Deer hunting season just wrapped up in Massachusetts, and some of the state's 70,000 licensed hunters, the overwhelming majority of them men, participated. But there’s also an organized effort to get more women involved in going after game.
Christine Morse, who works at the federal prison in Devens, Mass., is one of the beneficiaries.
“I was really attracted to the concept of providing for myself and for my family than going out and purchasing meat,” she said.
Clad in blaze orange and camouflage, Morse and her hunting mentor, Donna White, quietly made their way through the woods of Fort Devens, a military base west of Boston. They had been there since the pre-dawn hours in the hopes of bagging a buck.
In the last few years, Morse's interest in hunting has expanded from using a bow and arrow to becoming a licensed hunter with a gun permit. She hasn’t had any luck yet, but savors being out in the wild.
“Watching the forest wake up was really cool for me. Seeing the squirrels and hearing the birds and everything, and especially being camouflaged, they don't really necessarily recognize that you're there,” Morse said. “So there's a lot more that goes on when you're deep in the woods like that.”
Morse was on a guided hunt with Becoming An Outdoors-Woman, a nationwide program designed to encourage more women to get involved in outdoor activities traditionally dominated by men.
It may be working. The number of licensed women hunters across the U.S. increased by 104 percent between 2001 and 2016. In Massachusetts, that number has steadily increased. More than 3,000 women have joined the state’s modest hunting population.
Marion Larson, chief of information and education for the Massachusetts Wildlife and Fisheries Division, said the goal is to have women feel as comfortable as men out in the wild.
“This is providing people with an opportunity to get a little bit more field experience,” Larson said. “We offer all kinds of different outdoor skills workshops for beginners of all ages. Both 18 to 80, we've had, learning about these kinds of outdoor skills.”
The state, she added, also needs hunters to manage the deer population so it does not get too big. The number of deer per square mile varies across Massachusetts, which is why management zones were created, but there's a higher deer population density east of I-495 compared to the rest of the state. It turns out deer like the suburbs as much as people, but many bylaws prohibit people from hunting them there. That situation may explain why so many commuters spot deer crossing busy highways on their way home.
Besides deer hunts, Becoming An Outdoors-Woman includes a guided turkey hunt in the spring and fly fishing classes. The guided deer hunt Morse participated in followed a workshop on gun handling, hunting strategies and gutting, or "field dressing," a deer.
But before a novice hunter goes into the field, Larson pointed out, she first needs to be able to track signs of deer. Walking on the wooded edge of a paved road in Fort Devens, Larson pointed out piles of scat.
“Hunters are looking and thinking, okay, is this a fresh pile? Is this recent or not? There are differences,” Larson said. “Looking at this, this is a 'matte finish.' But over here I found a pile that looks pretty fresh that’s probably from last night, which is a lot moister.”
Another telltale sign of deer — and one that’s less gross — is a "buck rub." That's when a deer rubs his antlers on a tree, releasing scent glands. As we made our way deeper into the woods, Larson spotted a buck rub on a sapling. A strip of bark about a foot long has been stripped off, revealing a splintered layer underneath.
“This is fairly fresh. This is pretty cool. I can’t believe I walked right by this,” Larson marveled.
Larson’s enthusiasm was echoed among the group taking a lunch break after a long morning. Inside a meeting room, more than two dozen hunters wearing camouflage overalls and orange hats shared laughs over sandwiches and chowder. They wrapped up quickly. With only a few hours left to hunt, they piled back into their cars and pickup trucks and headed back into the woods.
Morse didn't expect to bring anything home on this day, but she can barely hide her excitement at the prospect of bagging her first buck. She said she’s also looking forward to cultivating her new friendships.
“It's been a really cool field to get into," Morse said. "Diving in and doing this program, we're all kind of starting out, but it's opened a whole new world of community.”