Let's Talk Turkey

The sun was just starting to drop behind Colorado's remote San Juan Mountains as Suzy Smith and Lynn Boquet prepared for the hunt. Decked out in camouflage, from skintight Lycra pants to face nets in which they could pass as Hamas guerrillas, the pair poured elk urine over their boots to mask the human scent. ("It's not Giorgio," shrugs Smith, "but it does the job.") They struck out for an 11,000-foot mesa where they had heard elk calls that morning. Along the way, Smith pointed to flattened grass where elk had bedded down . . . the mud wallow where a bull had lolled . . . spoor that told her she was getting closer. Then she went through her repertoire of elk calls: the forlorn moan of a lonely cow, the sharp call of a feisty teenage male, the testosterone-fueled blast of a bull seeking to expand his harem. From across a clearing, a bull answered. "You're communicating with them in their own language," Smith whispered, as she and Boquet hunkered down behind a spruce. "See that big brown butt sticking out from behind that tree?" Silently, the women nocked their arrows. Boquet circled around to line up a shot--just as the bull crashed away. "That to me was a successful hunt," said Smith, 88. "That's why they call it hunting rather than killing."

Once there were hunters and there were gatherers, and to be the former you needed a Y chromosome. But now hunters wear eyeliner and earrings, are retrofitting their rifles to accommodate their shorter arms and are demanding--and getting--"camo" designed for their plumbing. (Before the recent advent of drop-seat pants, women bad to either burst their bladders during a long stalk in the woods or risk hypothermia.) You can disparage them as Iron Janes, or as women who used to Run With the Wolves and are now shooting them. But none of the easy stereotypes fits these wilderness women. They are grandmothers and boomers and teens, mall developers and poets and nurses. Some hunted with their daddies; others got shooed to the kitchen when Daddy and Junior lit out after white tail. Some wax rhapsodic about their "reverence for nature" and spend hours with their dead prey "thinking about why it was there, where it lived, what it was doing--it's a spiritual thing," explains hunter and outdoors writer Laurie Lee Dovey, 42, of Alpharetta, Ga. Others delight in matching wits with nature and overcoming squeamishness. "When the moment comes," says Elizabeth Hickoff, who shot her first wild turkey last week, "you wonder, can you snap its neck?"

More and more women not only can, but want to. Counts of women hunters are as imprecise as a bird census in a fog, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that in 1991 there were 1.1 million (compared with 13 million men) and 9.9 million female anglers (compared with 25.7 million men). By now, both numbers may have doubled. The $14 billion hunting industry is fretting over its very survival in the face of urbanization and a growing animal-rights movement: one study suggests that if participation keeps declining at the current rate of 5 percent per decade, hunting will disappear within 50 years. So it's little wonder that the scent of new blood has hunting suppliers on point. One sponsor of training workshops for women, the Federal Cartridge Co., deals out free bullets, buying into the notion that killing is more acceptable if the finger that pulls the trigger wears nail polish. State wildlife departments, which get the bulk of their revenues from hunting and fishing licenses, view this new clientele as a way to refill coffers. For agencies used to dealing with only half of humanity, this means no small culture shift: when turkey hunter Hick-off got her hunting license from New York, in the box for "sex" she found a big fat "M." This year the Browning Corp., which makes 12 kinds of sporting shotguns, began selling a lighter, shorter version designed specifically for the smaller arms and hands of women. And Smith, who designs camo for women, finds that her special pee-in-the-woods pants are moving like rabbits in heat.

Many women view hunting as just another activity--like construction or running a corporation-that's too much fun to be left to men alone. The spread of wilderness workshops exclusively for women and girls capitalizes on that. The largest workshops, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW), are run by state fish and game departments, with sponsorship money anted up by ammo makers and others looking to capitalize on the distaff hunting market. BOW started in 1991 with one Wisconsin program; next year it will run 40, from Alaska to New York. Offshoots include programs for teenagers where instructors train the huntresses of tomorrow. You could find 20 of them sitting in the semicircle at the Outdoor Journey workshop for Iowa teens last August in Springbrook State Park, watching an instructor skin a pheasant. (A session in June on skinning rabbits didn't go down too well with teens who found them "so cute"; organizers switched to something more like chicken.) As Susan Hager, peeled off skin and feathers, getting the entrails stuck to her diamond engagement ring, a few of her ponytailed charges beat back queasy stomachs. But they all hunched forward to peer at the insides.

