Of Women, Guns, and Dogs – AKA “The Bitch Hunt”
*This article originally appeared in the V1N4 Winter Issue of Project Upland Magazine.
First, a word about language. “Women, Guns, & Dogs” is the alternate name we gave our annual hunt. From the beginning 26 years ago to this day, it has officially been called the “Bitch Hunt.” We refer to ourselves as “Bitches,” and the locals in Eustis, Maine, where we’ve been hunting each October, know us as the “Bitches.” The capital “B” is probably what designates it as a proud title as opposed to an insult. We understand, however, that to many people it is most often used as a derogatory term which is why we created “Women, Guns, & Dogs” for public use and to make sure our emails don’t go directly to spam.
A few basic elements are integral to our personal use of the term. We “Bitches” are passionate about our bird dogs, we are serious about hunting ruffed grouse and woodcock, we train our own dogs, and we know the five days each year we come together to hunt the big Maine woods without our spouses, partners, and kids are some of the most special days of autumn.
The idea of the Bitch Hunt was launched at a holiday cookie swap for members of the midcoast Maine-based Yankee Chapter of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA). All the men there were hunters, but only one or two of the women hunted even though they’d been training dogs with the group. Sipping wine and listening to the men discuss their hunts, a few of the women jokingly said, “Hey, we can do that.” It took a year to put the hunt together, but the following October, eight women took to the woods, walking single file behind one woman, Sally Dyer, a registered Master Maine Guide and the only one who knew how to hunt. In a line were the original seven: Patti Carter, Judie Bayles, Leslie Helm, Shirley Carter, Mary Gagne, Tenley Meara, and Kayleen Wilson. Guns up, minds set.
Patti said they looked like an orderly orange army. If the dog went on point, the whole squad would march over to see what was there. If anyone shot at a bird, the whole squad would march over to see if it got hit. Even though the menu that night wasn’t exactly a game feast, the women were hooked.
Over the next two and half decades, the group has shifted in size, losing some and gaining others. I’ve gone to the Bitch Hunt since 2009 although one of my German shorthairs–Rimfire–was at the hunt five years earlier when Patti, his breeder, brought the entire litter of 12 puppies along. They were only six weeks old, not ready to go to their new homes yet, but big enough to entertain everyone at the local watering hole, stuffed in shirt pockets and trundling up and down the bar.
My journal over the years notes highlights such as discovering the great little “for sale” cover then taking Carol Trahan–also a German shorthair breeder–in to get a woodcock over her sweet old shorthair KD; our “Swedish Bitch” Isabelle Edling’s 100 percent unshot “impossible-to-miss” flush; my Jeep’s nav system taking me nine miles the wrong way on an abandoned snowmobile trail; full-moon tailgating; four grouse exploding out of one tree; woodcock popping up like popcorn on a narrow strip by the power line cover; and Prairie chomping a porcupine. However, notes can’t do justice to moments like the first early morning hunt on an unused old two-track much further up the mountain than I’d normally gone, woodcock-filled alders gripping the edges with thickly-furred pines muffling the sound of grouse wings behind them. The only other sounds were that of other Bitches’ occasional shots in the distance. Scratch quartered the road as we worked from point to point, putting just two woodcock in my vest but savoring the security of a solitude that’s not so alone–knowing that down a mile or two were the friends who would listen and relish the details of my walk.
“Oh, so many stories . . . ” Heather Dunbar laughs. Heather, a Cowboy Action Shooting champion many times over, now lives in New Mexico which makes it extra special when she can make it to Maine for the hunt. “The sound of about 14 collar beepers chirping in the woods is like something from outer space, my Lab Briar’s first woodcock in the pines by the salt shed hunting in the monsoonal pouring rain, and me, sitting down on the ground with a soaking wet puppy, crying my eyes out.”
A lot of the early stories revolve around getting lost or worrying about getting lost.
“One day we followed a snowmobile trail that led by a small foot trail,” Patti recalls. “There was a brook nearby. And a moose trail. I knew I just had to follow the moose trail because it had to be parallel to the snowmobile trail. In less than a half hour, I had no clue where I was.”
Learning compass skills paid off.
“A year or two later we were hunting by a river’s edge,” Patti continues. “I’d shot at a grouse, but wasn’t sure if I hit it. The ruffed grouse flew up and over a hill. So I took a compass reading and hiked all the way around with Raven dancing up ahead. As I checked my readings on the far side, Raven went on point. Sure enough, she found the wounded bird and brought it back to me. Women need to know they can do this. You have to get lost before you get found.”
