MARDELA SPRINGS, Md. (AP) — Butchering a deer isn’t for the squeamish, but in the glancing light of an empty barn in Mardela Springs, 25-year-old Nettiel Stewart tackles her first cut with quiet focus.

“You’ve got to keep the hair away from the meat,” veteran hunter Maribeth Kulynycz advises. “It’s a lot harder if you have to get it off later.”

The two women carefully work their way around the buck that hangs suspended from the ceiling, slicing the skin off as they go.

Standing by with helpful tips is Kulynycz’s brother, Luke, who they refer to as the expert butcher.

Though they tackle the task together, the meat belongs to Stewart. It’s her first deer and she’s beyond excited to recall the hunt.

“I can’t even explain it,” she said. “It was definitely one of the best days of my life.”

Stewart is one of a growing number of women across the country who have taken up hunting.

In Maryland, hunting and who does it has changed rapidly over the past several years.

“We’re seeing numbers of women hunters grow and grow,” said Karina Stonesifer, associate director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “It has really taken off.”

In 2013, the total number of licensed female hunters was 5,421, according to numbers provided by the agency. In 2018, that number had jumped up to 7,251.

Women said while they once viewed hunting as a sport for “older men,” representations of women from hunting shows to instructional programs have the landscape.

Stonesifer coordinates the Department of Natural Resources program “Becoming an Outdoors-Woman,” which provides guidance in skills like hunting, fishing and camping.

Demand for these types of workshops is sky high, Stonesifer said, and they fill up as quickly as the department can open more.

“It is a safe place where women can come and learn and they love it,” she said.

Stewart and Kulynycz met in one of these programs, a mentored deer hunt where the two bonded over their shared love of the outdoors.

Kulynycz, a Princess Anne native, has been exploring the woods since before she could walk and took her first deer at age 9.

“Ever since I was a kid they had to drag me indoors kicking and screaming at night,” said the 32-year-old Kulyncz.

Still, it hasn’t always been easy for her to fit into the male-dominated hunting community.

She remembers feeling boys were jealous of her experiences as a kid. When she got older, many men were welcoming but some were hesitant to take her hunting advice, despite two decades of experience.

“I definitely have felt the stigmas over the years,” said Kulynycz. “I think we do have to work harder to earn our place and to earn the respect among other hunters.”

An hour north in Millsboro, Delaware, Physical Therapy Assistant Stacie Street has felt the same pressure.

She got hooked on the sport 10 years ago.

“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “Your adrenaline is just rushing and that’s a feeling you don’t know it until you feel it.”

At that time, there were less women in the hunting community. She said men were “shocked” to see her hunting and would question whether she could handle the physical demands of gutting and hauling her meat.

It wasn’t just in the field. Street’s been the President of Lower Delaware’s National Wild Turkey Federation chapter for the past four years.

“When I first took over I could kind of see the hesitancy of some of the guys asking me questions regarding turkeys, regarding hunting, regarding even something as small as the banquet,” she said.

Now, years later, she feels she has gained the respect of her male peers and believes men are becoming more accepting as increasing numbers of women get out into the woods.

But many say they have noticed there is still a lack of women of color involved in hunting.

Stewart remembers sitting on her front porch as a kid documenting the deer that frequented her neighborhood. She always wanted to starting hunting, but with no family involved in the sport, she wasn’t quite sure how.

When she participated in a recent mentored hunting program, she wasn’t surprised to see that there were no other women of color around. As a park police officer, that’s nothing new for her.

Nevertheless, she had a good experience and felt the people she met were warm and welcoming.

“I’m kind of used to being the only person of color so it doesn’t really bother me,” Stewart said. “But it definitely is something that is lacking.”

She believes it’s not an absence of interest, but that women of color might not feel comfortable coming into a community traditionally dominated by older, white men.

Stonesifer acknowledged a lack of women of color, but said she works to spread information about the Maryland DNR’s programs all communities statewide.

“We want all women to feel welcome regardless,” she said.

Shared between the experienced and new hunters is a love of nature and a desire for self sufficiency.

It’s unknown what has caused the rise in female hunters, but at the DNR Stonesifer said she’s seen a number of mothers learning to hunt and passing on the sport to their kids of both genders.

At 10 years old, Kelsey Carter is already experienced out in the woods and has just completed her hunter’s safety course.

She hunts with family, including her mom Betsy Wells.

“It’s really fun,” said Carter. “One time when we were hunting there was a baby deer, me and mommy were so quiet and it almost stuck its head into the tent. It was so cool.”

Wells, a Hebron resident, said she enjoys spending the quality time out in the stand with Carter whether they are chatting or just enjoying the quiet together.

That’s an experience Snow Hill stay-at-home mom Fidelia Kurtz also hopes to have with her two young kids.

She recently took her daughter out into the woods for the first time, to sit, observe and practice being quiet.

“She’s 3 and sometimes she wants to go hunting,” said Kurtz.

But she doesn’t want to push the kids to participate if they don’t want to.

“We’ll just let her decide,” she said.

Kurtz herself was hunting well into her pregnancy and said being a mom has hardly slowed her down.

It’s a passion she plans to keep following her whole life.

“You don’t ever know what’s going to happen that’s kind of what I like about hunting,” said Kurtz.

“And, of course, it’s fun shooting big bucks,” she said.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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