Last week, a self-described "diehard waiting on the big old buck" reassured his modest Twitter following: "Keep calm, deer season is almost here."
The advice may have been intended for men, but the biggest response came from a woman: Eva Shockey's retweet to her more than 39,000 followers.
A Canadian who identifies herself as a professional hunter, Ms. Shockey travels the world as co-host, with her Vancouver-based father, of Jim Shockey's Hunting Adventures, a wildly successful staple of the Outdoor Channel.
At 26, Ms. Shockey is being touted as the "new queen of hunting." Along with the Twitter throng, she has more than 600,000 "likes" on Facebook. Even the sporting man's bible, Field & Stream, recently declared her a "rising star," putting her photo on its cover – just the second such appearance by a woman in the magazine's 119-year history. (The first? The Queen almost four decades ago.)
F&S focused on Ms. Shockey's passion for hunting with a bow rather than bullets – a hot trend, especially since The Hunger Games. But when asked to predict the "next big thing" outdoors, she didn't reach for the latest high-tech arrow.
"Women are," she replied. "Compared to just last year, the number of women I meet – young girls, teenagers, moms with babies, older women – who tell me they hunt, or are taking up hunting, is incredible."
She has a case. It is partly because of women that hunting is on the rise again after decades of decline. In 2011, according to a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, their numbers were up 36 per cent from 1991 – versus a corresponding drop of 6 per cent in male hunters.
If anything, the trend is even stronger in Canada. The number of women hunters in Alberta almost doubled between 2006 and last year, while in Ontario it has risen 70 per cent in the past four years and in B.C. by 62 per cent between 2003 and 2012. Last year, enrolment in Saskatchewan's mandatory hunter-education course rose by more than half over 2012, with women accounting for more than one-third of all students.
This year three Canadians reached the semi-finals of Extreme Huntress, a TV competition for women around the world that began in 2010, about the time Ms. Shockey says she noticed that women's participation had "just gone crazy."
'It's an ethical decision'
Last fall, Jenna Gall took a break from her studies in the Okanagan Valley and went home to Saskatchewan for a few days. She didn't go back to school empty-handed – her suitcase held almost 25 kilos of frozen venison.
An experienced hunter at 22, Ms. Gall bagged a handsome white-tailed deer in the first hour of what was supposed to be four days in the field with her father, who farms near Montmartre, an hour east of Regina.
The two spotted the buck shortly after dawn. Heart pounding, Ms. Gall sat down to steady herself and then, as the deer ran off across the snow and wheat stubble, took the toughest shot of her life. He went down right away.
She has gone on hunts since she was 7, but Ms. Gall remains something of a novelty to her friends, many of them amazed to learn that she not only eats wild game regularly but is willing to go out and get it.
And many women are trying to emulate her: Kelly Semple is executive director of the Hunting for Tomorrow Foundation, an Edmonton-based coalition of outdoors organizations that has long run an annual training program specifically for women. What began as a day and half of instruction for a class of 20 ran for five days this month, with registration cut off at 200 people four months ago.
Ms. Shockey says that, in her grandfather's day, women wouldn't dare go out and shoot a deer for the dinner table. "Now, any woman anywhere can do it."
But why, in the age of environmentalism and wildlife conservation, do women want to?
With a pierced lip and a slash of bright red in her hair, Sam Pauzé hardly looks like a typical "sportsman." Yet on a Sunday morning she is one of four women in a class of about 30 taking a course at the Buckeye Firearms and Hunter Training Cabin northeast of Toronto.
The setting is suitably rustic: An imposing stuffed moose head overlooks the classroom, camouflage fabric covers the windows, and the tables are made of plywood and two-by-fours. There is also just one washroom. So when lineups begin to form, instructor Tom Ott invites those able to find relief standing up to visit the great outdoors.
"It's kind of a man's world," the 23-year-old Ms. Pauzé concedes, but then adds: "It's uplifting to be part of it, to be self-sufficient."
Classmate Jessica Wright, 23, is no less aware of being a trailblazer. "I've always wanted to do this," she says. "People see girls and they say: 'You can't hunt.' "
That's hard to say about Ms. Shockey, praised by many in the hunting community both for serving as a role model and for making the sport chic.
But she admits that even she "didn't really have the hunting bug, naturally." It was only under the tutelage of her famous father that she eventually came to hunting – as an ethical way to put meat on the table.
She is not the only woman put off by how commercially raised livestock are treated, says Dylan Eyers, who runs EatWild, a Vancouver company that preaches the virtues of game in the diet and teaches everything from how to hunt to what to do with what they kill.
"It's an ethical decision."
Ms. Shockey also opposes the commercial use of chemicals and growth hormones, and says it makes more sense to eat an animal that has lived a healthy, maybe happy life in the wild.
This school of thought certainly includes the deer-stalking Ms. Gall, who is thoroughly green, given her freshly minted honours degree in environmental and earth studies from UBC Okanagan in Kelowna.
In fact, if she didn't hunt, "I likely would be vegetarian. … I don't agree with eating meat if I don't know where it's coming from."
Dick Ott, who runs the Buckeye Cabin with brother Tom, says that, a few years ago, a female student had a bowl of the wild game stew on offer during a class and told him it was the first meat she had eaten in six years.
"You can't get much more organic than wild meat," he contends.
Well, not quite: Studies show that wild game has about one-third fewer calories than even lean cuts of commercial meat and is lower in cholesterol, but health experts point out that wild meat isn't necessarily organic if, for example, deer have fed on pesticide-treated grain and that eating game taken with buckshot can elevate levels of lead in the bloodstream.
Also, wild deer, elk and moose in parts of the U.S., Alberta and Saskatchewan can carry chronic wasting disease, a brain-destroying condition that is fatal and thought to have originated on game farms. There is no evidence it can jump to humans but health officials warn against eating suspect animals.
Some women's attachment to hunting runs deeper than diet, though – it's a meditation on living off the land: If they don't farm it or hunt it, they don't eat it.
Ms. Semple of Hunting for Tomorrow calls self-sufficiency "a big motivator," adding that "women are confident. They're not dependent on anyone. They're very empowered."
For all its revived popularity, hunting remains controversial, with detractors especially irate at anyone who does it for trophies or the thrill of the kill.
For some, the idea of a woman hunting seems to trigger an almost primal response, as demonstrated by some of the comments posted on Ms. Shockey's Facebook page.
Given that they are expected to be "more supporting, nurturing, caring," says Lauren Everall, a 30-year-old B.C. hunter, "maybe seeing women hunt brings up some deep-seated shock … maybe it's seen as more violent than when men do it."
EatWild's Mr. Eyers says that a few years ago a woman featured in a local newspaper story about urban hunters was stalked by angry people on social media.
He says he is careful when marketing his company to steer clear of images of guns and dead animals, instead emphasizing the adventures and good food to be had.
Tom Ott warns his Buckeye class not to flaunt what they shoot, reminding them that Ontario cancelled its spring bear hunt in 1999 after a public outcry. When the hunt returned this year as a pilot project, irate animal-rights activists tried to stop it again in court.
"If it's all about the bloodsport," he says, "that's quite a negative image. The way we present ourselves makes a big difference."
Ms. Everall says choosing what to eat is highly political, no matter what you decide. She spent 10 years defending the fact she was a vegetarian and now must do the same for hunting, which she still doesn't support fully.
"I'm exploring it as an option," she says. "We humans, we're animals. We need to consume something."