Heading outside on a gorgeous fall day and enjoying the sights, sounds and experiences that Maine has to offer can be exhilarating.
For generations, it was men who headed into the woods for the state’s traditional fall activity: hunting. The fraternity of fathers, sons, grandfathers, uncles and grandsons often excluded women and girls.
But if you’ve gone hunting in recent years, you may have noticed that the face of hunting in the state is changing.
More women are carving out a niche in the male-dominated sport as they are discovering that the joys of being immersed in nature while hunting are both inspiring and empowering. The sport also provides women with a sense of independence and empowerment, including the opportunity for homesteaders to eat ethically by harvesting their own organic meat.
“I enjoy the peace of hunting, the thrill, the ability to provide for me and my family, and connection with the world around me,” said Morgan Taylor. “Even in years when you do not see anything to harvest, you are in a position to see some pretty amazing things.”
It’s that connection with nature, and its improvement on one’s physical and emotional well-being, that resonate most with Maine’s female hunters.
“Hunting is one more reason that allows me to get out in God’s creation,” said Barb Plummer, co-owner of Northern Pride Lodge in Kokadjo, who started hunting at age 47. “I love all the seasons and I see His work in all of it,” she said.
Participation in hunting among women has been on a steady increase during the last 12 years, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Last year, the 25,545 licensed female hunters made up 15.1 percent of the total number of licenses purchased.
The 2021 figure represents a 50 percent increase when compared with 2010, when less than 10 percent of the state’s hunters were women. There were 8,467 more licensed female hunters last year than in 2010.
And Maine is outpacing the national average. According to 2016 data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Census Bureau, women made up 10 percent of all hunters. In Maine, that number was 13.2 percent.
Christi Holmes of Gray started the Maine Women Hunters Facebook group to give women a place to share their experiences. As someone who did not grow up hunting, but fell in love with it, she is eager to get others involved.
“Mainers, not just women, pride ourselves on being independent, and with all the fish and wildlife in Maine, it’s no surprise that more women are taking up hunting,” said Holmes, who is an Outdoors contributor for the Bangor Daily News.
While lots of women grew up hunting, those who were introduced to the sport much later in life often cited friends and loved ones for encouraging them to take it up. For many mothers, it is a great way to spend quality time with their children and make it a more inclusive activity.
From left to right: Amelia Mitchell, 10, of South China blows on a grunt tube while deer hunting with her mother, Rebecca Mitchell, in Monmouth; Heather Sylvester shot this 138-pound bear in September; Courtney Dube and her Weimaraner, Kyzer, limited out on ruffed grouse. Credit: Rebecca Mitchell; Heather Sylvester; Cole Dube
Mothers hunting with their partners and their kids also may help keep the population of hunters strong for future generations.
“Now we have the honor of sharing the memories and tradition with our two children,” said Jackie Rivers of Farmington, whose 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son both have harvested turkeys.
“They are both looking forward to this upcoming deer season,” she said.
For other women, hunting is an effort to become more self-sustaining and less reliant on buying meat.
Marilyn Stanley of Wells grew up on a poultry farm, in a family where only the men hunted. She stopped eating meat because of the mistreatment of animals in the meat industry. Years later, her second husband, an avid hunter, convinced her to take the hunter safety course.
“It was pretty comical, a 44-year-old woman surrounded by 10-year-old boys,” Stanley said. “I shot my first deer that fall and have loved hunting ever since.”
She takes pride in having a freezer full of meat she can eat with a clear conscience.
Ashley May saw harvesting free-range meat as the perfect complement to growing her own food, especially after some men working on her wooded property commented about its potential as a hunting location.
She said there are some advantages to being a female hunter.
“I think more landowners are open to a woman hunting their land,” May said. “I also know for a fact that some of my mentors were more excited to take on a female to teach simply because of the novelty of it.”
Brea Willette of Vassalboro said women who are trying to live off the land will continue to gravitate toward hunting as a resource.
“I personally see a lot more women jumping into the homestead lifestyle the last few years and believe that utilizing hunting will come with that,” she said.
Despite being outnumbered and having to contend with outdated biases, female hunters have discovered strength in being able to talk about their successes and struggles.
Social media platforms provide the kind of open forum and larger community women seek in carving out their own niche.
“Hunting has been such a male-dominated arena and for me it feels good to have other women to reach out to and run ideas by that I sometimes feel more comfortable with and less judged,” said Emily Goode, who has hunted since she was a child.
DIF&W sponsors several programs geared toward women, including its Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshops, which teach skills in hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation.
“I really want more people, not just women, who have never experienced this aspect of being outside to have the opportunity to get engaged,” said DIF&W Commissioner Judy Camuso, who grew up in Boston and was introduced to hunting later in her life.
Despite the increase in female hunters, the sport has experienced a 32 percent decline in overall participation since its peak 40 years ago, according to the North Carolina State University College of Natural Resources. In 2020, only 11.5 million people hunted in the country compared with almost 17 million in 1982.
The baby boomers, mostly white men, who dominated the hunting ranks for decades, are aging out. And with a significant increase in minority groups who have not hunted traditionally, it may well fall to women to help fill that gap in the meantime.
It may take women’s influence to break down some of the misconceptions that portray hunters as bloodthirsty trophy hunters.
“Hunting is so much more than that and such a positive influence on our lives,” Plummer said. “I pray that seeing wives, daughters, moms and grandmoms out there hunting will help to make some folks understand that a person can love to hunt and still be a compassionate, kind and loving person.”