Of all the challenges facing a woman who wants to learn to hunt, which one is the toughest? Not learning to shoot. Not buying a gun. Not taking hunter safety. Not even facing the incredulous stares of men.
Nope, the toughest part is finding hunting clothing that fits, and no where is that problem more striking than in the arena of waterfowl hunting.
There's actually a fair bit of women's hunting clothes for big game, safari and upland game hunting - just check out the Women's Hunting Clothing list on the right side of this web page. But you won't see much from those companies for waterfowling.
There is, of course, a reason for that: There are just 131,000 adult women waterfowlers in America, compared with 2.2 million men waterfowlers. More than twice as many women hunt small game (presumably needing upland clothes), and nearly eight times as many hunt big game. (Click on the chart to the left to see it in detail.)
Through this blog and my volunteer work for California Waterfowl, I find myself constantly talking to women who want to go duck hunting and need advice on how to gear up. My answers are never satisfying, because they often involve advice on how to get by with men's gear.
But once a woman has decided she wants to join the world of duck hunting, nothing can stop her. If you're one of those women, this is my advice for you.
For the sake of this post, I'm going to assume that you have a gun, a license and a friend or mentor who can take you out into the field and handle the duck calling. That means all you need to worry about is clothing, which means waders, jacket, undergarment and a few accessories that make a woman's life in the blind much more comfortable.
There are precious few waterfowl waders made for women. Cabela's makes some (click here), as does Ducks Unlimited (click here to see a model my friend Susan was checking out the other day). Based on conversations I've had with folks at Cabela's since I wrote about my recent shopping trip there, I can tell you they're very interested in improving their product offerings for women, which is good news for us.
But unless you're very lucky, you're not gonna find this stuff in your local hook-n-bullet store. You will have to order your waders online, which means you need to know what the return policy is because you can't try them on until your credit card has been charged and the package has arrived. For a hilarious account of my friend Hellen's experience with that, click here.
If you are pretty small, children's waders may work for you. And if you are tall, pregnant and have big feet, men's waders will fit you pretty well. (I'm two out of three of those, and NO, I am not pregnant - I'm 43 years old, people!) But you have to watch out for some problems with men's gear.
If you have a womanly figure - I'm talkin' about that generous hip and thigh that gives us those lovely curves - I can tell you that Hodgmans aren't a good choice. When I was first shopping for waders, I tried on Boyfriend's Hodgmans and hated them because they were so tight on my butt and thighs. They're made for guys who are all gut and no butt.
I ended up with Columbia Backwaters, which have way too much room in the gut for me, but plenty of room for the curves I do have.
One very important note about waders: When you try them on, pay attention to where the buckle sits - you'll often find it's right where you need to mount your shotgun, and I can tell you that has wrecked some shots for me out in the marsh. Why is the buckle there? Because men's waders are made for taller people, which means they come up pretty high on us, and that's the only place left for the buckle.
Cabela's makes women's waders with a Velcro strap (see the photo at the top of this post). But if you don't have those, you might find that you need to leave one buckle undone, hip-hop style, during your hunts. That or break out your sewing machine and replace the buckle with Velcro.
Terry Scoville at the Women's Hunting Journal has another tip: Avoid waders with a steel shank in the boot, because that steel makes your feet awfully cold.
And if you're waterfowl hunting without waders (something I have never done, but I know it happens), she has a boot recommendation for you here.
There are two basic kinds of waterfowl jacket: One that goes outside/over the waders, and one that tucks in.
When I started duck hunting two years ago, I bought a Gamehide outside-the-waders jacket. It is a fantastic jacket - quiet, water resistant, removable fleece liner and loaded with useful pockets. But I had two problems with it.
The first was that where I hunt most often, I usually end up standing, sitting or crouching in the marsh, and I found the bottom of my jacket - including the pockets filled with shells - was dipping in the water all the time. If you think you'll be hunting in a place like that, get an inside-the-wader jacket. But if you know you'll be hunting out of a dry stand-up or pit blind, or out of a boat, the over-the-wader jacket is fine.
The second problem I had with my jacket was size. It was a men's medium, which turns out to be the smallest men's jacket most companies make. That meant I had way too much loose fabric, and I found it was really messing up my gun mount by snagging the butt of my gun.
So what's a woman to do?
Again, if you're small, try children's jackets. If not? Improvise.
There are also precious few women's duck hunting jackets. Cabela's makes an over-the-waders model (click here), but I haven't found any women's inside-the-wader jackets.
Fortunately, I recently met a student at my university, Matt, whose girlfriend is a duck hunter, and he told me that Drake makes men's smalls. Drake, it turns out, has a very broad offering of waterfowl jackets, so I was able to find exactly what I needed there. The men's small is still a bit large for me, but it's the best fit I can find.
