Women Hunters And Anglers Offer Hope For Keeping Traditions Alive

Aug 6, 2019

We line up in the sagebrush with a truly distracting view of the Wind River Range visible beyond, a bunch of gals pointing arrows at a herd of targets shaped like deer, turkey, even a stegosaurus. Each animal is tacked with several colorful balloons and it's our goal to pop them.

Our archery teacher Jessie Johnson is supportive, even when we miss.

"Oh, so close! That balloon was sweating," she calls out.

Think of this as girl scout camp for adults. It's called Becoming an Outdoors Woman, or BOW. The women here are every age, every experience level.

"We camp, we ski, I have a horse, I ride outside almost every day," says Linda Wendt from Cody.

But Jenny Wacker from Cheyenne admits, "I'm not terribly outdoorsy. We have a cabin in Estes Park where I glamp." The other archery students laugh. "I think I've slept outside maybe twice in my life."

Jennifer Main came with her mom, Pam McMahan, from Salt Lake City. She's loving the archery class.

"I literally told my mom, 'I know what I want for Christmas this year. I think I need a bow,'" she says with a chuckle. "I have a seven-year old who has interest in shooting a bow and he's just started and so it's just something I'm going to do with him."

That's exactly what the organizers of this camp want to hear. The ancient tradition of learning to hunt is fast becoming endangered, with 8-million fewer people hunting now than they did in the 1980's. That's a big deal because, in the U.S., we fund conservation projects almost entirely on the more than $157-billion a year that hunting and fishing generates. But in Wyoming, hunting numbers aren't sliding. Yes, fewer men are hunting. But women are taking up the rifle and the rod in greater numbers than ever.

"We know that women decide what a family does on a weekend and they also in many families control the checkbook," says Kathryn Boswell, Hunter and Angler Participation Coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "And so when we help women learn how to hunt and fish, we're helping families to learn to hunt and fish.

Boswell pulls out a spreadsheet that shows the number of Wyomingites who bought a hunting license over the last few years. 1700 fewer men hunted, but the number of women surged by 4500 when you compare 2008 to 2017.

"I do think some of it comes to social media," says Boswell. "And that people are seeing that women are doing it and now they're asking, 'can I come with?'"

But the reason may be more than friendship. Women are especially interested in putting organic, locally grown meat on the table.

Rifle target practice at BOW camp.
Credit Patrick Wine

"I don't shoot things I won't eat," says archery teacher Jessi Johnson. She's working to help women feel more comfortable hunting in a program called Artemis for the National Wildlife Federation. "So I'm in it for food and for me it's pretty sacred and I'd call it a melancholic joy."

A melancholic joy. Johnson says, women are more willing to use emotional language like that to talk about hunting.

"Hunting has a PR problem," Johnson explains. "We're declining because we're not relatable to the outside world and we're really bad at talking about what we do."

But Johnson says more women hunters could help improve the image of hunters. Starting with how they tell hunting tales.

"So they don't start with, 'I went out and I killed a big deer,'" Johson says. "They're like, 'Well, I just learned how to hunt ten years ago and oh my god, I did this and I did this, I cried.' They show remorse, they show the respect."

Johnson says all the ego in outdoor sports deters women from sticking it out.

It might be one reason lots of us at camp have holes in our outdoor education. For me, that's fly fishing. My parents owned an Orvis fly shop and my dad builds bamboo fly rods, but somehow, I never learned how to use one.

Today, among the willows, my fly fishing teacher Christy Carlson teaches me to cast.

"I want you to look at your line and follow that rod tip to your fly," she says. I give it a try. "There you go."

One of the many meals students prepared in the dutch oven cooking class.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Unlike hunting, the number of people fishing in the U.S. is going up and some of that is thanks to women. Carlson says that's a recent trend. She now owns the fly shop Pioneer Anglers in Alpine but when she was just learning, she says, "I had several horrible experiences as a lady angler going in with a small daughter and being completely ignored. Not everybody but many shops. And I'm like, I'm here to learn, I'm here to buy."

Carlson says, over the years, a lot of women come into her shop because of their husband. She takes pride in welcoming them.

With a laugh, she recalls that many of them seemed frustrated. "You kind of have a rebel-ness inside you that's like, 'shut up, don't tell me what to do!"

Carlson says that's one reason these all-women outdoor camps are so popular around the country.

"We can giggle and we can laugh and we can feel frustrated and we can vent and everyone can blow it off and be done."

I don't catch a fish that day, but I do catch the fishing bug. When I get home, I call up my dad and make a date. I plan to take that beautiful fly rod he built for me years ago.