By Beka Garris
Women hunters have been around for hundreds of years…and it’s no surprise to most of us. While recent headlines only just now boast proof of this “discovery”, many people have stories of their own ancestors, mother’s, grandmother’s , who have hunted long before it became a cool thing to post about on social media. Women can create life, and just as easily sustain life by providing sustenance for ourselves and our families. What is more “womanly” than providing for your family?
Growing up, I was accustomed to being the “only girl” on any hunts. In high school, I knew of a few other girls who would go out once a year during firearm season, tagging along with their male family members or their boyfriends. I never really fit in when it came to friend groups and cliques – I would rather be alone in the woods than anywhere else. Any chance I had to skip school to go hunting, I would. My parents used bribery to ensure I kept my grades up. “If you get an A in science class I’ll let you hunt before school,” my dad would tell me.
What can I say, it worked.
As I went into my late teens and early twenties, I began to meet and hear of other female hunters like myself. It was nice to be able to connect, to hear stories of other women with similar experiences and interests. Hunting shows were popular, and social media began to take off, which introduced a new way to connect with hunters all over the world.
It was through social media that I first came across Judy Erwin Branham. An accomplished traditional archer and bowhunter, I admired her ethics and her enthusiasm, and she played a part in influencing me to become a traditional bowhunter in my late twenties. In 2018 we met in person at ATA show and became friends. Judy’s story of how she became a hunter and archer is one worth sharing, and one that many women can likely relate to.
Pictured: Author Beka Garris and Judy Branham.
“I always wanted to go hunting but my dad didn’t think it was the thing for girls to do.”
Born and raised in northern Indiana in the 60’s, hunting wasn’t something that many girls were taught. For most girls like Judy, their first experience with archery was if their brothers or father had bows, or if they were taught archery in school. Things that revolved around the outdoors were typically considered a “man’s sport”, which made women hunters in that era even cooler in my opinion.
Judy’s dad and uncle went fishing and small game hunting, and she always enjoyed the excitement they had early in the morning when getting ready to go out. She watched hunting shows like “American Sportsman” and Fred Bear’s Adventures” and read Outdoor Life Magazine. These were all major influences in her love of the outdoors. They taught respect for wildlife and hunting and took her imagination around the world to explore places she had never been.
When Judy was 21, she had friends teach her how to shoot a firearm. Four years later in 1984, she was gun hunting deer successfully. Her first deer was a 195 pound field dressed 8 pt buck. This was considered a very large buck at the time and she was so excited to have meat for her family, never considering the trophy that it was.
That hunt was a turning point for Judy and she never looked back, branching out to hunt other wild game on her own and eventually bowhunting as well.
Judy, left, and a young woman following a trail she helped blaze.
On a chilly day in the 1980s, Judy donned a camp hoodie and brown insulated overalls and headed to the woods to deer hunt. Bow in hand, she sat on the ground in the woods and made a perfect broadside shot on a whitetail. Her photo was later featured in the Lafayette Journal Courier along with the story.
“Back during this time in Indiana it was quite a big deal for a woman to go out on her own and kill a deer, field dress it, get it to the weigh in station by herself. Great memories of tougher times for female hunters. Many men were unaccepting of my wanting to hunt.”
The love for archery and bowhunting runs deep in Judy’s blood, and it’s something she has continued to pass on to her grandchildren, creating a legacy for her granddaughters in particular – a legacy that she single handedly started by pursuing hunting and archery despite the fact that it wasn’t popular for women to do.
“I’m the only person in my entire family outside of a male cousin, that bow hunts. My dad and brothers gun hunted small game. Also, there is a difference in the few women who are self made hunters and those who just hunt with their husbands or dads. I was an avid deer and turkey hunter when I met Kenny (husband).”
One of her favorite hunts is a particularly memorable spring turkey hunt with her husband and granddaughter.
“The second time we took her we sat in the open in hunting chairs. Two big ole gobblers came within 5 yards but kept walking and gobbling through so she never took the shot. When they came up over the hill her eyes got big as silver dollars! She said, “There’s two!”, then,”They are sooo big!”.
I had her shotgun on a tripod and the tripod fell over but the turkeys just kept on gobbling and walking! I will never forget the excitement. Her nerves got the best of her and she cried after they walked off. She has always been a loving person. I was able to tell her how proud I was of her for not shooting. She never had a good shot even at 5 yards. Many people would have taken a pot shot and possibly injured one of the turkey. It took a lot of guts to do the right thing and she did.”
Judy started archery competition shooting in 2013, and went on to become NASP certified and USA Archery coach certification and S3DA certified coach. Once she began competing with Selfbow, she won several National and World Championships which is impressive in itself. Once her granddaughter got involved, they started doing competitions together and won the youth and women championships at Nationals, Regional, TAS World among several others.
When asked for advice to young women and girls getting into archery and bow hunting, Judy had some wise advice.
“First, I would say first most important thing is to know your weapon well. If you can’t keep your arrows in the size of a pie plate at 20 yards then you’re not ready to go deer hunting. Practice makes perfect. Small game make an even a smaller target area.
Secondly, don’t take anything less than a great shot. These animals are God’s creation and deserve respect. Only a clean kill shot should be taken. Yes, we are not perfect and might slip or make a mistake. If this ever happens take every effort to find the animal and make it right.
Thirdly, if this is your passion find a mentor to teach you. I had to self teach myself. I hung out at the bait shops listening to stories and went hunting with anyone who invited me at first. That’s not safe today. Watch hunting shows that are ethical.
Fourthly, know the laws and rules for where you are hunting, it’s your responsibility. Take the hunter education courses.
Lastly, enjoy God’s creation! I’m a deeply spiritual person and I feel closer to God enjoying His nature and watching His beautiful wildlife. Just seeing a tree gives me faith. Who could look at a tree or a flower and not believe in God? He gave us this beauty to enjoy.”
Looking at Judy it may be easy to assume how her story starts, yet you would be wrong.
Every hunter has a story as to how and why they started, and many of those stories are well worth telling. Not just to share with others, but to inspire them to keep passing on the knowledge and heritage of hunting.