And side note, Drake customer service rocks. I recently ordered this jacket and chose shipping that would get it to my house before I left for a Klamath Basin hunt. The next business day - a Monday - I got notice that it wasn't in stock. Yikes! Now it would be really hard to get something in time.
But I called customer service, and the guy told me they had the same jacket, same size, in a different camo pattern (Mossy Oak Duckblind), so I took it, and he rushed the shipping to get it to me before I had to leave for my hunt. Good people! Nice jacket too - I love it.
One of the things that makes waterfowling especially tough on women is the cold and damp. Our extremities seem to get colder than men's, and because the cold doesn't seem to bother men as much, they often don't have advice for us on how to deal with it.
But it bothers me, and I can tell you there are a couple things you can do.
Undergarments - shirts and leggings. Your options here are numerous because you can wear cold-weather hiking or running gear - it doesn't have to be for hunting. The important thing is that it's warm, and that it wicks sweat (which running and hiking gear does well). I have plenty of good stuff because I once trained for a marathon during the winter in Minnesota. Gotta love those 10-mile runs when it's -1 outside.
But I recently succumbed to gear lust and bought something my friend Dana recommended: the Cabela's women's union bib. This will keep your legs and torso warm, and it has one added feature that you may really appreciate in an icy wind: the Quick Relief System, which is Cabela's language for a girl fly, a second fly that opens up the crotch of the pants.
What that means is you can pull down your waders to take a leak, but you don't have to bare your butt - you just unzip. Now, I'm not averse to doing what I have to do out in the marsh. But I can tell you I've done one hunt that was so icy cold and windy that I called it quits for the day so I could pee in a portapotty rather than bare my butt in that wind. I could handle 30 seconds of discomfort if it were just that, but I knew once I did that, I would never warm up again for the rest of the hunt. Never again, baby - I'll wear these next time I'm hunting in those conditions.
Another tip for taking a leak that a reader on the Duck Hunting Chat has reminded me about: If you think you might not have access to toilet paper, just wear a pantiliner. It'll get you through the hunt without that I-just-peed-my-pants feeling.
Terry Scoville has reviewed some other undergarments in her Women's Hunting Journal - here's the Icebreaker 260 Tech Top review.
Socks. This is easy - buy warm and breathable Smartwool. It doesn't have to be camo - any hiking socks will do, and you can buy for whatever temps you're hunting in.
Gloves. I prefer "glomitts", a fingerless glove that has a mitten flap that you can wear over your fingers most of the time, then push away when it's time to shoot. A friend of mine swears by her neoprene gloves, which allow her to push just her trigger finger out of a small opening when it's time to shoot.
But be warned: Many women need a men's small, and it's not always easy to find men's small gloves.
And truth be told, any gloves are an imperfect solution for cold fingers. Why? I'm constantly taking them off to retrieve or handle wet ducks, and once my fingers get cold, they stay cold. That's why I've started using...
Air-activated warming packs. I recently bought some in preparation for that Klamath Basin hunt, which I knew would be colder than my usual October hunt. These are easy to find at your local hook-and-bullet store.
Footwarmers line your wader boots just like any insole insert, and while they don't make your feet blazing warm, they really do stop the cold coming up from the ground, boat bottom or water. This is a problem I've had even in moderate weather. I hate cold feet. One note for women with small feet: The ones I've gotten are one-size-fits all, meaning they're women's size 9. I'm not sure how they'll work in a smaller boot - and I do know you're not supposed to trim them.
Handwarming packs are great too, but it took a little longer to figure them out. Last year a friend shared some with me, and when I put them inside my gloves, I felt great. Then when I took my gloves off to retrieve a duck, my warming packs went flying out into the marsh. Brilliant.
Last weekend, though, I got the hang of it: I just put the hand warmers in my wader bib pockets, and when I wasn't shooting, I shoved my hands in my pockets and my fingers warmed right up. This allowed me to remove my gloves earlier in the day and never get what I dread: fingers so icy and stiff that they can't work the gun.
Don't forget a cap. I did when I first wrote this post, but a reader alerted me to her favorite - an Elmer Fudd-style number - with ear flaps and all! - from Cabela's. It's not a women's cap. But I think we can all agree that caps are pretty gender-neutral.
So, that's my duck hunting gear line-up. I would love to hear from other duck huntresses about anything I haven't mentioned here: women's duck gear you've found, mens' or children's gear that works pretty well for you or tricks you've learned for staying comfortable in the marsh. Just hit the comment link below, or click here to send me an email.
And if you know a woman who wants to go duck hunting, please pass this along. The more of us there are, the more market demand we create, the more manufacturers will make just for us.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008