About a year ago, my dad mentioned a women’s only hunt. An antelope hunt. Really not my thing. I smiled, nodded, and thought….yeah, so this has nothing to do with fishing, and hunting can be difficult…and you get hot…or really cold…and you sweat. And antelope smell. Well, I imagine they smell. I don’t really know.
Shortly after, I saw a post on a friend’s Facebook page of this very hunt. Everyone was smiling, there were sweet sentiments, and congratulations. Being a little nosy, I looked up the hunt to see what it was all about. Lo and behold….in the description, a word shot out at me. FISHING. If you harvest your animal, you come back to the ranch and have the opportunity to learn from a guide and FISH. Done! They had me…hook, line, and sinker.
I pulled up the application and typed out an essay about why I wanted to attend…which may have included a story centered on fishing and my kids. My goal was to harvest an animal the first morning out and then spend the next two days fishing. I read that there were many applicants and I kind of put it out of my head, knowing there was a good chance I wouldn’t be invited to attend.
And then, several months later, I got the call.
I was invited to attend the hunt on scholarship! The scholarship was set up through a fund by Shelley Simonton, a leader in making the hunt what it is today. I was beyond excited! Fishing here I come! Bring on the camo! I have struggled connecting with other women who enjoy fly fishing, and this was an opportunity to connect and network with women who may have my same interest!
My curiosity about who Shelley was got the better of me and I did a little online stalking. Turns out she was an influential woman of Wyoming, who believed in empowering women, their ability to be self sufficient, learning from one another, and the camaraderie experienced while hunting together. She sounded like my kind of lady. And I was honored to be included on the hunt through her generosity.
The following month, I received a second message. After battling cancer, Shelley had passed away. I was struck with unexpected emotion. I knew she had touched many women’s lives and I mourned for their loss. I also felt a sense of loss myself. Having never been able to meet this remarkable woman, I felt the loss of never being able to experience the infectious personality I had read so much about. The meaning of the scholarship became even deeper. I was hopeful for success in the hunt, to be able to honor her in the only way I was able.
Throughout the summer, I began collecting my first pieces of camo. I practiced shooting a gun and ended up receiving my first rifle. I excitedly checked off one item after another on my packing list. The anticipation of the hunt began to mount.
Driving onto the ranch property, I was nearly overcome with excitement. As I passed under the entrance welcoming me to my weekend, I looked to the sky and thought, “Well, here’s to new adventures. Wish me luck.”
Following registration, I headed to the gun range to sight in my rifle. There was a group of men available to assist with the sight in and I certainly felt like a fish out of water. I had trouble sighting in my gun, despite the gentle corrections from the helpers. Once the volunteers felt the gun was good to go, the gentleman encouraged me to try shooting from the prone (yes, I had to learn what that was) position, aiming at a “gong” on the side of the hill nearly 200 yards away. Awkwardly I assumed the position, laying on the ground as he helped me situate the gun. There was a cameraman nearby and I had to laugh as he was snapping pictures of this extremely obvious novice.
Aiming my rifle in the direction of the gong, I squeezed the trigger. The volunteer exclaimed, “You hit it!” I was doubtful. With my earplugs in, I didn’t think I heard the ring of the bullet hitting metal. I lined up a second shot. This time, as I squeezed the trigger, I heard the audible ring. I looked at him excitedly as he smiled and nodded back to me. I looked back through my scope and saw the paint chipped away where I had made the shot, nearly right in the middle. I was surprised, but encouraged, and thought I better quit while I was ahead.
Arriving back at the lodge, I was overwhelmed with how nervous and anxious I was for the following day. My hands were shaking and I was emotionally unprepared for how unsure I was that I could actually pull this off.
The next morning came too quick. I hit the ground at 5:00 am, jittery and uncollected. Nonetheless, I layered my camo, double checked for my hunting license, extra bullets, my rifle, double knotted my brand new, never before worn, hunting boots.
At the ranch house, I met up with my guide and local land owner, Kellen Little. My hunting partner turned out to be Wyoming’s first female Supreme Court Justice, Marilyn Kite, a founding member of the hunt. No pressure there. It was then that I was introduced to Shelley’s husband, Matt Bowers. He would be joining us for the day. Lord, please let an antelope stand in front of my rifle. I felt as if the outcome of the day hinged on whether or not I was able to harvest an animal. I wanted my guide to feel success. I wanted the Supreme Court Justice to smile upon me. I wanted Shelley’s husband to not feel like this was a wasted trip.
