On a warm autumn Saturday, three women gather together at Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge with their crossbows and archery equipment. Reminiscent of Katniss Everdeens’ from the Hunger Games Trilogy, these women may also inspire more youth and adult women to take up bow hunting. Mikalia, Maria, and Tanya are participating in a Women in the Outdoors hunt, and members of the refuge staff and National Wild Turkey Federation are ready to guide them in the field.
The three women are novice or inexperienced bow hunters, and the dedicated refuge hunt for women, by women, offers a unique opportunity for them to ask questions and get hands-on experience with experts. It is the second annual Women in the Outdoors hunt at the refuge, offered through a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Wild Turkey federation.
The refuge is closed this day to everyone else. In the quiet, Refuge Law Enforcement Officer Mike McMenamin looks for signs of deer. Like a biology detective, he points out a broken branch where a buck rubbed his scent, hoof scrapes on the ground, and other places where deer had left a mark.
Chelsea Utter, wildlife refuge specialist and a National Wild Turkey Federation hunt mentor, sits patiently and quietly with Mikalia. Chelsea explains the sounds to listen for to track deer. The women will spend hours through the afternoon until dark in the blind.
For a Women in the Outdoors hunt, each participant is paired with a more experienced mentor. This one-on-one allows for a strong personal connection and comfortable relationship for learning. Mentors provide guidance on all aspects of the sport, including hunting safety, wildlife tracking, taking a first shot, and processing a deer for food.
Chelsea was a mentor for the first time the previous year. Her first mentee aimed her bow and her arrow hit her mark, a buck. Chelsea confessed that after hunting for six years, she had yet to have a successful hunt. The hunt was a proud moment for both women.
Sitting this year with Mikalia in the blind, Chelsea hopes that today she might experience that feeling of accomplishment again. Mentoring has become her favorite part of the women’s hunt program, and she hopes that her mentees might become mentors themselves some day.
Tanya is an example of how this unique program can foster a love of hunting. On the recommendation of a friend, Tanya decided to try out the Women in the Outdoors hunt in 2016. She loved the event so much, she’s returned this year. Today, her hunt will prove successful…a milestone!
Wanting to share her newfound pastime with her son, Tanya encouraged him to enroll and participate in the refuge’s youth hunt. “It can be difficult for new or non-hunters to gain access to the knowledge, guidance, places and opportunities to gain the confidence and experience to safely, ethically, and successfully go into the field. The women’s mentored hunt provided all of those resources openly and wholeheartedly to me. The refuge hunts are special opportunities that are appreciated so much more than the mentors will ever know,” she says.
Chelsea says there’s nothing better than seeing the excitement of the participants and their eagerness to continue hunting. She says that she hopes that after participating in the program women aren’t as intimidated to get out into the woods by themselves, become part of a community of hunting enthusiasts, and feel comfortable with all stages of the hunting experience. She hopes to share with others how hunting can be a favorite pastime, an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, and a way to provide food for your family and friends.
In recognition of their hunting programs, Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge was recently awarded the Robert E. Eriksen Conservation Award by the board of directors of the New Jersey chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.