On Martha’s Vineyard, women embraced by hunting’s bonds

Julie Crocker of Edgartown got to go hunting with her dad and took her first goose. — Photo by John Crocker

Eons ago, when men grew hair for warmth, not fashion, and their chief responsibility was to hunt game with a spear or bow to put meat on the slab, women were expected to remain at home to tend the cooking fire and raise kids. Hunting was an activity that determined survival, and it was a man’s world.

Nowadays, when the feeblest spear thrower among us can purchase a steak nicely trimmed and wrapped in plastic and so large it might have come from a mastodon, people still hunt to put food on the table, but the chief motivation is recreation — and it is no longer a man’s world. Increasingly, on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere across the country, women are discovering the fun, excitement, and value of the hunting lifestyle. For many, the introduction to hunting often begins with a boyfriend, husband, or, in the case of 13-year-old Julia Crocker, an eighth grader at the Edgartown School who shot her first goose this season, her father.

Best experience ever

Julia’s dad, John Crocker, assistant Tisbury harbormaster, is an avid hunter. Originally from southern Connecticut, he moved to the Vineyard more than 20 years ago. Julia and her brother often accompanied him on hunting trips and were familiar with weapons but had never shot an animal. In December, her dad took Julia’s twin brother to South Carolina deer hunting. The plan, he said, was to take Julia next year, but she did not want to wait.

“My dad had always done it, so it’s always been part of my lifestyle,” Julia said about hunting. “My brother went deer hunting in South Carolina, so I wanted to go and hunt too, because he had a really good time and I wanted to try it.”

Her dad made a plan for January 11, the last day of the season. “The evening before the hunt,” John said, “I handed her a 20 gauge, double barrel gun. We discussed how to check to see if it was loaded and how to load it. We discussed how the safety worked, and reviewed the rules for safe gun handling.”

The next morning they arrived at the field by 6:15 am. “We talked about the birds needing to land and takeoff into the wind, and the proper configuration of the decoys and where to put the blinds,” John said. Julia helped set up the decoys and ground blinds.

John called in some geese. Her dad told her to sit up in the blind and shoot the nearest bird, but she waited a little too long and missed. A few minutes later, two birds flew into the decoys. Julia sat up in the blind, aimed and shot the first bird.

“My dad was calling the geese and they came right over,” Julia said. “I was kind of surprised. It was really exciting.”

Dad and daughter celebrated her first goose. “She was so proud and happy, but not as much as the old man,” John said. “This was one of the best experiences ever. Julia and I will never forget it.”

Several days later, dinner was goose breast. “It was okay,” Julia said, revealing less enthusiasm for the end result.

Asked if she would continue to hunt, however,  Julia said, “Definitely,”

Beyond excited

In modern media, Martha’s Vineyard is generally associated with celebrity vacations and rampaging white sharks, not deer hunting — unless hitting a deer with a Lexus while returning from Lucy Vincent Beach qualifies. But once seasonal homes are shuttered, a dedicated fraternity of Islanders turn their attention to the Vineyard’s sizable deer herd. Traditionally, the six-week Massachusetts archery season begins mid-October, just about the time the famed Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, the Island’s all consuming month-long fishing contest, concludes. The two-week shotgun season follows and the two and a half week muzzleloader season ends on December 31.

In the deer gun season just past, Elizabeth Elwell, a Chilmark police officer, traded her uniform for camouflage and went into the woods at every opportunity.

“I just love being outdoors,” Liz, said about her interest in hunting, which began with her husband, Matt Gebo, a West Tisbury police officer and avid hunter. “It was something to get me outside. I never, ever thought I would enjoy it, but once I got out there, I did really enjoy it and I really got into it.”

Liz, 26, and Matt live in West Tisbury. Liz grew up in Reading, Connecticut in a household with no connection to hunting or weapons. “I didn’t know anyone who hunted growing up, so it was all a new experience for me,” she said.

The notion that she can harvest what she eats is a source of pride. “When I shot my first deer it was really rewarding to fill up my freezer with my own food that I didn’t buy, that I knew where it came from,” Liz said. “It was something I had never done before.”

She shot her first deer in the 2012 season under the tutelage of Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi, an experienced hunter and expert shot. Armed with his scoped Savage 20 gauge bolt action slug gun, a weapon with a reputation for accuracy, she climbed up on the limb of a tree overlooking a field in Chilmark.