Squeezing into Kellen’s truck, we headed on down the road. The sun was just coming up and the frost sparkled over the Wyoming landscape. Everything was painted a crisp mix of green, gold, and orange. I sat up front, as I had the first opportunity to take a shot as the newbie. It didn’t take long before the other three passengers were cutting up and joking with one another. Watching them interact with each other, I eased into the comfortable atmosphere. Their stories of hunts from years gone by were rich. I laughed with them and was surrounded by their memories. The ribbing that each one endured from the others was endearing as personalities emerged.
I watched as they reveled in knowing they were among friends, who were about to make new memories together.
And I was privileged to be part of it.
The laughter and reminiscing was peppered with accounts of Shelley, and her personality became more and more evident to me. This person was such a highlight in so many of these stories. What gratitude I felt, because of her forethought and generosity. I was bouncing around in a truck, enjoying the incredible Wyoming landscape, listening to these three – who were quickly becoming my friends – recount great hunts of the past, learning about the history of the land….and a realization washed over me.
It isn’t about the antelope.
These friendships, these people, these relationships, remembering, memories, new experiences…this is the hunt.
Before we even made it to our first location, I knew this day was already a success.
I was in the midst of building memories of the 2017 hunt. We were on the verge of being a part of next year’s stories. Harvesting an antelope is inconsequential.
These people, the camaraderie, experiences, moments shared. This….this is what I came for. The anxiety of expecting an outcome for the day melted away, as I became one who reveled in knowing I was among friends who are making new memories together.
We searched, we stalked, we worked hard that day. I put many miles on those new boots. I scaled the side of a steep hill 150 feet high, shouldering that new rifle. I belly crawled, scuffing the shiny, new barrel on the ground. Just to peek over the edge of the hill and see the herd trotting out of range and climbing back down.
Marilyn, Kellen, and Matt laughed with me and we continued to formulate new strategies. They encouraged me. I felt acknowledged and accepted and I persevered through the day with a genuine smile on my face. The team motivated me to try again and again. Kellen’s patience and humor kept me on track and in the moment. His encouragement strengthened my resolve…even when I shot him a “What the hell?” look when he told me to get down and belly crawl with a rifle in my hand. This young lad, 10 years my junior, wants me to do WHAT?!? I can only imagine what was running through his head as he waited for me to literally inch my way a few feet each time.
As we slowly approached the fourth herd of the day, it was evident they were aware of our presence. The herd began to move away and out of range. We decided to make the long trek around the other side of the hill in an attempt to meet them from the opposite direction. We crept around the backside of the hill, putting another three quarters of a mile under our feet. Approaching the top of the hill, Kellen again motioned for the infamous belly crawl. The thought crossed my mind that he was pulling one over on me and the joking and laughing in 2018 will be about the middle aged hunter attempting the crawl.
We peeked over the hill and the herd was unaware of us. I quietly loaded my gun while Kellen continued to scope the herd. He looked through the range finder, which he probably picked up nearby from the dozens he has lost in the brush over the last five years, and whispered 99 yards. I waited for the herd to move into a position that I could view them through my scope. Kellen whispered the number of bucks and pointed out one that would be a good option. I struggled to find the buck in my scope. Finally, he stepped into position. “I got him in my scope,” I whispered. Kellen quietly responded, “When you are ready. Take your time. Deep breath.”
The buck turned broadside. I aimed the crosshairs of my scope behind his shoulder, where the white darkened to brown. I let out my breath, I squeezed the trigger. I watched the antelope through my scope and I knew I had hit him. He spun around and I reloaded my gun in anticipation of having to take a second shot. The buck fell to the ground as the rest of the herd blazed down the hill. I lowered my gun and a sense of accomplishment washed over me. I turned to see my guide’s excited smile, “You got him!” A celebratory hug and we were both on our feet headed down the hill.
As we approached the buck, I was in awe of how beautiful this animal was. I was filled with gratitude of the food he was providing for my family. I was proud that I was able to do something I was quite certain, just that morning, I couldn’t do.
That first morning of the hunt, I harvested my antelope. Later that day, Marilyn was able to harvest hers. We left the ranch that morning as strangers and a single goal in mind. We returned to the ranch as friends and comrades, accomplishing so much more than our intended goal. This moment, this experience can never be replicated. Yes, there will be hunts in the coming years that will add to and enrich our lives. But this one, the first, will always be.
Of course, I went fishing. The next two days were spent fishing with guides. I learned about casting, reading the water, bugs, and more information than I’ll ever be able to use. And I loved every second.
But, reflecting on the weekend, my mind returns to the hunt. Not the animal harvest. It is the moment in the truck, looking at these people who are now my people, when I realized the true intention of the day. The moment when I realized the day was already a success.
Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt 2017