by Heather Olsen - Thursday, December 7, 2023
My first hunting experience is one of my favorite stories to tell. The air was crisp, and the fall leaves covered the sides of the highway. There were four of us that day—hunting guides Kellen Little and Matt Bowers, and me and my hunting partner, Allie Anderson. I couldn’t ask for better people to be with on my first hunt. We were there for the Wyoming Women’s Foundation (WYWF) 11th Annual Antelope Hunt, Oct. 12-15, 2023, hosted by the Ranch at Ucross in Clermont, Wyo.
As we pulled out of the ranch, Kellen commented how the other hunters who had headed out ahead of us that morning while it was still dark were going to miss out on the ranch’s beautiful view and sunrise. He was right. The sun started to peek up over the hills, casting the most beautiful morning light—what an incredible backdrop for my very first hunt.
I thought about how the entire weekend at UCross was so special. There was an exciting buzz that had already taken over the ranch the day before as participants started arriving to check in and sight-in their rifles. More than 40 women hunters had gathered for the weekend hunt, including Wyoming First Lady Jennie Gordon. Hunters had come from around the country and represented all walks of life and levels of hunting experience, including many just like me who were there to experience their very first hunt and share in a common feat: hunting antelope.
The ranches we were hunting were offered to us by private landowners in the area who set aside this particular weekend each year for the WYWF to conduct its antelope hunt that continues to make a difference in bringing more women hunters into the fold. We were each assigned a hunting partner. I was lucky that mine was Allie, the kindest woman and mother. We became fast friends, especially since we were both first-time hunters and busy moms. We were equally excited to spend a weekend away from home, surrounded by supportive women, guides and sponsors at this incredible event. We had high hopes for the hunting days ahead.
As we looked for antelope, guides Kellen and Matt told us the history behind the land we were hunting, which belonged to Kellen’s family. We saw the house Kellen grew up in, the hog barn and several other family members’ homes. Hearing the history of the land provided me with a deep appreciation for the many generations who had hunted there and harvested game before me. Matt shared with us stories from his various hunting trips, and we all joked, laughed and cheered on each other that day. Matt was the husband of Shelley Simonton, who passed away from melanoma in 2017. I was fortunate to attend the hunt as a recipient of a Shelly’s Fund Scholarship, which honors Shelley, who served on the WYWF Advisory Board from 2011-2017, and was established to make sure hunt attendees always include single mothers of diverse income levels.
Matt and Kellen took the time to reassure us and strategize on where they’d seen certain herds of antelope leading up to our hunt. It was evident they were just as dedicated and determined for Allie and I to have a successful hunt as they would have been if they had been hunting themselves.
My feelings were up and down that morning. I was so excited and nervous, but more than anything, I remember feeling so deeply honored to have this experience as my first hunt. There were also a few fears running through my mind. I thought, “What if I miss my first shot?” “What if I don’t get an antelope?” “What if I panic and can’t pull the trigger?” “What if I go home empty-handed?” My six kids—ages 12, 10 and 6-year-old quadruplets (two boys and two girls)—were so excited for my hunt, and I did not want to disappoint them by not bringing home an antelope.
The four of us spent the late morning and afternoon hiking over the hills. Allie shot her buck antelope almost immediately that morning, firing one shot at 80 yards. It was such an honor to be present and to watch her take her first buck.
For my antelope, we had to trek through mud and wind, hiking several miles over many ridges. We used a side-by-side and crammed into it together so we could go deeper into the hills where we ended up trudging through mud, sagebrush and up and down many more hills. Allie and I joke that our guides now have the reputation for being crazy drivers when off-roading through muddy backroads.
Finally, we spotted a herd with an antelope buck surrounded by several females. We had to stalk it for a bit, belly-crawl and sneak up to a ridge where we laid down, patiently waiting for a sheep herd to clear off the next hill. It’s funny now, but at one point, I thought I had a spider crawling up my jacket, which made me squeal, thankfully not scaring off the antelope. We all had a good laugh at that afterward.
In order for me to get the perfect, clear shot for my buck, it was a test of patience, which is a skill I often struggle with in life. My patience paid off as I laid there in the prone position, waiting for a shot opportunity. I took a broadside shot at 163 yards and made a one-shot kill. I remember my heart pounding before I pulled the trigger, Matt whispering “shoot when you feel ready” and the calm that came over me when I got the buck in my riflescope sights and squeezed the trigger. The feeling of pride that overtook me when I saw the buck fall, and I realized I got him, was overwhelming. My amazing hunting partner, Allie, videoed my shot and my reaction afterward when I realized I dropped my goat. Tears began to flow, and I immediately put my head in my arms, sobbing, as I realized the full weight of what happened. I said several times, “I did it,” which Allie was able to capture on the video. What an unforgettable moment.
I was able to field-dress my antelope, skin it and process it myself back at Ucross as the WYWF has volunteers on hand to teach you how to process your own animal. Going through all the steps with guidance from seasoned hunters has given me a deeper appreciation for the various cuts of meat, and hearing other hunters share their favorite antelope recipes was inspiring.
The looks on my kids’ faces when I brought home the antelope meat and showed them the videos were so full of pride. It has been fun to retell the story of my hunt while making antelope tacos, antelope lasagna and finger steaks, knowing that I am filling my childrens’ bellies with nutritious food I hunted and processed for them.
This hunt was deeply personal to me. It was so much more than just a first-time hunt. It was me proving to myself I could learn something new, even if it wasn’t easy or comfortable. I overcame my fear of firearms during the process leading up to the hunt, and by taking a hunter safety course with my two older boys, I learned to shoot, and with many hours of target practice became comfortable with my first rifle, a .243. This experience was me, as a 38-year-old single mom of six kids, finding a new hobby and outlet. I discovered self-confidence and trust in myself to pull the trigger when I felt the timing was right. That lesson right there can be applied to a myriad of life lessons when thinking back on it now. How many times in life do we hold ourselves back from trying new things due to fear or inexperience? Sometimes we just need to try new things—and to pull that trigger.
As a mom and a teacher for students from K-6, I now can connect with my kids and students in a new and very meaningful way. We can talk about hunting and share our experiences, and I can support, instruct and be their cheerleader as they learn. Learning to hunt has opened up so many doors, and I am excited to take my oldest son out on our first pheasant hunt later this month.
The friendships and connections I have had the opportunity to make through my first hunting experience will always remain very special to me. I never knew hunting could be so empowering. It has allowed me to develop a deep gratitude for the land we are privileged to walk on and the animals we are privileged to harvest and enjoy to feed our families. It’s the celebratory hugs, reverence for the circle of life and deep gratitude for life both given and taken.
I think back to my hunt every day. It was truly perfect. My favorite part of the story was that it wasn’t an easy hunt. It required so much determination and patience, and I had to wrestle with self-doubt. The biggest takeaway from my first hunt has been this: I came back a different woman than when I arrived at Ucross, Wyo. I am stronger, empowered, and I know I can achieve anything I put my mind to in life.
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