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Gratitude and Reflection

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

A story by Nicole Bealer

I grew up in the suburbs of north Houston, far away from the culture of field-to-table harvest in which I now live in Montana. Though I loved wildlife and the outdoors, I did not come from a hunting family and was never exposed to the idea of fair-chase hunting on public lands. A burgeoning career in wildlife biology brought me to the Rockies, studying species like mule deer and elk on wildlife research projects, and I moved to Missoula in the autumn of 2019 to study at the University of Montana (UM). I was interested in learning to hunt but assumed it would be years before I was able to hunt myself. After all, I didn’t have the gear, a rifle, or the know-how to harvest an animal. I attended a club meeting for a student group called Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), hoping to connect with others interested in hunting, and heard about the Rebecca Romero Hunting Legacy Award. Though doubtful of my ability to undertake my first hunting season so soon, I submitted my application. To my surprise, I was selected, and my life was forever changed.

That fall, UM BHA helped connect me with the gear and mentorship I needed to get out hunting. I traveled east for opening weekend with a mentor and was incredibly lucky to harvest a mule deer buck on the banks of the Missouri river. The experience was ideal: we found a small group of mule deer grazing on the next ridge over, and I had plenty of time to crawl into a prone position, steady my nerves, and execute the 150-yard shot. In the moments after I pulled the trigger on a living thing for the first time, I watched my buck fall to the ground and sat in the profound silence of my ringing ears. I felt so many emotions: grief, gratitude, and pride. I learned to quarter my deer in the field and butcher and package him at home. I learned to prepare and cook his meat and fell in love with the sense of purpose I found in the process. I realized that hunting for my own meat was a real, feasible option for me, a young woman from the suburbs who had never owned a gun.

As the following summer slid into fall, I was filled with anticipation for my second hunting season. I became an officer for UM BHA and discovered my passion for sharing hunting opportunities with others as I went through the Romero selection process again, this time on the Selection Committee side. Though still a relatively new hunter, I started hunting on my own for the first time. I spooked deer, struggled to find bucks, and failed to capitalize on opportunities one way or another. My repeated mistakes taught me valuable hunting lessons in a more lasting way than any book ever could. I teamed up with a fellow past Romero awardee, Nicole Ballard, finally harvesting an elusive whitetail buck and helping Nicole harvest her own mule deer buck. We celebrated our capacity to hunt successfully as two young women in the woods, still relatively new to the sport, and my confidence and love of hunting grew.

This past autumn, I stepped into the role of Hunt Coordinator for UM BHA and directed my efforts towards sharing hunting experiences with new hunters. I spent countless hours organizing the Montana Hunter Mentorship program (MHM), a partnership between the nonprofit MHM, directed by James Goerz, and UM BHA. MHM connects hunting mentors with those interested in learning and provides a place for all of us to gather and hunt at the Goerz lodge. I helped select another group of Romero awardees and connected them with gear and mentorship much as I was once connected. My days were filled with flurries of emails, planning food logistics, and corresponding with potential mentors and mentees. As the pieces came together and the season unfolded, I was filled with satisfaction. I watched hunters new and old from all over the country learn together in the woods, I listened to stories of incredible moments afield, and I enjoyed the fruits of successful harvests.

After a busy first few weeks of the season managing MHM business, I shifted my focus to my own hunt. For this third season, I once again pushed the boundaries of my own capabilities and independence in my hunting pursuits. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I set out alone and encountered a group of mule deer high in the mountains above Rock Creek. After a slight bit of intervening chaos, I set my sights upon a magnificent mule deer buck, fired one round, and killed a mature buck on a glorious afternoon by myself. The weight of my harvest hit me as I approached this monarch of the mountain, the honor and the sorrow alike. Kneeling beside him, I breathed in those quiet moments, as the adrenaline faded in my body and the urgency to begin the task ahead grew. I took his broad, chestnut-colored antlers in my hands and felt tears well in my eyes as I gazed at his massive, proud neck and thick, dark coat. My phone had died immediately after my buck went down, so I took no pictures, and those memories remain between me and him. I quartered my buck on the mountain as the light faded into a spectacular sunset and spruce grouse roosted in the tree overhead. I struggled to exert every ounce of power that my body possessed as I cut quarters and removed his head. I loaded my backpack in the dark and started down the mountain, fighting through a brief but nerve-wracking bout of disorientation in the shadows of night. A couple of hours later, I finished hiking out my first load of meat and reveled in the intensity of the experience, the honor of harvesting such an animal and the pride in my own capacity to do it by myself. My struggle and success was the culmination of skill and experience, a battle with fear and fatigue, and the product of tenacity and determination.

As I move onwards from this hunting season, I think about Rebecca. I wish she could see the powerful women that have entered the world of hunting through her legacy. I was never lucky enough to know Rebecca personally, but my life is forever changed by the impact of her story and her family’s gift. I earn a deep sense of satisfaction in harvesting my own food and transforming an incredible living creature into delicious meals for myself and my loved ones with my own hands. There is an honesty to killing my own meat that speaks to the reality of life on this planet. I seek now to share this love with others, to lend the tools and the confidence to other young women who want to take their place in the food chain. The trials and triumphs of hunting shape our understanding of who we are in relation to other living things, and maybe most importantly, to ourselves.

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