wanted to try it herself. She received her first bow as a gift later that year and began to hone her skills.

Now in her thirties, Koenig hunts, does her own taxidermy, and is on the honor roll of the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association. Koenig also teaches archery at outdoor clinics for women. She explained her change of heart in an interview with Wisconsin Sportsman: "There's just so much stuff to see and enjoy when you're out there [hunting]. I experience a great feeling of peace whenever I go into the woods." She adds, "You learn something from every deer that comes by, whether you get a shot or not."

The joy of harvesting your own food

Along with the personal enjoyment found in outdoor experiences, sportswomen and men often talk about the added enjoyment in sharing wild foods. Just as gardeners take special pride in canning and freezing their own produce, hunters and anglers marry recreational pursuits with good eating.

Phyllis Speer of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission shared her philosophy and cooking talents in preparing wild game during the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman weekend workshop. With an almost reverent lilt, Speer explained, "When you go out and harvest your own game and you take it from the field to your table, there's such a sense of pride and accomplishment. You feel more a part of the entire system than if you just go to the store and buy some food placed on styrofoam and wrapped in plastic."

Speer says that sense of accomplishment lasts as long as you have game in the freezer. She inscribes her packages headed for the icebox with notes recalling the day the game was taken, the weather, wildlife seen and special circumstances of the day's events. Then, "six months later when you pull that package out and read what you had written, it brings back all those memories of the wonderful experience you had that day... consequently your hunt lasts much brings it all home and together."

Garnering greater participation

If the aim in specialty training is greater participation in outdoor experiences, then courses for women pay big dividends. Follow-up contacts with graduates from the BOW program here in Wisconsin show many participants share their skills with their children. For instance, Sally Scinto-Reinertson of Wausau took the course in 1994 so she could pass on hunter safety basics to her sons. Through sharing knowledge of the outdoors, she hopes to build a stronger bond with her children.

That same desire drew Dale Harrison of Wabeno to get training. Ms. Harrison was frustrated by learning outdoor skills from her husband. He encouraged her interest in the outdoors, but he wasn't the best teacher for her. Workshops in shotgun shooting and on-stream canoeing gave Ms. Harrison added confidence to more fully enjoy these activities with her seven-year-old son and her husband. Teeming up as a family has added a whole new dimension to their outdoor enjoyment.

It's a healthy sign that men are moving from mere acceptance to admiration for their female counterparts. A pair of male trap shooters who watched the beginner's shotgun session at the workshop responded with genuine approval. "We'd like to see even more women out here. It's always good to get new people involved in this sport."

Hunters and daughters

Most people concerned about a future for hunters and fishers appreciate the need to attract and recruit younger participants as well as adults, and that new young audience should include a whole lot of young women, said Bruce Matthews, an outdoor recreation researcher from Cornell University.

The hunter education office of the Wisconsin DNR reports that 85-90 percent of students enrolled in hunter safety courses are 12- to 13-year-olds who are seeking certification so they can hunt at a younger age. Those graduates are still predominantly males.

Approximately seven to 10 percent of our course graduates are female, but I don't think hunting has become a male/female issue," said Tim Lawhern, DNR hunter education coordinator. "The main issues today are getting access to hunting lands and exposing people to what hunting is really about. There are a whole host of people – not only women, but children of both sexes, students and men – whose lifestyle and location has left them unaware or misinformed about hunting. We need to reach them as well," Lawhern said.

One female who will enroll in hunter safety instruction is 14-year-old Jasmine Zimmerman of Wausau. Jasmine's father, David, says she's been his outdoor companion "ever since she was old enough to hang with me." All that time in the woods with her dad sparked her interest, and Jasmine plans to hunt birds and whitetail with her father after completing hunter safety training.

School programs also provided this teen with learning opportunities. During a school-sponsored stay at the Wausau School Forest, Jasmine tried her hand at shotgun shooting with stellar results. "I hit all three clay pigeons," she proudly stated, "three out of three!"

In addition, Jasmine is an avid angler. She wholeheartedly claims, "catching a fish and having the thrill of bringing it in is the best part!" Her list of angling accomplishments includes boasting rights to an impressive 28" walleye.

Another Wausau youth, Rikki Bergs, finds outdoor time with her father a "neat experience." Her family's hunting tradition led her to enroll in a hunter safety course. It helped her feel more comfortable and confident handling firearms.

"I felt a little nervous at first", she said, "but then we shot both clay pigeons and targets, and I did pretty well. My Dad was [pleasantly] surprised and I felt good about that."

Rikki said she knows other girls who hunt. Even though there are boys at her school who think "girls wouldn't be good at it," she will continue to participate. For Rikki, hunting provides another reason for "being in the woods and seeing animals where it's really peaceful."

For her dad, Tom, hunting provides a chance for more one-on-one time with his children. "Luckily, a lot of my friends also think it's important to involve their families in hunting and fishing excursions," he said.

As more training courses introduce women to hunting and fishing, networks of like-minded folks are starting to find each other. Outdoor promoters have sponsored events like the Women's Whitetail Weekend. Outdoor women's groups are forming, and sporting goods stores now solicit women as potential customers for their outdoor workshops.

Taking an outdoor skills workshop gave me the extra boost of confidence that I needed to get out and be involved, said Nancy Roberts of Wausau. "I took a stream ecology course and that interested me in taking a fly-tying workshop through a Gander Mountain store."

"I think the camaraderie at the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman workshop was most memorable for me," said Carolyn Hammerbeck. "It was great to meet so many different people of all ages from all over the state." Both Hammerbeck and Rogers are looking forward to future workshops, special events, and more female company as they explore hunting and fishing as another way to enjoy outdoor experiences.

Sharing the hunt

Jennifer Foster of Sheboygan has accompanied her father, Bob, on goose hunts since she was four. Now, at 15, Jennifer is a regular visitor to the goose blind and an excellent shot. She penned this reminiscence of her first waterfowl hunt with her father for the Wisconsin Ducks Unlimited's Green Wing Field Day competition. The essay won the competition last year.

My favorite wild place is "The Goose Blind." It is a family tradition that each father take his child for their first hunt in The Goose Blind. My great-grandfather took my grandfather, my grandfather took my father, and this year, it was my turn for my father to take me hunting.

The Goose Blind is an old run-down farm bridge over a creek on part of our family's farm. We took two-by-fours, camouflage netting and old lawn chairs to make the blind. From there, we watch the sun come up on a cool fall mornng. It was like an unreal dream, spending a whole day with your father watching ducks, geese, birds and all sorts of other animals, without even picking up your gun, just watching what God has put on this Earth for us to enjoy with our fathers and grandfathers.

After a long day of goose and duck hunting, my dad and I had dinner at our favorite restaurant not far from our hunting cabin. When we were finished eating, we drove back to our cabin and enjoyed each other's company until bedtime. Then, we hopped into our beds and fell asleep dreaming about what we would do the next morning.

When we woke up, we started the same exciting hunt all over again hoping to see [nature] more time before going home to relive what fun we had together for those two days.

Peggy Kell of Wausau, Wis., is studying environmental communication at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She spent several years publicizing the college's outdoor skills workshops for women. Kell enjoys hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, gardening and angling.