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Mary's First Hunt: And Why Hunter Recruitment is Key


Mary O’Neill Phillips 

I thought I was in the minority, as in being a hunter that got into the outdoor sporting lifestyle later than most, in my mid-20s. But the more I open this conversation up, the more I find more hunters who are like myself. 

I didn’t have anyone to show me the ropes, and when I tried to learn I often faced challenges. 
It is important to note that I grew up in Australia; hunting was not something that I was exposed to very often. Withstanding that, my family has had a small cattle farm since I was four, and I’ve owned a bow since I was a teenager. I could ride a dirt bike before I could ride a bicycle. 

Mary O'Neill Phillips first turkey

I’ve always felt a great need to have a deeper connection with the land. 

Sometime in my 20s I decided that I wanted to learn how to hunt, and my boyfriend at the time was an experienced gun hunter in Australia. I remember one time asking if he or any of his mates (friends) would take me hunting and his response was, “No blokes want a woman out there hunting with them.” So that was my experience prior to moving to Nashville. The barrier to entry was like a brick wall. 

Fast forward to Nashville. In walks (my now husband) Mr. South Georgia, Zach Phillips. Zach, like many south Georgia boys, grew up hunting with his brother, father and friends. I was fascinated with his stories about riding the red clay back roads on four wheelers, with his fishing pole and hunting gear, having these wild adventures. I desperately wanted to be a part of that world. I wanted to disconnect and reconnect. 

We had been dating for about three months when he asked me if I would like to learn how to turkey hunt. My answer: “absolutely!” He was driving to Nebraska to hunt a friend’s ranch in the Sandhills. I didn’t know what we would have in store, but I was SO GAME!
The first thing I learned was that the wild turkeys in the United States look REALLY different than the turkeys in Australia! Once I learned how beautiful their colors were, that they had spurs and attack each other, how incredible their sight was…and that I COULD LEARN TO SPEAK TO THEM!? changed everything. 

Australian Brush Turkey
For reference, this is an Australian Brush Turkey. It looks more like a glorified chicken. Not as cool!

After I had gotten used to shooting a shotgun by practicing shooting tin cans on a fencepost - I felt very western - Zach, his friend and I headed out to hunt. Zach coached me on where the most lethal part to shoot the wild turkey was - his head or at the base of the neck in the waddle. 

We parked the truck in a field, and the boys started to yelp. “Waaaay over there,” they said in recognition. 

Side note: I didn’t actually hear anything that first call. It’s incredible how you get so used to listening to all the noise in the world (cars, planes, people, music, construction... the news) that you tune out nature. Now, after hunting for many years, I hear and see what’s in front of me on a whole different level. The details are visible! 

We snuck up a hill and the boys told me to crouch down behind a little mound in the earth. For the next 40 minutes my entire world was lit on fire listening to the two boys calling in two gobblers, from over 500 yards away, in the Sandhills of Nebraska! 

Closer and closer, the gobbles got to the point where I felt them vibrating in my chest and my heart beating so loud I could hear it in my ears. This was better than any roller coaster at Disneyland. This was bloody unreal and I was hooked! 

Mary O'Neill Phillips

The two birds in sync GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE and then suddenly, the strangest, coolest and craziest faces popped up at 5 yards in front of my face! Bottom of the neck Mary, BANG! It felt like life was happening in slow motion. Then suddenly the boys yell, “You got him! Shoot the other one!” which I was not prepared for and he lived another day. 

Following the hunt Zach showed me how to clean a turkey, how to cut the fan and spurs off and dry them so I could use them for decorating, and we made wild turkey jalapeño poppers. My first ever wild turkey jalapeño popper from the first bird I had hunted. The first of many. 

After that hunt, I remember thinking there had been this whole world out there that I had no idea about. A world that was mysterious and magical and was happening while I was sleeping. I can’t believe how many people have no idea this world exists! 

As you’ve probably gathered already, I became hooked on hunting from that day forward. 

Following that hunt, I went on to secure my first archery harvest with a black bear in south Georgia. I have completed three, single-season Wild Turkey Grand Slams, I’ve hunted some of the most remote and incredible locations in North America, and have made incredible memories with friends all over the country, like the below memory last duck season in Oklahoma with my mate Sydnie Wells. My life has changed so much for the better! 

Sydnie Wells and Mary O'Neill Phillips
The lesson in all of this is simple. Zach said yes. He understood his role in hunter recruitment. He took the time to teach me the ethics that goes into making a shot and the importance of respecting the animal’s life.

Since becoming a hunter and now spokeswoman for the outdoors, with a TV show on Outdoor Channel and digital adventure show with Mossy Oak GO, it’s become a huge passion for me to encourage those with an interest in learning the outdoor life (who may not have grown up in it) to give it a go and to help them find the tools on how to do so. 

It’s also become important for me to open up conversations with those who are against hunting or are fence sitters and educate them on the difference between hunters and poachers and share an informed conversation on where the money from our licenses and donations to non-profits like the NWTF go (into supporting conservation and habitat management). 

I encourage each and every one of you reading this to think about those people in your life who are like me. Have you done your part to encourage and invest in hunter recruitment? This is the only way to further the sport and protect what is such a great American pastime. 

Zach and I are currently on the road filming Country Outdoors Adventures. We will share our successes and failures with you all and hope to see you at a trade show or in your hometown! 

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