Shabbat to Shot: A Frustrated but Cheerful She-Hunter
By Naomi Alhadeff
Naomi will be our guest on Wild Game Wednesdays, January 30, 2019 at 6pm MST. Watch here and join the conversation! Naomi is the Montana Education Coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, as well as the Western Montana Project WET Coordinator.
The tears were instantaneous with my first buck for reasons I can’t quite explain. The sound of the bullet punctured a previously silent moment. I teetered between anxiety and relief, adrenaline and fear, perhaps even guilt knowing I alone was responsible for this animal’s death. I get a little misty-eyed even telling that part of the story because it was so monumental, so culminating, even spiritual. There I was taking one of nature’s animals to put food on the table.
It’s an understatement to say that I did not come to the sport of hunting in the ‘traditional’ way. I grew up as a Jewish vegetarian in suburban Atlanta, GA. As you can imagine, growing up vegetarian cultivates a different perspective on hunting. I used to think hunting was this terrible atrocity being inflicted on our world’s wildlife. However, as an adult and an experienced environmental educator I stand reformed…but you could say I was a ‘tough get,’ at least early on.
When I set out to study Wildlife Biology from the University of Montana, it was because I love animals, not because I wanted to kill them. However, I quickly learned the value of hunting as a management tool, food source, and recreational activity. And if my University professors hadn’t convinced me, my life and hunting partner Ryan, a full blown Montana boy, surely would have. Though I quickly gave up my anti-hunting views, it was awhile before I understood that my next step was to harvest an animal myself.
I enrolled in an adult hunters’ safety class. Around this time I also started eating meat decisively rather than haphazardly out of convenience. So, combined with my new hunting skills, a drooling desire for red meat, and a defiant attitude to prove myself to this Montana boy, I set off to “hunt,” thinking I pretty much had it figured out. Yet, as a woman who didn’t grow up around the sport, I encountered some challenges, including the need to obsessively read complicated regulations, traverse mountains with short legs, and obtain hunting clothes designed for extra-large boys, and all this before even thinking about harvesting an animal.
It was 2015 in Washington when I successfully overcame that myriad of obstacles and shot a whitetail buck. This was a tremendous moment for me as I was well into my fifth year of traipsing around the woods looking for deer sign in both Nebraska and Washington to no avail. Luckily, my first deer needed only one shot and from what I could tell it was a quick death, a fact that was very important to me. When we came upon my first dead deer, I can honestly say I’m not sure who was happier, me or Ryan. Finally, finally, I was a successful hunter, a fully reformed vegetarian, and dammit I was a woman. Hear me roar!
Ryan was thrilled because he knew that if something didn’t happen that year I was potentially out of the hunting game. He’s a lifelong hunter who fell in love with a vegetarian Jewish girl from Atlanta. He wanted me to have fun and I needed a win.
Last fall, I was officially a Montana resident again and set out on my first Montana big game hunt, specifically muleys. First off, I needed to tackle those regulations in a new state and all I can say is they’re complex and can be non-intuitive. Complex regulations are, in my opinion, one of the biggest barriers to hunter recruitment.
Although I’m lightyears ahead of where I was five years ago, I’m still not comfortable doing a big game hunt on my own, so naturally, I called upon my best friend Ryan. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I could do it all by myself, but I embrace the limitations nature has granted me. As an amateur hunter I feel insecure heading into the field by myself. I simply cannot drag a 130 pound mule deer 1.5 miles to the truck. When in doubt bring a friend. Now in retrospect and after talking with Marcia Brownlee, Artemis Program Manager, I learned great gear options exist one can purchase that would have put my super woman hips to better use and made the drag out less of a…drag. Learning about new gear tailored specifically to women is why meeting and talking with other she-hunters is so valuable.
After a day hunting a mix of private property, BLM land, and block management I came close to getting a shot but hadn’t connected, intensifying my motivation. On the morning of the second day, it all came together. We spotted a moving buck headed in our direction. We snuck up to where we thought he’d pop over a ridge…and he did! He moved to about 40 yards away, but hunkered down in tall sagebrush, I couldn’t get a clean shot. Finally, after about 45 minutes of watching with my patience wearing thin, he winded us. In doing so, he presented a shot. After years of frustration and only one buck to my name, I wasn’t about to let this chance go by so I took the shot, my heart pounding.
And I missed. Seasoned hunters have told me if you hunt long enough eventually you’ll take a shot and miss, but as a novice I was distraught, thinking I’d blown my opportunity, and mad at myself for rushing a shot when I should know better. My only consolation was that it was a clean miss rather than a wounded deer and that I had learned a valuable lesson in patience and remaining calm while taking a shot.
I’ll cut to the chase because later that afternoon I successfully shot a mule deer buck! That morning’s lessons proved essential as I watched this buck for more than an hour waiting on a truly clean shot. When he finally presented one, I was ready instead of rushed, calm instead of shaking. However, this time there weren’t tears like with my first buck. There was a rush of adrenaline and I craved to run over immediately. Ryan calmed me down and advised waiting for two reasons. One, if it’s not dead I could spook it causing it to run and we might lose it and two, if it’s not dead you don’t want to watch, let him be for a moment. More than likely it died immediately as he’d barely jumped a few feet and went down. An animal suffering isn’t fun to watch so I’m privileged both of my kills have been one shot and quick.
Next was dressing and butchering the deer. I was very clear up front that I wanted to complete, to the best of my ability, all steps of the hunting process by myself. This meant all the way from stalking the deer to making my Jewish grandmother’s recipe for Sephardic brisket from a rump roast. With the aid of Ryan’s mom, her tried and true butchering booklet, and YouTube, I successfully, tagged, gutted, dragged, hung, skinned, cleaned, butchered, and wrapped my own deer. Ladies, can I get an Amen?!
All of these moments, challenges, and frustrations have led me to learn many things. First, I feel confident saying a large part of my joy was because of the land we traversed and a shared experience. The beauty of the eastern Montana plains and the excitement of seeing deer all around us was magical. Not to mention we stumbled across porcupine, a short-eared owl, and more than a few jack rabbits. I had more fun watching deer stotting around the prairie than I did attempting a shot. Secondly, the wonderful thing about meeting other women who hunt are the shared stories of overcome obstacles. So pour a glass of wine, grab some friends, and dive in. Those regulations won’t read themselves! Better yet, ask me for Grandma Ruth’s recipe and let’s tête-à-tête about the fusion of hunting and sharing a lovely elk brisket with a huckleberry-lime jam over a divine Friday night Shabbat meal.