Misty Stoll remembers the ambivalence she once felt about hunting. Stoll, 31, grew up in a family that didn't hunt, but her husband does and three years ago she decided to give the sport a try.
"It's a little unnerving because I wasn't quite sure what to expect," Stoll said as she sat in a deer blind about 40 minutes from Moorhead on a recent October afternoon, her pink camouflage hunting bow beside her.
She wondered how she'd handle the prospect of actually shooting something: "Will there be excitement or was I going to fall apart and feel horrible?""
The first season she hunted, she shot a deer with a muzzle loader rifle and was hooked.
"I kind of felt a little bad afterwards but then once we got up and seen the deer and realized that you know it was a nice big buck, it was like, 'OK this is good, I can do this, this is fun,'" Stoll said.
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In general, participation in hunting is trending downward. The greatest dropoff in hunter participation is in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
But the number of women who hunt is rising: Nearly 70,000 of Minnesota's 550,000 hunters are women, the DNR said, up from 51,000 in 2000 and 55,000 in 2010.
While being outdoors might be the biggest attraction to hunting for Stoll, she likes the idea of providing meat for her family.
She sometimes brings her 6-year-old son along to sit in the blind, and her husband hunts nearby in a tree stand. She prefers hunting deer with a bow rather than a rifle because it's more challenging and an excuse to spend more time outdoors.
She also hunts turkeys, ducks and geese, although she skipped waterfowl hunting this fall because she's pregnant and morning sickness didn't go well with early mornings in a duck blind.
One recent day, Stoll headed home in the darkness after sitting quietly in the blind for more than four hours without spotting a single deer, already planning to do it again tomorrow.
Stoll shot a deer a few days later.
Mackenzie Green got her deer in mid-October. The 24-year-old grew up in a hunting family in rural Clay County and she relishes time spent in the woods.
"It's like when I step into the woods I'm in a different zone," said Green. "All the distractions of the real world are gone. It's just you and your thoughts and things around you. That's what I love about it."
Green almost had to skip this deer season. Rheumatoid arthritis made it hard to pull and hold her bow. But she got a permit for a crossbow which is less physically demanding to use. Despite her years of hunting experience shooting a deer is never a routine experience.
"I was shaking like a leaf. I mean I could not keep my composure to even text or call anyone," recalled Green, emotion straining her voice as she described this year's successful hunt.
"I was very adrenaline amped up, it was a lot of hard work and I was proud," she said. "My sister had been hunting the same property that I had been on and so I eventually just walked over to her and we shared a celebration."
Green says a few years ago she couldn't find hunting equipment designed for a woman. Now she sees more women buying gear that fits them and taking up hunting.
"The bright spot for our license sales are women hunters," said Linda Bylander, who runs the Becoming An Outdoors Woman program for the DNR.
The metro and counties just to the north have seen the number of active hunters decline at rates three times greater than in northern Minnesota.
But getting more women to hunt pays dividends for the DNR's hunter recruitment efforts, Bylander said.
"Getting women to learn how to hunt is trickling down to now they're introducing their children to these sports," said Bylander.
She thinks DNR training and outreach programs like Becoming An Outdoors Woman are part of the reason for the growing interest among women. But she says there are other reasons. She says more women are interested in using wild game as part of the local food movement, and retailers are now marketing clothing and hunting gear designed for women.
And women are good at mentoring other women.
"The social connections are huge and I have a ton of stories about women who meet other women and continue the sports after going through these skill workshops that we offer," said Bylander, who sees all signs pointing to continued growth in the number of women who choose to hunt.