On a cool April evening at the Metro Gun Club in Blaine, Kaozong Lee steps forward with her 20-gauge shotgun to shoot clay targets. Clusters of men and boys wait to shoot. Because they're stacking up, Lee plans to take just five shots. Five times she yells pull, and each time a target moves out like a rocket across the spring sky. She cracks each of them into pieces.
"I thought it was good," she says, beaming at her husband and hunting buddy, Her Thao. This is the first time she's used her gun since last fall. Now she's preparing for the next hunt.
The young woman didn't always share her husband's love of hunting. Tagging along on Thao's hunts with his guy friends, she often fell asleep as they scoured the landscape near Winona for squirrels. "I was just sitting there waiting for nothing," she recalls.
Then Thao bought her a 12-gauge shotgun. When she used it for the first time in 2008 to hunt ducks in Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, the recoil knocked her back into the cattails and down into the water. Hunting success eluded Lee.
"When I started, they just handed me a gun and said OK, let's go hunting," she says. "They didn't teach you about habitat or anything else. They didn't have the patience or time to teach."
Lee searched for some instruction. The following year she found a mentored pheasant hunt just for women, part of a program called Becoming an Outdoors-Woman in Minnesota. On a hunt with a BOW mentor, she shot her first two pheasants. On a second mentored hunt, she shot two more. She learned to call for geese and hunt for waterfowl. She traded her 12-gauge shotgun for the easier-to-handle 20 gauge and began to learn the nuances of the field. Last year she participated in the BOW archery series and a mentored turkey hunt, killing her first turkey.
Run by the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota's BOW program took shape in 1994 under the direction of the late Fish and Wildlife director Roger Holmes. The following year about 100 women arrived at Gunflint Lodge in northeastern Minnesota for the first weekend workshop. BOW marks its 20th anniversary this year with annual participation by 1,500 women and more than 100 hands-on workshops and clinics for women and families. The classes, which sometimes fill to waiting lists, are taught by 90 volunteers passionate about such outdoor pursuits as hunting, fly-fishing, angling, and archery.
BOW aims to provide a noncompetitive environment for women to develop outdoor skills in traditionally male-dominated sports. Many women bring a basic knowledge but lack confidence, says Linda Bylander, Minnesota BOW coordinator since 2004. "They need that easy entry into the outdoors." Some have passion but need a network of hunting and fishing buddies. Some simply want to learn a new outdoor sport.
Beginning archery is a popular three-part course. At the second class at an indoor shooting range, women test compound bows set for their strength and size. Instructors Deb Luzinski and Marlene Odahlen-Hinz, both veteran bowhunters, advise the women on form, the proper way to hold the bow, and how to aim at targets. A graduate student studying ecology says she wants to immerse herself in the culture of hunting. A mother and daughter duo is looking for a hobby. A few got a taste of archery back in high school gym class and want to reconnect.
Jessica Chute of Rochester wants to go on hunts with her guy friends and not be left out. "Hunting is an intimidating sport," she says. "When you're with a bunch of guys it just becomes a testosterone fest. It's nice to come here and not have the pressure of that."
A month later at a bowhunting club, the women in the third class of the series are getting ready to shoot at 3-D targets scattered throughout the woods.
"I don't want to do this now," says Cassie Faust, a kindergarten teacher from Minnetonka. Luzinski checks Faust's eye dominance to find out whether she has a visual preference for her right or left eye. She gets a left-handed bow. Then Faust gets up her courage and steps to the shooting line at the indoor range.
Faust wonders: Do I aim for the mountain goat or the cardboard in back of it? Am I supposed to close one of my eyes? A mentor, Mike Lundin, guides her through the process, positioning her arms, hands, and fingers and telling her how to aim and how to stand. "What you want to do when you're drawing back is try to touch your shoulder blades together," he says. She takes her first shot.
Faust says she has no plans to bowhunt in the future. By the time the mentored turkey hunt rolls around in May, only about half of the women who started the archery series will take part.
"I started out exactly the same way with an interest in target shooting," says Odahlen-Hinz. "But it didn't take me long before I said, you know, I want to hunt."
With their mentors—experienced volunteers—the 18 women break into small groups. They shoot at replicas of big bucks, wild boars, turkeys, elk, and bears on a Saturday afternoon in the hilly, forested terrain. Faust's shots get better. Soon she's hitting her target, sometimes striking inside the circle around a vital organ—a likely kill if it were the real thing.
Magic of Mentors
The success of BOW revolves around volunteer mentors. In the fall of 2011, Katrina Wood tried archery hunting on her own. She took a stool, three broadhead arrows, and a bow to Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman.
"Hey, I'm new to hunting," she said to the first hunter she saw. "Where do I go?"
Walk around until you find a spot you like, he told her.
"I had no camo, no blind, no stand. I had no clue," she recalls. "I did everything you could possibly do wrong—but I went out. I wanted to experience it."
All day she sat on her stool in a clearing. "I never took a shot," says Wood. She had limited field experience. That winter she worked on her aim indoors. In her apartment in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, she practiced a 13-yard shot, from an office chair in her living room to a target on her bedroom wall. For months she practiced the same shot. Eventually the arrows went through the target and into the wall.
