During hunting season in the backwoods of Montana, it’s not all that rare to run into a chick with a gun, or a bow for that matter. Plenty of female hunters stock the freezer, sometimes during years when their husbands come home empty-handed. But it’s less common to find a female hunter working in Montana’s backcountry hunting camps, and not just in the kitchen, but offering hunting tips to the men, showing them the lay of the land, and guiding them to a herd of elk. These three women break the traditional hunting mold, and they love their work.
In the late 1980s, when Donna McDonald became one of the few women in Montana to obtain an outfitter’s license, she attended her first meeting of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. When she raised her hand to vote on a topic, an old man turned to her and said, “Only the outfitters can vote. Where’s your husband?” Today, McDonald is the president of that association.
McDonald fell easily into her role of hunting guide and outfitter after a childhood of hunting with her father on the Upper Canyon Outfitters ranch outside of Alder, Montana, that has been in her family for over 100 years. And now that she and her husband have literally taken the reigns, along with guiding hunters, she also teaches fly-fishing—with a passion for teaching other women—and leads horse trips. Needless to say, she knows the territory well, so who better to lead the men to their elk each season?
But McDonald says she’s had some strange looks when some men found out she was the guide. “They came to Montana to hunt and wouldn’t expect to have a woman as their guide,” she laughs. “I didn’t say much, just went out and did my job.” And apparently she did it well, because many would come back the next year requesting her.
McDonald admits that she may be limited physically—for instance, she might have trouble lifting a hindquarter by herself—but she’s happy to gut an elk, and once it’s on the horse, she’ll tie up the load. “I know my limitations,” she says. “Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.”
Growing up with outfitter parents who were owners of Bear Paw Outfitters and managers of Slough Creek Outfitters in Paradise Valley, Emily Bowers led her first trail ride at four years old. “I remember the first time my dad made me go,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to, but I loved it.” As a homeschooler, she got to spend unlimited hours falling in love with the great outdoors.
Bowers now runs the trail-ride business in the summer and has spent many a fall up to her ears in testosterone as the sole female in hunting camps, where she does anything from taking care of horses, to hauling wood and water, and packing up elk. She’s been a certified hunting guide in Yellowstone, and although she has yet to guide one-on-one, she often goes along on hunts to help.
And she admits that she too gets some strange looks. “There have been a few times where they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re this young girl, what are you doing?’” she says. “The things I’ve had to help them out with I’ve grown up doing. Even thought I’m a young girl, it doesn’t mean I’m less capable.”
Along with guiding, Bowers hunts for deer, elk, and black bear. “I love getting up early, riding for a few hours in the dark, and just being out there,” she says. “It’s like it used to be in the olden days where you have to work for everything. I think it makes you appreciate things a little bit more.”
Although she’s been working in hunting camps for the past 11 years, it was seven years ago when Leannae Klyap experienced a true hunting high: she was invited to hunt with female hunting guru Brenda Valentine in Tennessee. And it was with Valentine that she learned to bow hunt. “I got into bow hunting with another woman showing me, so it was a lot different than having my husband yelling at me,” she jokes.
Having a bit of bow hunting under her belt helps with the hunters she works with at Dome Mountain Ranch in Paradise Valley, which she runs with her husband. “I do a little bit of everything,” she says, which includes bringing horses to camp and packing the game out, cooking, and taking guests on late-season day hunts.
And she says she’s usually the only woman in hunting camp. “You learn to take things lightly, you’ve just got to be laid back. If they tell bad jokes, you just brush it off. For the most part they are very respectful. At the same time, they’re like, ‘Help us get this out,’” she laughs.
Although she has guided men, she tends to let most hunters go out with a male guide. “The regular rifle season hunters have a lot of money invested,” she explains. “I’m not saying they would be opposed to it, because I live here, I’m out in the field every day, and I probably know more than they do, but I think I would be intimidated… I would think their expectations would be more than I could give them in the way of endurance.”
- O/B Store