Over three days the girls baited hooks, cast lines and aimed .22-caliber rifles at paper targets, provided by the National Rifle Association, 50 yards away. Toni Orr, 14, gave the retreat the ultimate accolade-"better than going around selling Girl Scout cookies"-and parroted the message of the conservation workshop that "if the [animal] population wasn't controlled, they'd starve." Other girls spoke up for hunting "if it's for survival," as Becky Reinier, 15, said, "but I don't think it's right to kill for sport." But Anne Forburger, 15, couldn't wait to shoot a duck and mount it at the foot of her bed: "There's so many of them, it wouldn't really matter."

Animal-rights groups view these workshops as a stealth operation by the hunting industry to win over mothers so they will allow their children to hunt. "It's another way of using women," says Heidi Prescott of the animal-rights group The Fund for Animals. "Now that the hunting industry realizes the sport['s future] is questionable, they need women." Whatever the organizers' motive, the women don't feel used. Exhilarated is more like it. "It's such a high," says Laurie Lee Dovey about hunting. "It's more addictive than any drug." And many women who support hunting are happy to be cover girls for a still controversial sport. "I decided to run for the board [of the National Wild Turkey Federation] because of the anti-hunting movement," says Sherry Crumbley, 48, who has been hunting for eight years. "A genteel woman can persuade fence-sitters about this issue better than a man can." Partly toward that end, many of these latter-day Dianas put as much emphasis on the woman as on the hunter. Designer Smith says, "You'll rarely see me hunting without lipstick."

Today's huntresses, who can tell from tracks the sex of the elk that made them, know the wild as intimately as a modern Uncas. For them, the entire "wilderness experience" is transformed when, instead of hiking through a clearing breaking twigs and rustling leaves, they sit silently and motionless against an 80-foot hemlock, issuing turkey calls until a gobbler comes strutting into view. "To be a good turkey hunter you have to be so in tune with what's around you," says Crumbley. Melody Lyons, an instructor at hunting workshops in Kentucky, describes how her "favorite thing about hunting is when I get out there before daylight and watch the earth wake up. And then there's a bird chirping, and the crickets--it's like a symphony. And it doesn't have anything to do with a gun."

But that's a little disingenuous. If guns were irrelevant, the women would go out with a Leica rather than a Remington. Whatever the paeans to crickets, making the shot is the consummate expression of a wilderness woman's skill. "Every time I kill an animal I feel a roller coaster of emotions," says bowhunter Lynn Boquet, a registered nurse in Louisiana. "Remorse and respect and a sense of accomplishment." Crumbley describes "bonding with the animal" she killed. Chris Heeter, program director of Women in the Wilderness, which runs adventure travel programs for women, insists that "women desire to hunt respectfully. It's a way of finding sustenance, of finding something right in the cycle of nature." A clean kill closes that cycle.

A kill also tells women "if that ability, the ability to kill, is in you," explains Liz Hick-off. Hunting for only six months, she trekked through the second-growth forests of upstate New York last week in quest of a Thanksgiving turkey. Once Kelly and Tex, two specially bred hunting dogs, had scattered an unseen flock, Hickoff, her husband, Steve, and their guide Pete Clare of the hunting lodge Turkey Trot Acres set up under a stand of hemlocks. Having stowed the docile dogs in camo sleeping bags, Steve and Clare issued turkey tweets and hoots to attract the hens and young toms. Liz scanned the woods for the elusive birds she calls "the ghosts of the forest." After two hours and three setups, a turkey suddenly came into view. She tracked it with her eyes for more than five minutes, not daring to move her Remington into position for fear of spooking the keen-sighted bird. Finally it stepped behind a tree, where it couldn't see her--so she quickly raised her barrel. As soon as the bird emerged, she aimed between two saplings 15 yards away and felled him with a single shot.

Many women disparage the stuff-it-and-mount-it school of hunting. They make a point--in fact, almost a religion--of using any animal they kill. "This is not about trophy hunting," says Dovey. Suzy Smith gets her kill turned into elk steaks and burgers and sausage; she tans the hide for gloves or chaps. Jennifer Sells, an Iowa game warden, says, "I feel more of a connection with my dinner if I hunt it rather than buy it at the store." And virtually all the women ask how critics dare denounce hunters when every nonvegetarian gets meat by having others do the killing.

Although some hunting clubs still bar women, many men welcome them into the fold. Gloria Baker, 42, says her husband now buys her guns for presents. Do women hunt differently than men? "Maybe women stop and smell the roses a little more," says Suzy Smith as she gathers chanterelles under a pine tree in the San Juans, her elk long since vanished. Would a man stoop to gathering while hunting? "My boyfriend would," she says. "But then again, I taught him to hunt."