DENNIS ANDERSON: Clinics leave women hungry for the hunt

Anita Squire's deer hunting career began a few weeks back, not slumped in a crooked shack around a deck of timeworn cards - a long-established way around here - but by sharing a potluck supper in a rural Minnesota farmhouse with 11 other women, shooters each.

As they ate, the women's rifles - Squire, a U.S. Army veteran, would use a .303 British - were propped nearby. Blaze orange clothing was at the ready, and the women were abuzz about the next morning's early antlerless deer season opener.

Can this be the future of Minnesota deer hunting - more polite gatherings of women interspersed statewide with more traditional assemblages of grizzled men sitting astride bar stools, telling tall tales?

Possibly, according to the Department of Natural Resources, which is working harder to recruit women and kids to Minnesota's aging hunter ranks.

If Squire's mission-oriented approach is any indication, whitetail hunters here could grow more determined as their demographic broadens.

"I took a lunch break my first day," said Squire, of Brooklyn Park. "Otherwise, I was in my stand from sunup until sundown. I didn't see a deer until 6:30 that evening. I took a shot."

Squire, 39, is a DNR licensing agent manager who in August was one of about 35 women attending a Becoming an Outdoors Woman deer-hunting clinic at the Dan and Betty Wilkens farm near Mora, Minn. After completing that clinic, and passing a DNR hunter education course, Squire was invited back to the farm for the mid-October hunt.

"I had never hunted before, nor had anyone in my family," said Squire, who grew up in Harrisburg, Pa. "What intrigued me about attending the hands-on training in August was that I could perform my job better if I knew about hunting firsthand - if I knew exactly what goes on during deer season."

As hunters know, "exactly what goes on" can vary hunt to hunt, even hour to hour and minute to minute.

"I have no doubt adult women can enjoy hunting and will continue hunting once they're exposed to it, but first they need a positive hunting experience," said Betty Wilkens, a veteran deer stalker who works as a DNR hunting education and recruitment ally. "Without help at the beginning, how are they going to find a place to hunt, or people to hunt with? Who will help them develop their shooting skills?"

DNR fish and wildlife division outreach chief C.B. Bylander said the number of girls taking firearms safety classes in Minnesota is rising, as is the number of archery licenses sold to girls.

"And we're making licensing and season changes intended to keep older hunters in the sport longer, and to hold the interest of first-timers who are drawn to hunting at a later age," Bylander said.

Reducing bow draw weights to help older and younger archers is one such change, Bylander said.

Scheduling the early antlerless season in mid-October, when temperatures typically are higher than during the November firearms season, also might help attract and retain hunters, he said.

The shot Squire took at the end of her first day was a clean miss. But even then, a learning opportunity was found.

"After I shot, Betty and I and the other experienced hunters who acted as mentors practiced night-tracking, looking for a blood trail," Squire said. "We found nothing."

The 12 women hunters who had fanned out that day on the Wilkens farm and two other nearby farms included DNR deputy commissioner Laurie Martinson, who felled a doe, her first deer on her first hunt.

For Squire, the next morning couldn't come soon enough.

"We were up at 5:30, had breakfast, and soon I was back on my stand," she said. "At 8:33, two does and a fawn came by. They were about 50 yards away. Then, behind them, I saw a bigger doe, and I aimed and shot."

Waiting the prescribed half-hour before checking for blood where the doe had stood, Squire found none. She didn't want to push the animal into the distance if she had wounded it, so she returned to her stand and remained still for two hours.

"That's when Betty came and helped me track," Squire said.

Soon the women came upon Squire's deer, thereby realizing her goal, stated at the August clinic, of becoming a more direct part of the food chain.

"The field dressing part was fine," Squire said. "It wasn't an icky thing. I viewed it as just part of the process. We left (the entrails) there for other animals to take care of, so they could be part of the food chain also."

Her goal now is to hunt with her 20-year-old daughter, and to create a hunting party of her own.

"The experience was challenging and rewarding, and I completed my mission," Squire said. "For me, I would put it right up there with graduation from John Harris Harrisburg High School, School, which is in the heart of the city. That was a tough challenge. I'd put it right up there with that."