Bowhunter Jessi Johnson: How my first hunt turned me into an advocate for public lands

Co-founder of new sportswomens’ group shares her story


In the latest episode of the Center for Western Priorities’ Go West, Young Podcast, bowhunter Jessi Johnson, one of the co-founders of Artemis Sportswomen, told the story of how her first hunt transformed her into a public lands activist for life.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

I am a relatively new hunter. I did not grow up hunting; I did grow up with a father who hunted. Both my parents are ranch managers, so we always had this access to these great open spaces, both private and public. But I didn’t pick up a bow until I moved to Wyoming and met a wonderful person who sat down and took the time to teach me how to bow hunt.

I will never look back — it is absolutely how I get into the landscape, how I find a sense of my place in the world, and it leaves me refreshed and ready to get back up and fight for protecting it.

Jessi Johnson

I purchased a bow and didn’t even take it hunting for about the first year and a half of owning it. I didn’t feel comfortable my first season, just didn’t feel like I was quite ready. Even in shooting daily, you have to set your own parameters as a bowhunter. There’s no rulebook that says “you can’t shoot past this yardage,” but an ethical bowhunter will put parameters on themselves and know where their shots are good and when it’s out of their ability.

That first year, I just didn’t feel like I knew myself nor my ability well enough to call that ethical; so I waited a while, and I practiced daily with it. It’s always an adventure with a bow. It takes dedication. It is more of a lifestyle than just a hobby.

I take the month of September off. That’s archery season here in Wyoming, and I made it my life plan to make sure I wasn’t working those days, because that’s how you recharge and how you get into a place, and as a bowhunter you need that time. The first couple “hunts,” the first three days of September, were just a lot of learning and a lot of being on my stomach in sagebrush and watching deer run away from me because they’re a lot more alert, and I’m a lot louder than a deer.

I was learning how that went, and I was lucky to have this mentor along with me who was a wonderful teacher, and just cautioned me on patience. As a bowhunter, you’ll hear this: “You’re not going get anything your first year. Just expect to go out and learn how smart animals are and how loud you actually are.”

Jessi Johnson

So I went out with these low expectations, just wanting to learn and be out in this incredible sagebrush country, and watch these animals that I’m in awe of.

I spend my year watching deer. It’s an odd pastime, but the deer that I was hunting that year are deer that I’d known for almost a year, and had seen earlier in the year. I knew a lot of their feeding habits, knew where they were. Mule deer have a high fidelity to their home range, so I had a great idea of where they would be and what times.

I spent about two-and-a-half to three hours on my stomach, army crawling and pushing my bow slowly ahead of me to get in on this group of bucks; one buck in particular that I’d seen earlier that year. I can’t explain it. I looked at that buck, and I looked at Jared, who’s the person who taught me how to shoot a bow, and said, “I want that deer. He’s beautiful, he’s healthy, he’s been in this incredible landscape.”

Jared goes, “Don’t get cocky. This is your first bow season.”

I said, “OK, I want an ethical hunt, and I’ll be happy with that.”

“My” deer in July, through the spotting scope | Jessi Johnson

So I’m pushing my bow ahead of me, middle of the first week of September, and I remember sticking my elbow in a cactus and having this moment of, “Oh my God, what am I doing?”

I kept going forward, and got into a position where I had a higher sagebrush next to me, and I remember these three or four bucks; there was a little one, and a pretty big one, and then what I like to say was “my” one. And I kept telling myself, “Whatever deer gets within an ethical range, you can’t be picky, this is your first time, make sure it’s a good shot. That’s what counts.”

They stayed right at 30 yards, which is what I’d told myself I wasn’t going to shoot past. They stayed right around 31 to 32 yards. These deer, they know. They didn’t ever act like they knew where I was. I definitely knew they had at least a little bit of my scent. And they turned, and they stayed at that 32 to 35 yard mark. And they went down the hill, and I was like, “Ah well, that was close, but it was really cool to watch.”

Then they turned around, and they came back. They stopped — this is probably three hours in — and it was getting to lower light, the last shooting light. And these three deer came, and the only one that stopped within my yardage that I’d marked for myself was the buck that, three months earlier, I’d looked at and said “I want that one.”

