Gabi Vencak has been hunting for two years and is still waiting to harvest her first deer.
While the 14-year-old has yet to fill a tag, she possesses something that can rival even the most experienced hunters: a passion for the sport.
Vencak became interested in hunting after watching her family, particularly her older brother, Dalton, head out for a day in the woods and often come home with deer or turkey.
“I would see my brother always coming back with a nice deer, and I knew I wanted to do it,” said the Luzerne County resident.
“It would be great to get something, but I also really like going out with my family,” she added.
Family time is a factor that also draws Joanie Swartwood to the woods every season. She’s been hunting for 30 years and has harvested eight deer, including an impressive 11-point buck during the rifle season.
But for Swartwood, who resides in Mountain Top, the harvest is secondary to spending time outdoors with her husband, Mark, and connecting with nature.
When she heads out in the morning to hunt, Swartwood doesn’t come home unless she bags a deer or it gets dark.
Equipped with a can of charcoal, which she burns to stay warm, and a lunch, Swartwood said spending the day in the woods during deer season is like being in a different world.
“It’s a long day, being gone from dark to dark, but it’s so beautiful out there and I feel connected to the gifts of God,” she said. “It’s neat being out there when it snows and even when it rains.”
“Being in the woods during deer season is one of my favorite places in the world,” she said.
Still, when it comes to women who hunt, Swartwood and Vencak are in the minority among their friends.
Vencak, who is a freshman in high school, said she only has one other friend that hunts.
Swartwood said none of her friends are hunters.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “They don’t want to go out in the dark and sit in the cold. But I’ve told them all of my stories and I’d like to take them with me. They don’t know what they’re missing.”
According to figures from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 10.3% of all Pennsylvania hunters in 2018 were female. The agency sold 855,486 hunting licenses last year, and women accounted for 88,122 of those sales. In 2013, 87,111 women bought licenses to hunt in Pennsylvania.
“My friends at school think hunting is disgusting, and they say it’s sad,” Vencak said. “But in our family, we hunt because we enjoy the meat. Last year, my brother got a turkey and our family had it at Thanksgiving. That was special.”
And, they cherish the time together in the woods.
During the 2018 deer season, Vencak was hunting with her brother when two deer appeared behind them.
“We both shot and missed, but it was fun and something we remember,” she said. “It was a bonding moment with my brother.”
Swartwood also has plenty of memories of hunting with her husband, including the time they tracked her 11-point buck together. One reason that her days in the woods are often long is because she is selective in what she harvests.
It has to be a legal buck, offering a good shot, Swartwood said, and she’ll only squeeze the trigger if her family can utilize the meat.
“It has to be food on the table. It’s important that we use what we kill,” Swartwood said.
In her family, that’s not hard to do.
“Mark is an excellent cook and we eat venison in so many ways. With a family, it’s helpful to have venison in the freezer,” Swartwood said. “We have picky kids and, amazingly, they both enjoy it.”
Vencak hunts for deer, and in the spring and fall, for turkeys. She would like to try for bear as well, and in the future hopes to travel to another state with her brother to hunt for elk.
In the meantime, Vencak’s short-term goal is to harvest her first deer and help fill her family’s freezer.
“I came close to getting a buck last year, and I’m really excited about the upcoming season,” Vencak said. “I really hope I can get a deer this year. It would make me proud.”
Swartwood is also eager to hit the woods again. She enjoys the meat and the time spent with her husband, but said there’s yet another draw that adds to the anticipation.
“I absolutely love when I see a deer approaching, and then you see those horns through the trees. Your heart is pumping and it’s an incredible thrill,” Swartwood said. “That’s what keeps me out there all day.”