Courtney Smith, perhaps better known as “Sportswoman Courtney” on social media, was exposed to hunting at a young age. When her father and uncles went hunting Courtney eagerly awaited their return. She didn’t mind getting her hands dirty—she’d even work alongside her male family members plucking waterfowl and dressing game. But despite her interest, none of her family members invited Courtney to join them on the hunt.
“It was a different time, I think,” she says. “They weren’t purposely ignoring me. I just don’t think that they expected me—a girl—to want to hunt. At that time it was still very much a man’s sport.”
As she grew up Courtney’s interests changed. Falls were spent cheerleading, so she was no longer waiting when her father and uncles returned from a hunt. In high school and college she forgot how she felt when her male family members returned after a successful hunt. Courtney had no problem with hunting or hunters per se, but she never assumed that she would go to the field herself.
That changed when Courtney met her husband Caleb. Like Courtney, Caleb had an interest in hunting but little experience in the field. His desire to learn to hunt prompted Courtney to join him, and by the time that they were married both Caleb and Courtney were so dedicated to the sport that they set aside some time on their honeymoon in Maui for a hunt. Caleb was successful, but Courtney’s experience didn’t go so well.
“It was the last day of our honeymoon and I was hunting axis deer. The weather was not in my favor, 50-mph winds and rain made the spot-and-stalk dangerous and challenging. After hours of trying to get an axis in sight, the weather cleared and I had an opportunity on a good buck standing broadside. Followed by miscommunication between myself and my guide, ultimately resulting in no shot fired.”
Long seconds passed. Courtney was waiting for the all-clear, her guide was sitting close by with his ears plugged waiting for her to shoot, and Caleb was sat behind them filming the hunt and wondering why on earth Courtney wasn’t shooting. Soon the axis buck dropped out of sight in a ravine, and Courtney missed her only opportunity on that hunt.
“I was devastated. I cried. I knew that I could have made the shot, and I should have taken it.”
That might have been enough to discourage many hunters, but not Courtney. Instead, that was the moment a switch was flipped and her passion for hunting rose to a more serious level. She visited her local archery shop, purchased a bow, and eventually began shooting in local matches. Over time she became more comfortable in the field, and eventually she wanted to share her story with others. Courtney believed that her story would resonate with other new hunters—particularly women—who wanted to hone their craft.
Over the course of the three years that followed her failed axis hunt in Hawaii, Courtney went from a rookie hunter to one of the most prominent ambassadors for the sport. She currently has over 100,000 Instagram followers with whom she shares her stories, and she hopes that she can encourage others to give the sport a try. But Caleb and Courtney are the minority. Statistics show that most of the 15 million hunters in America were introduced to the sport by family members as children, and a relatively small percentage of hunters came to the sport later in life without the guidance of a close friend or family member.
If you’ve never hunted and don’t have a coach to help guide you through the process it can be difficult to break into the sport. I have a good friend who had never hunted and, in his mid-thirties, accompanied me on his first whitetail hunt on his family farm in Ohio. In less than a decade he’s become an accomplished and passionate hunter, tagging several great bucks on that same piece of land. Late last summer when another friend overheard me describing a recent hunting trip he began asking basic questions about the sport. Where do you buy a tag and license? What type of gun do you need to hunt? What happens to the meat? I agreed to take him on his first rabbit hunt, which is scheduled for later this month.
For years the impetus behind bringing new hunters to the fold has been encouraging kids—usually family members—to tag along with seasoned relatives. But in the two cases described above, and with Courtney and Caleb, no family member had taken them hunting as a child. The opportunity to introduce new participants to the sport could have been lost, and that’s a blow to hunting and conservation initiatives. To help spread the word regarding the benefits of hunting, to support conservation initiatives that the sport funds, and to protect our legacy from legislation aimed at stripping away our rights we all need to do our part to encourage new hunters to participate.
“There are a lot of people who would love to hunt,” Courtney says. “They just don’t know how.”
With access to social media sites and online hunter education programs it’s never been easier for non-hunters to learn about the sport. But that won’t replace a grassroots initiative by America’s hunters to reach out and find people to take to the field. Experiencing a hunt first-hand is one of the best ways to encourage participation or at least help non-hunters understand that the sport is beneficial to wildlife. This, then, should serve as a call to action for hunters to help educate others about the many rewards the sport offers. Ultimately, sharing our time in the field with new hunters will help counteract the inaccurate and hostile messages generated by anti-hunting groups.