More women set sights on thrill of the hunt by Travis Griggs, Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal Slowly but surely, women are discovering that deer hunting isn't just a man's game. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of women hunting with firearms jumped 50%, from 2 million to 3 million, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Bowhunting women climbed from 500,000 to 800,000, and female target shooters increased from 4.3 million to 4.7 million. Dates for 2010 were unavailable. Born and raised in the Florida Keys, Melissa Johnson moved to Milton, Fla., two years ago with her husband and daughters, now 4 and 10 years old. Last year, she decided to give hunting a try. She'd watched her husband prepare for a hunt. "When I watched him shoot his bow, I was like, 'Whoa, that's cool,' " said Johnson, 30. Her first time out, she killed a 125-pound hog. She went on to shoot three deer in her first season. She's been hooked ever since. She now hunts at every opportunity and has even brought her daughters along. "They love to hunt. They're glued to the windows looking for animals," Johnson said. "I think it makes them well rounded. I have friends who won't take their kids anywhere. But to me, that's quality time. I'm teaching them the way I want them to grow up." The thrill Johnson said she prefers hunting with a bow. High-powered rifles and telescopic scopes allow hunters to shoot deer from hundreds of yards away, almost like a video game. But with a bow, she's limited to 30 yards, max. That's a football pass. It's close enough to hear deer snort and see their nostrils flare. And it's close enough for the deer to hear and see you. "If they get one whiff of you or they see any movement, it's over. They're out of there," Johnson said. There's nothing quite like the excitement of watching a deer walk closer and closer, slowly coming into range, she said. "You think they're going to hear your heart pounding," Johnson said. The stigma Johnson hasn't yet met any other women on her hunting grounds north of Milton. She suspects many women are deterred by the stigma attached to hunters. "There's this preconceived notion that if you're going to go hunting you're some kind of crazy redneck," she said. But that stigma seems to be going away. Molino, Fla., resident Viki Dillashaw, 40, who works as a cashier and customer service rep at Mike's Outdoor Sports, said she has been hunting "since I was old enough to climb up in my grandpa's truck seat." But she said, for the most part when she was growing up, fathers took their sons hunting and daughters stayed home with their mothers. "That's just the way it was," she said. Now, she said, "I'm starting to see a lot of families bringing the girls out, and that's a good thing. Girls who are older, who have heard hunting stories from their fathers and grandfathers, their interest starts to pick up once they start dating a guy that hunts." She also said hunting clubs and outreach programs, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation's "Women in the Outdoors," have done a lot to attract women to the sport. "I'm tickled to death that women are starting to get out there," she said. Stan Butler, manager of Mike's Outdoor Sports, said a few Internet searches and a visit to a local hunting shop would be good first steps for women interested in hunting. "We get the question all the time, 'Where is there to hunt around here?'" he said. "Come into a shop, such as ours, talk to some of the guys, and try to get some insight into how to get started." Johnson and Dillashaw struggled to describe what they enjoy most about hunting. They insisted it's not just about shooting animals, noting that they come back empty-handed more often than not. No, there's something else, something many nonhunters don't understand, something almost spiritual. Being out there in nature - tuned in with nature. "It's really hard to describe why we do what we do," Dillashaw said. "We don't always go out here and kill something. "It's going out there in the peace and quiet. No ringing phones. No television. You just blank everything out. Then you're there in nature looking at what God created."