A career of competitive sports in high school and later at Carleton College was behind her, and she was searching for a new sport. As a girl growing up in Duluth, she armed herself with a bow and arrows fashioned from sticks, twine, and wooden dowels. She sat in her backyard fort and waited for deer. "The boys in school would go grouse hunting for the first time and then deer hunting. And I thought, that sounds really fun," she says. "As I grew up, I just grew quieter about it."
Quiet, perhaps, but the desire never went away. Then she found the BOW program. Perfect, she thought: "They'll teach you how to do it." She learned strategy and consumed every nibble of information from instructors like Don Buckentin. He offered to take her on a turkey hunt.
One early May evening several years ago, Wood and Buckentin set up a ground blind on the edge of a corn field in Stillwater. As dusk crept in, a big tom turkey made a beeline for a turkey decoy. Buckentin whispered its distance: 45 yards, 30, 22. Wood followed the tom with her sight. Wait until you can make a perfect hit.
The turkey closed in on the decoy. Wood let an arrow fly into the base of his wing. She made her first bow kill at 13 yards—the distance between her office chair and the target on her bedroom wall. "I must have shot that shot probably 1,000 times that winter," she says.
Buckentin says he prefers instructing women. "For guys, it's a macho thing," he says. "They say, 'I already know this stuff, you can't teach me anything.' Even 12- to 13-year-old boys, you can't tell them much. Women are there to learn. They listen, and they appreciate it. And it's much easier to teach someone who's willing to learn."
After her successful turkey hunt, Wood enrolled in the Duluth city deer hunt in 2012. At that hunt, she shot her first four deer, including an eight-point buck. Now a Duluth resident, Wood sneaks in hunting time before and after work. She spends free time scouting and exploring wildlife habitat—often zipping through the woods on her mountain bike in summer, searching for deer rubs on trees. In spring she hunts for shed antlers to ascertain how deer are using the woods in the winter.
"There were a lot of us who weren't brought up around hunting, so naturally we're not going to do this by virtue of our relatives introducing us to it," she says. "We didn't have that buddy to take us hunting. BOW really allowed us to be included in this amazing tradition of hunting."
Sandy Austin holds a photo taken on a BOW weekend nearly 20 years ago. She's standing with her friend Terri Jaskowick on a dock on a northern Minnesota lake. Both are holding fishing poles. Jaskowick had talked Austin into trying the fishing classes. Afterward, Jaskowick asked her friend if she now liked fishing. "Nope," she said.
But Austin continued to faithfully attend fall and winter BOW weekends and started taking fly-fishing classes. That sport was more to her liking with more action and no sitting still in a boat.
In 2002 Austin and her husband took a trip to Canada to fish for walleye, northern pike, and smallmouth bass. But she says she still didn't really get into the fishing part. Nevertheless, she continued to go to BOW fishing classes and clinics, and she slowly came to understand the mechanics of the sport. She learned the difference between jigging for walleyes and casting a surface lure for bass. She learned about equipment and electronics that go along with fishing. When fly-fishing, she relished the challenge of figuring out what the fish were eating at that moment and matching that to a particular fly. Today, Austin volunteers on BOW fishing trips, instructing other women.
Through the program, Austin has fished for catfish on the Red River near Grand Forks and sturgeon on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River. She has enjoyed fly-fishing weekends with her mom on the Root River in southeastern Minnesota and fly-fishing clinics alone. With International BOW, she's trekked twice to the Bahamas to fly-fish for bonefish.
"If you start taking the beginner classes, you get to know other women," Austin says, "and you're with other women who like to fish. From there, that's your network." A decade ago, with women she met through BOW, she put together her first of what turned into an annual women's Canada fishing trip.
Becoming an Outdoors-Woman began at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point in 1991 with the idea of teaching women outdoor skills in a nonthreatening environment. Founded by Christine Thomas, then professor of resource management, BOW soon spread to Minnesota and other states. Today 37 states and six Canadian provinces have active programs.
Thomas, who is now dean of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point, recalls the first workshop she held in 1991, when hunting and fishing were outside the realm of most women. At the time, her plans were to organize a single hunting and fishing workshop for women. Afterward, she knew it needed to be something more.
"After that first workshop as I read the evaluations, I sat on my living room floor and cried," she says. "The women learned to shoot and fish, but that is not what they talked about. They talked about how it changed their lives, how their self-esteem and confidence went up. They talked about how much fun they had."
Though the program has grown beyond Wisconsin, Thomas doesn't see much room for expansion because many BOW programs are run by an employee in a state agency who has another job and BOW is done as an "add-on." Other states created a family program instead. The UW–Stevens Point also runs International BOW, the umbrella group for programs in North America.
Much of the growth in Minnesota—from two three-day workshops the first year to more than 100 programs today—has come about with support from organizations such as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Pheasants Forever, North Country Bowhunters Chapter of Safari Club International, and the Ruffed Grouse Society. These partners provide volunteer instructors, mentors, and sites and equipment for many of the clinics and hunts.
In addition to hunting and fishing, classes cover outdoors skills such as canoeing, kayaking, biking, skijoring, and snowshoeing, to name a few. Read more about BOW's history and download the Minnesota BOW catalog.