“It was about 20 minutes before sunset and it was getting dark and all of a sudden a doe walked out into the field, and it was about 100 yards away,” Liz said. “And I got it right in the back and it went down right away. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe that I shot it from that far away and up in a tree. It was the first day I had ever been hunting and I was beyond excited.”

This past season, she and Matt went hunting together, often taking stands in different spots. One evening, she heard Matt shoot. It was almost just as rewarding to hear him shoot and know that he had gotten a deer, she said.

But that magnanimity only goes so far. “When you go out, and it’s 5 am and you’re waiting for it to get light out and finally it’s light and you hear the first shot and it’s not you. it’s a little disappointing,” she said.

Married in April 2012, Liz said it is fun to share a sport with her husband. But as with most hunters, there is a degree of competition.

“He got a deer this year and I got two, and we’ve been eating venison a lot,” she said. “And it’s nice to fill our freezer with something we got ourselves and we cut up ourselves.”

Called on the fact that she managed to slip her husband’s tally and her tally into the conversation, Liz said emphatically, “Yes.”

A good first season

Phoenix Russell, 24, of Tisbury makes wampum jewelry and is a massage therapist for horses and people (I asked — she prefers horses). Over the hunting season that just ended, Phoenix shot deer during the bow, shotgun, and muzzleloader seasons for a season-long harvest of four — a total that any veteran Island hunter would envy.

Her interest in shooting deer began with Joe Rogers of Oak Bluffs, an avid fisherman and hunter. “I started dating Joe and it was Derby time, and of course, the day after the Derby ends hunting season begins,” she said.

Their dates took on a distinctly Island character. Joe bought Phoenix a camouflage coat and she joined him in a double tree stand during the 2012 bow season. She sat still as a stone as a doe walked within range, then walked out of range and returned once more when Joe shot it.

“It was really, really, really intense,” Phoenix said of that first experience. She helped Joe gut the deer and drag it out of the woods. “I enjoyed that whole process,” she said. The rest of the season was spent sitting with Joe without a weapon and gaining the experience she would need to take her first deer.

In March, Joe bought her a bow — a Bear Archery women’s model named the “Homewrecker.” Phoenix bought bright pink arrows and began practicing. That spring she took a  Division of Fisheries and Wildlife hunter safety course provided at the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club, a prerequisite for a hunting license.

Every good hunter knows that patience, and the ability to sit quietly in the woods hour after hour is critical to success. “The first three weeks of archery, I didn’t get anything,” Phoenix said. “It was frustrating. I wanted to give up a hundred times, but I didn’t until that one morning, I was sitting in my stand, it was raining and a doe came out of nowhere. I didn’t hesitate and set my pink arrow into her.”

The deer ran off. Phoenix felt her heart sink and she was unsure what to do, so she decided to consult with the many people who had offered her advice, using a technology that Natty Bumpo could not have dreamed about. “I sent like a million text messages out to everybody letting them know that I had just shot one,” she said. “And everybody said, get out of your tree stand and go to work. Don’t go look for her.”

Experienced hunters know that in most cases, a deer shot with an arrow and not pursued will quickly lie down and die. How close and how soon depends on the quality of the shot. “As much as I wanted to go after her, I got down out of my tree stand and went to work for three hours,” Phoenix said.

The rain had started to fall and she was concerned that any blood trail would disappear. She returned with three older men, all experienced hunters who knew how to track a deer and were happy to help a novice. Within 20 minutes, she heard Roy Hope call her name. The doe had traveled less than 30 yards from where she shot it.

She was elated. She had shot her first deer by herself. And in a ritual as old as hunting itself, the men offered advice but left it to Phoenix to clean the deer and drag it out of the woods on her own. “Which I totally appreciated,” Phoenix said.

As the season continued, she shot her first buck with a classic American shotgun, a 20 gauge Remington 870 pump she had bought that fall, and doubled up with two does in one day with a muzzleloader.

“So I think I had a good first season,” Phoenix said with a laugh.

Last Saturday, Joe and Phoenix ground 80 pounds of cubed venison. “Watching the meat I harvested be ground into burger was a proud life moment,” she said.

Asked what she would say to other women considering the sport, Phoenix said, “Do it. Because it’s something to be passionate about. It’s healthy, it’s active, it gets your heart going, and there’s absolutely nothing better in the world than sitting in the woods. Even if you don’t even see a deer, there’s something absolutely amazing about going into the woods.”

She added, “I think the deer hunting community on Martha’s Vineyard is really amazing, and it is really something to be part of.  I couldn’t have done much without their support.”