The morning is brisk, the fallen leaves crisp. Slanted rays of dawn's tangerine sun filter through the haze of yellowing maples and crimson oaks. The sound of footsteps on the forest floor alerts the camouflaged hunter to the approach of a deer.
Drawing back the bowstring, she breathes deeply, awaiting the doe's arrival inside a measured 20-yard circle. The loosed arrow finds its mark, and the deer drops, less than 60 yards from her tree stand.
But aren't these woods a male domain, and isn't this the sport praised by Theodore Roosevelt for "its manly, character-building virtues"? Isn't the pursuit of game triggered, as some philosophers profess, by an instinctive male drive to hunt and provide meat for the family?
Move over men, women who hunt are here.
And despite hunting's current political incorrectness, the number of women hunters is growing.
Various industry and government studies indicate differing numbers and growth rates, but all show that more and more women are joining the camo-and-orange ranks each year. At the same time, the number of men and youths who hunt continues its slow but steady trend downward, driven largely by an urbanized society isolated from wildlife.
Females make up the fastest-growing segment of shooting sports, according to surveys by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Sporting Goods Assn. Female hunting-license buyers have jumped from 4% of the total in the late 1980s to nearly 11% of America's 17 million hunters.
An association report indicates that nearly 1.95 million women hunted last year, including 539,000 bowhunters and 317,000 who hunted with muzzleloaders.
"There's definitely an evolution taking place," says Chris Chaffin of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "Women have become a more stable part of the work force and today have the finances and the opportunity to do things they may always have wanted to do."
Not every woman is a newcomer. Some, such as Norma Laros of Pennsylvania, have been at it for years.
"I started when I was a little girl growing up in Kansas," recalls the 66-year-old grandmother of eight.
In the mid-1950s she met her future husband, Dick, at high school. Their "dates" consisted of target shooting. Later they hunted together.
Hunting soon turned into a profession and a lifestyle for the couple, who have run a taxidermy business for more than 30 years. For 22 years, they also ran a guiding-and-outfitting operation for hunters in Colorado's Medicine Bow region.
Laros continues to draw reaction in social circles when people--other women, in particular--discover that she hunts.
"They say, 'Gee, you don't look like a hunter,' " Laros chuckles. "I've never been sure what a hunter's supposed to look like."
"The interest in hunting by women has always had a lot to do with spending time with their husbands or boyfriends," says Ellie Schad, director of programs for the Women's Shooting Sports Foundation. "They try hunting, and many of them . . . get more serious about it."
For 15-year-old Sarah Salukas of Bethlehem, Pa., the impetus was her father, Larry, who's been her hunting mentor for the past three years.
"A lot of people are surprised when they learn I hunt deer," Sarah says, "but no one has been negative about it."