Kaohly Vang Her remembers waiting as a little girl for the hunters to come home.
"Can I come?" she would ask her father, as the elders dressed the deer in the garage. Hunting was an important part of Hmong culture — a source of nourishment for the body and soul, a chance to reconnect with nature.
"My dad would say, 'No, just the men go,'" said Her, now a state representative, now a hunter. "There were no women in the party."
She stood on the southern Minnesota prairie outside Austin on a crisp Saturday morning, surrounded by other women who didn't grow up hunting and didn't let that stop them from learning how.
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan set out across the fields on her second pheasant hunt, flanked by a line of women in blaze orange.
On a pheasant hunt, you're not thinking about the next meeting, the next deadline. Just the next step, the next breath. The way the bird dogs bound through the corn stubble. The last blaze of fall leaves in the tree line. The twitch in the underbrush that might be a crafty rooster about to break cover.
"You can try new things as an adult," said Flanagan, who borrowed the governor's 12-gauge Beretta for an outing that was designed to remind Minnesotans of the host of programs the Department of Natural Resources offers to welcome newcomers to the outdoors — including new hunters. "There's a whole community of people here in Minnesota who will be cheering you on."
No pheasants were harmed during the pheasant hunt on Ann and Gus Maxfield's property. But it was hard to tell who was having more fun — the bird dogs or the bird hunters.
"That was way more fun than I had even anticipated," said state Rep. Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, after her first pheasant hunt. "For me, it felt much less intimidating to go with a bunch of women — feeling like I was capable and welcome. I absolutely want to do it again."
That's the feeling state wildlife officials are hoping to encourage. Revenue from hunting and fishing licenses supports the state's public lands and wildlife programs. But Minnesota women still take out only a fraction of hunting licenses, compared with men.
Older hunters are aging out of the pastime — last year the state estimated that it lost about 10,000 deer hunters. Now Minnesota is working to encourage a new generation of hunters — and new populations of hunters — to get into the outdoors.
"Oh, that was really fun," said state Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton. "Walking today, I kept thinking, I need to get a shotgun and I need to get a dog. My kids are growing up and leaving the house. I need a new adventure, and this would be the perfect thing."
It was a beautiful day for a walk through the fields with friends, but Her did regret that she wouldn't be bringing a pheasant home to her family.
"Pheasant is one of the most coveted birds," said Her, whose daughters have been hunting since they passed the safety classes when they were 12 years old. "When we pheasant hunt, we share it with the community."
The more experienced pheasant hunters in the group, led by Ann Maxfield, offered advice and safety tips and shouted out warnings when the bird breaking cover was a hen, not the pheasant roosters they were trying to hunt.
"It was a very Minnesotan story of women getting together in community, supporting each other, trying new things, cheering each other on," said Flanagan, who was planning to return the governor's shotgun and get one of her own for the next pheasant hunt. "I was not a hunter and [learning to hunt] has taught me so much."