Published November 08, 2012, 11:40 PM

'The girl who hunts' | More women enjoying hunting as pastime

MOORHEAD - Rachel Leitch of Moorhead can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a hunter. Since she could walk, Leitch’s dad took her to the deer stand each hunting season. “Everyone knows me as the girl who hunts,” the 16-year-old said.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

MOORHEAD - Rachel Leitch of Moorhead can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a hunter.

Since she could walk, Leitch’s dad took her to the deer stand each hunting season.

“Everyone knows me as the girl who hunts,” the 16-year-old said.

Hunting, often seen as a men’s hobby, is a popular pastime for many women.

According to North Dakota Game and Fish, 13 percent of license applicants this year were women. Minnesota numbers were not immediately available.

There are 2.1 million female hunters 18 years and older in the U.S., according to a 2006 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the most current numbers available.

Leitch lives on the Red River in north Moorhead and does a lot of hunting within walking distance of her home, she said.

In addition to hunting deer and fowl locally, Leitch has been boar hunting in Texas, antelope hunting in Montana, and bear hunting in Minnesota. She hunts both with a bow and rifle, depending on the animal, she said.

“Nowadays most kids my age are playing video games and partying,” she said. “Hunting is so different. It keeps me in touch with nature. I love everything about being outside, and I always have.”

Several area women said they enjoy hunting for the opportunity it gives them to spend time outside and bond with those in their hunting party.

Annie Thorson of Fargo started hunting 12 years ago with her dad when her youngest brother left the house.

“He always wanted me to and then finally I showed interest so he was pretty excited to get me involved with it,” said the 28-year-old. “I’ve always felt a connection to the outdoors and nature. It’s really just a great time to reflect. It’s also a time to deepen relationships with family and friends.”

Molly Stenstrom of Fargo started duck and goose hunting when she was a freshman in college.

“It’s a huge family hobby,” Stenstrom said, adding that her grandpa, dad, cousins and boyfriend all hunt.

The 23-year-old said her dad always tells her she doesn’t have to hunt, but she thinks he’s glad he can share the pastime with her and her sister.

“It’s a very sociable hobby,” Stenstrom said. “It’s a group setting and it’s enjoyable. It’s not about how many ducks you get, it’s about the memories we make there. We have so much fun.”

Despite the many women who hunt, the sport still has a way to go before it’s commonly accepted as a female hobby.

When Leitch goes to a sporting goods store to fix her bow, the sales staff always asks to help her dad, brother or boyfriend instead of her, she said.

Leitch said it’s also annoying that female hunting garb often comes in pink instead of camouflage.

Thorson said she sometimes has to buy men’s hunting clothes.

“I’ve been frustrated with the supplies that local stores have for women, especially clothing,” Thorson said.

New adventures

While many women hunt ducks or deer, some – like 25-year-old Ashley Engkjer of Fargo – have hunted bigger game like leopards and Cape buffalo.

Engkjer became a hunter at age 12 or 13. She went on a monthlong African safari in October 2011 with her father and uncle where, with the help of local guides, she hunted animals like Eeland, kudu, zebra, leopards and Cape buffalo.

She said the leopard and Cape buffalo are among the deadliest animals to hunt because when shot, their instinct is to charge.

The leopard hunt was a scary experience, Engkjer said. She was in a blind of sticks and leaves and the leopard didn’t come out until evening. After hours of waiting, she heard the its dominance call.

“I kept hearing it get closer, which is really scary,” Engkjer said. “The whole time I was hearing stuff moving all around me, animals moving from tree to tree. It’s an adventure. You get the rush from it being scary and thrilling.”

Engkjer said hunting Cape buffalo posed a new challenge. The animal’s sense of smell makes it difficult to sneak up on a herd.

“There were many times I was rolling around on hot sand or prickly branches. I was on my hands and knees and we would literally crawl for half a mile,” she says.

Afterward, the meat from the animals they shot went to the people who lived in the area, she said.

“You’d see people crying,” Engkjer said. “A lot of their survival depends on people like us going over there, hunting and providing for them. Nothing goes to waste. They’re so appreciative.”

Closer to home, Engkjer hunts deer with a rifle and bow. She has also hunted bear in Minnesota and Canada.

“It’s a passion of mine, and it’s fun,” Engkjer said. “It brings us together as a family. It’s really a bonding experience.”

Sometimes dangerous

As fun as hunting can be, it can also be dangerous.

During Minnesota’s firearm deer hunting opener Saturday, 64-year-old Don Bixby of Bemidji was struck and killed by a bullet from another hunter.

Roughly 100 people die nationwide in hunting accidents each year, according to the National Safety Council, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources points out that far more people are injured while bicycling or playing baseball than while hunting.

Two years ago, 22-year-old Amber Flaten of Portland, N.D., her twin sister Amy Austin and their friend, Alli Roller, had a terrifying experience when they went bow hunting while their partners were at a bachelor party.

The women were sitting in a ground blind and hadn’t seen anything all day. It was getting dark and they were about to leave when Austin spotted a mountain lion with two cubs in a tree about 60 yards away.

They tried calling for help on their cell phones, but no one believed them until Roller text messaged her mother-in-law asking her to call 9-1-1.

“We were ready to shoot them if they came at us,” Austin said. “We were all prepared, but Alli’s father-in-law got there soon enough and made a lot of noise and it scared them off.”

The women haven’t hunted on their own since their scare, and Roller said she makes her husband carry a pistol for protection whenever they hunt.

But the women all still say hunting is a good pastime.

“We live in rural North Dakota, and there’s not much to offer out here,” Flaten said. “Hunting gives us something to do, gets us outside and is more active than sitting in the house.”

Most of the women interviewed said they didn’t have feelings of guilt for killing the animals they hunt, but some of their friends question how they can do it.

“Hunting is kind of a controversial issue,” Engkjer said. “It’s kind of like the circle of life. Deer would be overpopulated if we didn’t manage them. I feel like hunters have just as much, if not more of an appreciation for animal life. I would never take a shot if I couldn’t place a good shot. I spend hours and hours at ranges so I know I don’t wound an animal. It’s not running away hurting or in pain.”

“We were born and created to live off of the land,” Thorson said. “To me, that’s just the facts of life. For some people, it is hard for them.”

Leitch, who also guts her own animals, said she did feel guilty when she first shot a wild boar. She was 9 at the time.

“I realized that hunters are the ones saving our animal populations,” Leitch said. “If we didn’t have hunters, there wouldn’t be that money going to help conserve our natural areas.”