By Jodi Stemler
We’d caught sight of the pronghorn buck grazing with a small group of does in a draw shortly after we crossed onto the ranch. The sun was low in the sky, and the sagebrush and grasses were reflecting the light off the layer of ice that had accumulated from the brief period of snow and rain the evening before. This morning was crystal clear, and the Wyoming blue sky was cloudless with not a hint of a breeze.
After creeping down the draw that fed into the grassy valley where the antelope were grazing, we climbed the low ridge knowing the group should be just on the other side. We were still deep in shadow, but the sunlight was starting to move down the far side of the ravine. We crawled the final yards to the crest of the ridge, staying low to minimize our silhouette.
Fred quietly set up his bipods, and I placed my .240 Weatherby Mark V Camilla gently in the yoke. We could just make out the heads of the does grazing toward us a short distance away.
Just as we were finishing the setup, a faint breeze started to blow over our left shoulders. The does all picked up their heads and moved off up the ridge across from us.
The buck followed, trotting up the hill at a slower pace. He was midway up the hill, just clearing the shadow line when he stopped to give us a look. That’s when I heard Fred’s soft whisper.
“There’s your shot.”
It was the moment of truth. Was I really going to be able to pull the trigger?
Hunting is not new to me. I grew up in New Jersey in a farming family with deep hunting traditions. I took Hunter Education as soon as I was old enough, and I started hunting squirrels with my dad, our backs against an ancient sycamore tree. I stopped hunting about the time I was old enough to hunt deer. I was busy, but also, I wasn’t sure I could pull the trigger on a big-game animal.
I moved into a decades-long career that centered around wildlife conservation, working for and with the most well-known sportsmen conservation groups in the nation. Being closely connected to where my food came from was important to me, but I was content with being a scavenger and eating the game meat provided by my husband, a lifelong hunter.
Things changed when we bought a bird dog puppy. We were committed that this dog would hunt. We now lived in Colorado and had a place to go pheasant hunting. We also had a six-year-old daughter who was excited about watching her puppy do her job. And it would be my first time hunting in 25 years.
Heading afield with the intention of finding and then killing the animals we were pursuing added a new dimension to my time outdoors. Seeing nature and hunting through my daughter’s eyes added even greater depth to the experience. Cooking a meal with the meat from an animal I had shot made not only a delicious, healthy dinner, but also an opportunity to mentally return to that place where we were hunting.
I was content hunting upland birds and turkeys until our daughter turned 12 and drew a cow elk tag. Our experiences during those days of hunting were transformative. Hiking for miles, finding elk but not having the opportunity for an ethical shot, trying one last time on a crystal clear and frigid morning after fresh snow. Though she didn’t punch her tag, our success was measured by the memories of that time together on the mountain as a family now etched into my brain. I realized I wanted to be an active participant and not just an observer.
A few months later, while attending the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo, I met Brenda Weatherby. I’d seen marketing photos of Brenda hunting during the 2016 launch of Vanguard Camilla, Weatherby’s women’s rifle. I had assumed she was a lifelong hunter, but Brenda told me that her journey as a hunter started when she took the hunter safety class with her daughter just a few years earlier. The development of the Camilla rifle had provided Brenda with the chance to head afield, and she fell in love with hunting.
We had much in common, and I confessed to Brenda that I was intrigued with big-game hunting but apprehensive to take the step. My husband is a skilled hunter and is a great teacher for our daughter, but learning from your spouse can be an entirely different beast. I wasn’t sure if I would actually be able to pull the trigger when the time came or how I would handle it emotionally if I did kill an animal. I believed an impartial mentor would make that easier.
A month later, Brenda reached out and offered to sponsor me in the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt. The event is primarily a fundraiser for the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, which invests in the economic self-sufficiency of women and opportunities for girls in the state. The event founders believed they could serve their mission by teaching women to hunt to help feed their families.
Empowering Women Hunters
In early October, I arrived at The Ranch at UCross, the beautiful guest ranch that has hosted the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt since its inception. After sighting-in our rifles and practicing field skills, there was a formal hunter orientation session that gave me the chance to get to know the other women hunters. The mix of women in the room was remarkable. There were 36 total hunters ranging in age from late teens to women in their 60s. There were women with a lifetime of experience hunting, and 14 of us who were first-time big-game hunters.