Water–and what was on the other side–is central to a few of the hunt’s favorite stories. The one most often told involves a closed access road to a great looking cover. Walking in from the other side would take an hour; crossing the river was much shorter. One of the Bitches had seen on TV how garbage bags make great waders, one on each leg, tied with the drawstring at the waist. Being frugal Yankees, however, they opted for the cheap bags instead of thick contractor ones. Holding their guns overhead with their boots slung around their necks, they forded the 75 yards of very cold water, loyal dogs swimming along. The bags failed. Those that opted to cross in their panties turned equally blue. They found no birds. All they brought back after the return trip was impending hypothermia and a lot of laughs.
As the years passed, our knowledge of how to hunt grouse and woodcock grew, paralleled by better and better dog handling, shooting skills, and understanding of the outdoors. Much to the disbelief of many male hunters who stereotype women’s getaways, this ain’t your granny’s spa vacation.
Patti tells of the time she and veterinarian Margo Maloney were sitting on a small bridge at the end of the day sipping a glass of wine when two men from the Navy SERE School near Rangeley stopped to chat. They were so surprised that these women were really hunting that the next day the men got permission to take them behind the gate at the training site.
“We had the entire place to ourselves,” Patti remembers. “And there were so many birds. As the guys watched Micah work the edge of a cover, a woodcock that had popped up in front of her landed in the road dead . . . because I shot it! That blew them away. I outshot the Navy guys that day.”
The Bitches get out early and hunt all day, usually meeting for tailgate happy hour at dusk. We split into groups; many of us hunt alone but always leave a plan and ETA with others. We’ve hunted on vivid blue sky foliage days, and we’ve hunted in the driving rain of an oncoming Nor’easter. We’ve dodged careening logging trucks, big logging trucks. We clean our own birds, eat as much wild game as possible, and toast the totality of the adventure with wine. A lot of wine.
Head count at the Bitch Hunt has been as high as 15 women with the doggiest year topping out at 17 dogs. Patti, Judie, and Sally get the award for being the only ones from the original group still attending each year. We come from Maine, New Hampshire, Florida, Vermont, Missouri, and New Mexico. Our ages range from 45 to 80. German shorthairs win the popularity contest but there have also been Labs, springers, and Brittanys. Over the years the Bitch Hunt has been based at a few different lodges. Whatever camp we call home for the week, the essential component is a place for lingering over long dinner preparations while relishing the sight of a dozen or so snoring hunting dogs sprawled across floors and couches.
Many of our favorite stories are dog related. Some are set in the backdrop of the lodge, like the time eight-week old Demica watered Vermonter Leslie Helm’s imported down sleeping bag and Shirley Carter, Patti’s mother-in-law, tried to dry it out with a hair dryer before Leslie discovered the soaking. Or the time my Prairie scarfed five enormous blueberry muffins off the breakfast table and had to be treated to a hydrogen peroxide chaser. We’ve figured out how to boost a dog up a bunk bed, triage any number of hunting-related canine injuries, and don’t mind at all when someone else’s dog tries to steal a snack off our dinner plate.
From time afield, etched in my mind is the sight of Scratch pointing an enormous moose–only its huge rear end and astonishing rack visible as it lumbered uphill across a broad ravine. Fifteen minutes later, Cindy Wilson and Isabelle–both enthusiastic hunters but ones preferring to work trails rather than bushwhack–nearly ran into that moose, startling Cooper and Tabor as much as their owners.
Heather also picks a recent hunt as a favorite memory.
“Cholla, wearing a leg brace, six months after having her leg destroyed, hunting her heart out,” Heather recalls. “I watched Cholla track a grouse along the edge of a clearcut atop a mountain until the bird flushed directly in front of Misi Knutson. Then I heard the shot, and then excited shouts. It was Misi, Patti’s daughter and now an avid hunter in her own right, who had just shot her very first grouse.”
There are more stories that can’t be told than ones that can. Private jokes, politically incorrect ones, and lots where “you had to be there.” There have been negatives ranging from rodent-infested quarters and disappointing bird numbers to times of true “bitchiness” with a small “b.” Nonetheless, Heather sums it up well.
“I continue to accumulate an encyclopedia of memories with the women, guns, and dogs . . . the Bitches, with whom I have lived, hunted, laughed, cried, and loved from the bottom of my heart. Women from whom I can be separated for months, even years at a time, but pick up conversations and share experiences as though we were together yesterday.”
Last modified: January 8, 2020