Taking Pride in a First-Time Hunt

No one beams with more pride than the Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program’s Holly Richards. A. Because it’s her favorite month of the year, Pride Month. And B. Because she finally gets to share her story about her first ever hunt.  

Holly took part in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge’s "First Shot” mentored hunt program in October 2022. Over 50 mentors volunteer their time to help mentees have positive and empowering experiences in the outdoors, with over 80% of the mentees continuing or planning to continue to hunt after the program.

Holly sat down to talk about her “First Shot” experience, Pride Month, and the challenges of being a first-time hunter.

First and foremost, happy Pride Month to you! What does Pride Month mean to you?

When I was younger and just coming out, Pride represented safety. Now Pride has also come to represent joy and community. Pride Month is a wonderful time of year for me, not only because I’m proud to be a part of the queer community, but also because I love celebrating LGBTQIA+ history and accomplishments. I feel so lucky to work for a federal agency that not only values the conservation and preservation of wild spaces, but also values diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

You recently became a first-time hunter! What made you want to take part in the First Shot mentored hunt program, and what was your perception of hunting prior to signing up?

A coworker in the Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program told me about it. We were talking about outdoorsy type stuff, and I mentioned that I’d never hunted before but wanted to. His wife had taken part in the First Shot program the year before and had an amazing experience. The program I took part it in works on a lottery system, so I put in that year and got lucky! 

I grew up in an area where a lot of people hunted but it was never something that my family did. We just weren’t outdoorsy kind of people, and so my perception was that hunting wasn’t for people like me. It was mostly guys and I thought you really had to have a lot of wilderness experience and outdoor knowledge and camo! The best part of First Shot was getting to know people just like me. People who wanted to hunt but didn’t have the knowledge, experience, or access to get started. I learned that hunting is for everyone – women, young people, older people, people from all backgrounds and cultures and even... guys in camo. For some people, like me, we just need a little help and access to get started.

The mentees and mentors from a First Shot class from two years ago, pose for a photo. Photo by USFWS 

Can anyone sign up for these mentored hunts and are there programs like this across the U.S.?

Yes, if your state offers a mentored hunt program. The First Shot mentored hunt program is a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and National Wild Turkey Federation and is designed to help adults who want to hunt but don’t have a network to help them start or reactivate. There are other mentored hunt programs across the country, but they might go by different names. Check with your local state Department of Natural Resource (DNR) agency to see what kind of mentored hunt programs they offer in your area.

Once you got picked to be a part of the First Shot program, how do they set you up with a mentor?

Once I was accepted into the program I was paired up with my mentor, Colin, and we arranged a few meetups to get to know each other and practice. He was so helpful, and we were able to talk through all of my really beginner questions, like “how do I hunt?” The refuge also held an orientation session for the participants and the mentors, and it really set up a safe environment to talk through questions, fears, and preconceived notions about what hunting means. One thing that was emphasized by all the mentors was that there was no pressure to take the shot. There’s no way to predict how you will feel the first time you go hunting and knowing that I could back out at any time helped me feel a lot more confident. 

What species were you hunting?

We were hunting Sika deer, which is a small member of the elk family. They are non-native and were introduced in Maryland around 1900. When I started researching them, I was blown away by how beautiful they are. 

What were some of the challenges of your hunt at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge?

The day of the hunt itself was a complete rollercoaster. We hiked out into the woods in the pitch black to find our tree stand, then we waited. We perched high up in the trees, overlooking the water, and watched the day slowly creep over the swamp. It had been years since I’d watched the sunrise from the woods, and it was absolutely magical. 

As day broke, we started to hear the male Sika bugling up and down the water, followed by a splash of movement and moments later two female sika (called hinds) emerged from the brush and crossed right in front of us. I had the perfect shot, but I was too amped and nervous. I just didn’t feel confident, and so I missed that opportunity. We ended up waiting around the rest of the morning but didn’t see another deer. We broke for lunch and then headed back out to a new location for the afternoon. 

The new spot was few miles out in an area of the swamp that is normally closed. It was such a privilege to be out in that wildness. You are just a couple hours from the nation’s capital, but you are in this space that exists only for wildlife and there’s not another soul around. Colin and I spent the afternoon chatting, sitting quietly, and soaking up the experience of being alone in nature together. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time even though I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to get a Sika that day. Then, as the light was fading and the temps dropping, we heard it. The bugle call of a male Sika stag, followed by the rustle of movement into the grassy area below our stand. A stag crossed into the clearing and this time I was ready. I took the shot, and was able to harvest my first deer! 

Thanks for sharing your story, Holly. Congrats on your first hunt and happy Pride Month!

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