The first time Christine Gonzales joined an elk hunt, she went just to observe. She'd started working at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish in the IT department, a computer programmer who transferred from Tax and Revenue. She'd fished a couple times as a kid with an uncle, but never really got attached. Working for Game and Fish sparked an interest in wildlife that led to wildlife viewing with a cousin, and then trout fishing with a friend who would catch the fish and hand her the rod to reel it in. She took courses the department offered on personal safety with handguns and shotguns, and started shooting clay pigeons. Then the opportunity came to join a hunt.
"I tagged along just as a observer because I never thought I'd be able to take an animal," she says.
She was right there, giving one of the hunters directions on what she thought were elk, she recalls: "I heard a blast and felt my stomach drop out of my belly—'Oh, now he killed an animal and it's my fault.'"
Some elk turned and ran up the mountain toward where she was sitting, stopped when they saw her, and turned another direction. She told herself: "That's why you're here—you said you were going to help and you wanted the experience."
As the hunters processed the elk, they told her to stand back and not to touch the carcass, but she reached a hand out anyway.
"I really wanted to see what it felt like, so I stuck my hands in there, and they didn't realize whose hands they were handing the piece of meat to," she says. "And I just remember thinking, 'Ah! It's still warm,' then I looked at it and thought, 'Hey, it's no different than what you get at the grocery store.'"
Soon, she was hunting rabbits and turkeys, working her way up toward deer and elk, first to watch, then carrying her own shotgun.
"It was just kind of a gradual process for me, but then it was game-on—'I'll try that,'" she says.
One of her first takes was a oryx, a once-in-a-lifetime tag she drew as a hunting safety instructor for the department. She'd begun teaching in part to give back to the hunting community, but also to be a female presence in a room often full of men. When she took that first hunter safety course, the only other woman present was attending as part of a couple. She's been instructing now for just over a decade.
Most of the time, she says, she's the minority. According to the National Wildlife Federation, women comprise just 25 percent of anglers and 20 percent of hunters, but their numbers are growing fast. In May, the federation launched Artemis, named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, to organize and recruit sportswomen. New Mexico native Gonzales was recruited as one of its founders.
"It's not just about getting women out there hunting and fishing, although that is something that we want to do," she says. "It's also advocating and being a female voice out there for why it's important to keep our public lands and waters healthy and available to everybody to enjoy."
With national monuments at risk of being downsized, women need to mobilize, she says—because if monuments aren't safe, who's to say national forests and BLM lands won't be next?
"It's about advocating—and I mean living the life, really living that lifestyle of hunting and fishing, and why is it important to you?" Gonzales says. "Why is it important to bring your kids up with that kind of environment? What's going to happen if those public lands and public waters disappear?"
This September saw her bow-hunting deer in the Jemez, hiking through the forest 11 of the 24 days of her season. She's been hooked on archery since her second year with it, when she took a 10-point buck—"a beautiful buck," she says. "For a second year of archery hunting, couldn't ask for anything better than that."
This fall, private land and an absence of clean shot opportunities prevented her from filling her freezer or restocking the hair and feathers she uses when she ties her own flies, though she was among deer every day.
"It was great to be able to see them—it was a great experience," she says. "Just being out there, enjoying the scenery—sunrises, sunsets are spectacular. … It's just nice to be out there."
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community.