One young woman from Ohio hadn’t grown up in the outdoors but became interested because her boyfriend hunted. After asking him numerous times to take her and him coming up with excuses why he wouldn’t, she broke up with him and decided to apply for a scholarship to the hunt. A stay-at-home mother had gone through a recent divorce that left her alone and trying to provide for her family, and learning to hunt was a way to do this. A middle school science teacher decided to try hunting because her students talked about it so much. A young mother of a special needs child was nominated for a scholarship by her husband so she could have something for herself. A National Guard lieutenant who had been deployed to Afghanistan returned stateside just two weeks before the hunt. The group included a former state supreme court justice, a state legislator, businesswomen, and mothers. All 36 women were strong, engaging individuals with incredible life stories who inspired and empowered each other.
Each new hunter was paired with an experienced hunter. My partner was Becky Rodriguez, the wife of a local ranch manager. Our guide was Fred William, who serves on the volunteer committee organizing the event and has dedicated many hours to mentoring new hunters. Brenda Weatherby had driven out to the UCross from Sheridan so she could join me on the hunt. We headed out before dawn because our tags were in a unit about an hour east. Landowners in the area provide access to the women hunters for the weekend, and we were hunting on the Michelina Ranch.
The Moment of Truth
The sun slowly started to break the horizon while we watched the small herd, and my nerves were on edge. As the buck paused on the hillside, I quickly found him in my Maven scope and tried to calm myself. Then I heard Fred’s whisper.
Those three words held so much meaning. The shot had presented itself, and it was now my choice if I would take it or not.
I took a long deep breath in, slowly exhaled to settle the crosshairs, and gently squeezed the trigger. The report of the rifle was followed quickly by the thump of the bullet hitting the buck. The antelope stumbled up the rise, cresting the top before falling to the ground. As it fell, adrenaline coursed through me. I started shaking, and tears welled in my eyes as I thought about what had just happened.
When I heard Fred, I didn’t hesitate. I knew I was about to end the buck’s life and was thankful for its gift to me. It had been 69 yards away, and the .240 Weatherby Magnum did its part in a single, clean, heart-and-lungs shot; there had been no suffering.
As I laid my hands on the buck, the tears rolled down my face. The antelope’s hollow hair had insulated it during the icy night, and its back was still covered with a heavy layer of frost. I was so grateful for the camaraderie of the people around me who understood the spiritual and emotional weight of the hunt and knew exactly how I was feeling.
A Lot to Process
Back at the ranch, we met the hunt staff at the meat pole to check in our animals and take pictures. Like on most hunts, the spot became a gathering place for hunters to talk about their experiences. It was clear that my elation and emotion were felt by all. We had bonded the evening before, and now that connection was even stronger.
Fred taught me how to skin and quarter my antelope, and I bagged the meat and put it into my cooler for the evening. One of the most compelling aspects of hunting to me—and to many of the women I met—is playing a role in providing your own food. Volunteers were teaching hunters who wanted to learn how to process their own meat, and the next day I took advantage of the opportunity.
Later, we had a wild game cooking demonstration by Vickie Wilhelm, the ranch’s executive chef. She reminded us that food preparation allows us to appreciate the animals we hunt. “Remember your harvest of the animal; the grace, the beauty, the honor of this animal giving its life,” she said. “When you cook it, remember that and respect it.”
Her message was the perfect way to sum up what the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt gave to us. We had stepped beyond our comfort zone to try something new, to interact with other women we didn’t know. We left with a better understanding of who we are, and at the same time, we shared a connection with a band of women in this transformative experience.
I realized there are other women like me, women who are seeking a greater sense of self and a deeper connection with the natural world through hunting. Events like the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt empower women to develop skills they will carry with them in their lives.
Through mentoring and camaraderie, this event took a group of women and made us hunters. Our lives have been changed for it, and the tradition of hunting will continue to live on.
For more information, go to wyomingwomensantelopehunt.org
The Essentials Gear Box.
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