MONMOUTH, Ore. - I was nervous and in unfamiliar territory.
I'd never worn hunter orange, never held a shotgun and certainly never shot at anything that moved.
In fact, I'd only fired a gun one other time and that was at a target range.
And to be honest, there were times during the day when I wished I was at a target range instead of a pheasant preserve with a bunch of other first-time women hunters who were also learning to hunt.
The target range was a safe space where all I had to do was focus on what was directly in front of me and pull the trigger when I felt ready.
It was a safe space where I wasn't trudging through brush and tightly gripping a loaded gun in my hands.
And it was a safe space where my heart didn't start beating wildly when it was time to take off the safety, point my gun in the air and try to shoot a bird out of the sky - all without putting any of my hunting partners in danger.
But I wasn't at a target range - I was out in the field and I had to pay attention - close attention to every move I made and every person, animal and object around me.
I had to remember the four rules I had just been taught:
- Always point your muzzle in a safe direction.
- Always treat every firearm like it's loaded.
- Always be sure of the target and what is in front of it and beyond it.
- Always keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot.
The four main causes of hunting incidents are judgment mistakes, safety rule violations, lack of control and practice and mechanical failure. Follow this link for important safety information and to learn more about shotguns.
I had to focus more than I'd ever had to focus before. Because once that gun fires, the shot is going to go where it's going to go and there's nothing you can do to change that. And when you're a beginner, that's a scary thought.
But I wasn't alone in my trepidation. There were 15 other women who were there to learn the same skills - everything from how to properly carry a shotgun to where the safety is located on a firearm and how to load ammunition.
We listened intently during our introductory class to firearms safety, paid attention to our instructors during target practice and followed our handlers out into the field when it was time to do the real thing.
And slowly, but surely, the fear and anxiousness began to wear off.
"It was really scary at first," said Marjorie Stuart, one of my fellow rookie hunters. "My legs were shaking. But now I'm feeling much more comfortable."
"I've shot a gun before - about three times - but this is my first time actually going on a hunt," said Talia Simmons. "This is awesome - I just love it."
Two handlers (left) and a participant hike through the hunting ground. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.
Stuart and Simmons joined this reporter and others for a day at Luckiamute Valley Pheasants, an upland game preserve in rural Monmouth, Ore., where we learned firearms safety, took some practice shots at targets and then went on a pheasant hunt.
It was all part of a program put on by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Throughout the year, they invite folks out into the wild to learn various outdoor skills (view their outdoor calendar for a list of workshops). This particular excursion (an introduction to pheasant hunting) was geared towards women, who are becoming increasingly interested in the sport.
Pheasant Hunting in Oregon
Pheasant hunting season doesn't begin in Oregon until later this year but you are allowed to hunt them on preserves.
If you already have an Oregon hunting license, you'll need to get your upland game bird validation and upland HIP (Harvest Information Program).
If you do not have a hunting license, you can purchase an Oregon resident hunting preserve license for $6 or a non-resident one for $12. The hunting preserve license will allow you to hunt at any preserve in Oregon during the year.
"We're entering into an age where women are the fastest growing demographic of hunters," said Michelle Bodenheimer, one of the handlers who was responsible for taking small groups of women out into the field for their first hunting experience.
The handlers were there not only to serve as instructors for the novice hunters, but also to manage either the pointer or flusher they were taking out into the field. Those are the dogs that help hunters out by pointing out where a pheasant is located or flushing the birds out of cover.
It's a lot to be responsible for - making sure the beginners practice safe handling of their firearms, teaching the women about the sport of pheasant hunting and keeping track of what their dog is doing.
For Bodenheimer, it's all about giving women an experience they won't forget.
"(It's just) seeing it all come together - women using their new skills with firearms, women who are used to being in the city and wearing business clothes getting out and being adventurous and trying something new," she said.
"And seeing the smiles on their faces at the end of the day and the sense of personal gratification because they've pushed their limits and tried this new thing," she added. "And they come out of the field just proud of themselves."
One of the participants holds the pheasant she just shot. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.
For the women who signed up for the workshop it was about learning and developing skills.
"My other half, my future husband, is really big into hunting and I was never raised that way," said Carol Smith. "And since we've been together, I've slowly gotten into the hunting and fishing aspect and realize that I really enjoy it. The actual shooting of something - the follow through, getting it in the sights - I just need to practice."
"My husband and I started hunting the latter part of last year - we're brand new (to the sport)," said Mindy Clark. "And he saw the workshop online and said this would be great for you to go and see what it's about."
"This year we've decided we're going to try to eat what we kill and know where our food is coming from," Clark added. "So we're not eating meat until we actually get it ourselves."
By the end of the day, many of the women had not only learned gun safety and how to hunt, but had also bagged a pheasant. But before they could take it home for dinner, they had to skin it and clean it themselves - all part of the experience of hunting for game.
"Just remember there was a time when this was the only way that people could get their food," an instructor told one of the participants who appeared to be a little squeamish about the whole thing. "You had to kill your dinner and clean it before you could cook it."
One of the participants learns how to clean her pheasant at the end of the day. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.
The entire program was hands on - all of us women did everything from start to finish with skilled instructors and handlers helping us each step of the way. We learned by doing.
"I love the way this program works," said Bodenheimer. "It starts with an in-class safety presentation and then a hands-on effect by shooting traps. We get one-one-one instruction with the women to make them more comfortable with the firearm they're holding. And we can work with them at their skill level."
I asked some of the participants if they would recommend this to other women who are interested in learning how to hunt and got a resounding 'yes.'
"Absolutely," said Stuart. "It gives you confidence. And it's great being out in this beautiful country."
"Oh yes," said Simmons. "Any chance you can get (you should try it)."
Bodenheimer told us she often gets comments like:
"I had the best time of my life"
"I didn't realize hunting could be so much fun"
"Watching the dogs work in the field is just awesome."
"I encourage women if they are even remotely interested or curious in hunting to try one of the ODFW events," Bodenheimer said. "Go out and explore it (hunting). You may try it and realize it's not for you, but hopefully you'll try it and get hooked."
Handler Michelle Bodenheimer (left) and a participant walk the hunting ground. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.