A camo-clad pair of hunters slipped into the woods near Yaphank, N.Y., on Long Island, one Sunday this winter to position themselves before sunset, when white-tailed deer are most active. One carried pink arrows, and the other had a purple bow.
But the tree stand they planned to climb into was missing. It happens — the hunter’s equivalent of a stolen bike. So Jacqueline Molina and Marissa Estatio went on foot that day, stalking through the gray woods.
Traipsing through the forest was how Molina got her first buck, in November. The ground was wet, so she moved through the woods quietly, and suddenly saw the six-point buck. She froze, waiting for a clear shot, and when she took it, he ran. She found him in a thicket of vines and thorns. “He had passed,” she recalled. “It was very emotional.”
It’s a scene that is more and more common on this part of Long Island, where women are taking to the woods in part to deal with an exploding deer population.
Women, in fact, are the fastest-growing demographic in hunting; they now account for as much as 15 percent of hunters nationwide. In New York state, as in the rest of the country, the number of first-time adult male hunters declined by over 30 percent over the past 15 years, while the number of women hunting for the first time increased at roughly the same rate.
For Long Island, this spike in hunting by women comes at a time of need.
“Obviously there is a problem with deer overpopulation on Long Island,” state Assemblyman Fred Thiele said. “I’ve been in two deer-related accidents in three years, so I can speak personally to that one.”
In 2018, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced that 53,000 women in New York were now licensed to hunt, and that the agency would encourage the growing group with a program to recruit and train female hunters called BOW, Becoming an Outdoor Woman.
“We wanted to offer the same classes that everyone gets in New York state, with an all-women atmosphere,” said Katrina Talbot, a wildlife biologist with the department. “No judgment for asking questions, no competition, and shooting experience with women mentors.”
Brittany Dell, who works for the department on Long Island, is one of the women who teaches other women to hunt, the kind of hands-on instruction that was traditionally passed down from father to son. At 29, she has been a hunter for more than 15 years.
“The last deer I took was a 3½-year-old buck of around 200 pounds, and I was all by myself,” she said. “So after I field-dressed it, I was dragging it to the car and a trooper stopped. I guess he was surprised to see a woman dragging this mature buck to her car. It was pretty liberating to do that. He did help me get it into the trunk.”
Cara McBride was a 38-year-old mother of two when she began hunting three years ago. Married to a farmer’s son in rural Cutchogue, she took a bow and arrow and climbed into a tree stand when her 3-acre pumpkin patch was ruined by marauding deer.
Since then, she has killed seven deer, and the chest freezer in the kitchen behind a sliding barn door is full of backstraps, tenderloins, and a smoky venison kielbasa. McBride and her husband do their own butchering, and they use most every part. Her photographs of deer hang on every wall. The decor of their home would have to be described as modern antler.
McBride fell hard for deer hunting, which has become a meditative practice for her.
“I go by myself, drop the kids off at school, go to the grocery store, go to the tree stand,” she said. “I like sitting in the morning when my patience is fresh. It feels so good to be in the woods. It’s even better when I get to see a deer.”
There is probably no better place to see a deer than on Shelter Island, a 12-square-mile island in Peconic Bay between the North Fork and the South Fork of Long Island, reachable only by ferry, or in the case of deer, by swimming.
According to Beau Payne, the animal control officer on the island, the fall rut is when all hell breaks loose. With the wintertime human population down to 2,300, close to 1,200 deer wander into roadways, causing about a third of all vehicle accidents. The town’s Deer and Tick Committee has considered nonlethal measures, such as relocation and birth control, but the only practical way to deal with the population has been to encourage more people to hunt. Last year’s efforts culled more than 400 deer from the herd.
Part of the success of the Shelter Island hunt is its venison donation program, which ensures that the meat of any deer killed won’t go to waste. The program provides a walk-in cooler where hunters can store field-dressed deer for up to three days; venison butchers; and a freezer at the recycling center for the distribution of meat.
Jackie Arthur, herself a deer hunter, is paid by the town of Shelter Island to break down hundreds of field-dressed carcasses into roasts and steaks for free distribution to the community.
Arthur recently stood under a tarp in a light rain in her backyard, trimming fat from a doe as she described her evolution as a hunter. She grew up in a nonhunting family and didn’t even taste venison until she had dinner with the family of her fiancé, Max Pelletier, a Shelter Islander who taught her how to butcher as his father taught him.
“I’ve gotten really good at it; I’m pretty proud of myself,” she said. “I had never even thought of shooting an animal, let alone cutting one up.”