I have no idea what kind of serendipitous event created this opportunity and this connection, but I had that moment where I was like, “Well, I guess now I need to draw my bow,” because he was standing broadside at about 26 yards. It was beautiful. The Wind River mountains were behind him. I’d watched him feed in the sagebrush, and they had this pink glow that was just touching the tops of the sagebrush.

I remember time slowing down, pulling my bow back, and having that moment of, “Well, I guess now I let the arrow loose.”

Shooting at a live animal is very, very different than shooting at a target. I remember watching the arrow fly. Animals have a tendency to what we call “jumping the string.” The twang of the bowstring can spook them. So they hunch up and they’ll go to run.

The bizarre thing is that the two deer that were with him ran. He didn’t. He just stayed and looked at me. I will never forget — we made eye contact as my arrow contacted him. It was a perfect shot placement. I remember seeing the arrow go right where I wanted it to. Then he turned and went down the hill.

With archery, we have this rule: After you make a shot, you do not move for the next 30 minutes. You do that so you don’t spook the animal. Even if you make a bad shot, you have a wounded animal, and the last thing you want to do is spook them so they run further. So you wait.

I remember waiting those 30 minutes, shaking. It was this mixture of horror and excitement all at once. I felt great about that shot.

Jessi Johnson

After the half hour had passed, it was getting dark. I waited a little bit longer because I wanted to be sure. I stood up. Jared had been down the hill from me. He heard the thwack of the arrow, and was like, “Oh my God, she got something.” He came up and asked what happened.

We went down to where I’d shot it. There was good blood sign, and by that time it was pitch black and had started snowing, which is not great when you’re looking for an animal. We spent the whole night looking for this deer, but couldn’t find him.

I was beside myself, and horrified at what I’d done. I was so new at it that while I was confident in my shot, I was also not confident in my confidence.

We came back the next morning, same place, at first light, and put a spotting scope up. We found him immediately. Jared glassed him up and said, “You gotta look through this scope,” and I was thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to see an injured deer, walking around with this horrific wound, this is awful.”

I looked in. He hadn’t gone 50 yards from where I’d shot him. I just couldn’t find him. He’d tucked his head into a sagebrush a bit, so you had no eye shine. It was dark by that time, and our footprints were within a couple feet of him, but he looked like a rock, so we didn’t find him that evening.

He died, probably, in the first two minutes from when my arrow hit him. It was a perfect shot placement. I couldn’t have wished or asked for better. That relief, knowing it was a quick death, and painless in that sense. That almost two years of preparation and this connection to this animal and this landscape came to fruition in this moment.

Jessi Johnson

I never had that celebratory mode; I think I went right to overwhelmed gratitude. Even now I get a little choked up, because it introduced me into this world of being so thankful for the things and the opportunities that we have. Thankful to the animal for that. Recognizing that this leads into what I do now.

That hunt is really what kicked me into gear to spend my life working for these animals’ wild places that they depend on, and being a voice for those that don’t have it.

What Jessi would say if she sat down with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke:

I would like to ask Ryan Zinke who he thinks his public lands users are. He continually states himself a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. I would love to hear him talk about who his public lands customers are; who he supports as Secretary of the Interior.

Looking at who he is and what he’s said, I expect that he would talk about permit holders and Western states and probably a lot of the industry-style things. I think the ability to sternly remind him that public lands are held in trust for all Americans, not just me, the hunter in the West, but maybe the cat lady in New York too.

I think he forgets that multiple use, as defined by the Federal Land Policy Management Act, goes into a lot more than extractive industries.

Where Jessi wants to go next:

I’ve been planning a coues deer hunt in Arizona. It’s a subspecies of whitetail. This high desert “grey ghost” is what they call them.

The country they live in is unbelievable. It’s these sky islands, surrounded by flat lands. These mountains come up and have a little higher precipitation and a little bit more water. It’s incredibly rugged country.

A representative from Wyoming asked me, “As a young person, how do you choose where you travel?”

I told him, “It’s the amount of public land and the access to it.” He was floored by that.

Hunting gets you into a landscape more than just hiking or backpacking because you tend to go off trail. There’s no written place about where an animal will go. You go where the animals go.

If I had to pick a place, the top of my list is probably Alaska. If I’m really picky and if I win the lottery, it would be a Dall sheep in Alaska.

It’s because of the country those incredible animals live in, and honest to God, if I spent 12 days hunting my butt off and didn’t get one, I would still think that I had experienced the most incredible hunt of my life.

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