Hunting in women has been practiced for quite some time. However, some women have barriers to going fully outside to learn and experience more. Erin Merrill, a blogger from Central Maine, celebrates a decade of writing about the Maine outdoors and shares her thoughts, adventures, and insights into the world of hunting and conservation from a woman’s point of view. Erin’s blog, And a Strong Cup of Coffee, is a way to chronicle what she’s been doing and the emotions behind them, as well as to make an impact on other women to make them realize that it’s okay to try new things.
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And A Strong Cup Of Coffee – Erin Merrill
I’m in Maine and Erin Merrill is in Central Maine. How cold is it in Central Maine?
It was about one-degree when I came in.
In Colorado where I’m at, it’s ten above. Erin and I are going to talk about a strong cup of coffee, which we both need. I’m a tea drinker. Erin, what do you like?
I’m a big coffee drinker.
We’re going to be sipping our tea and drinking our coffee. Merrill is a prolific blogger. I came across her on Instagram and want to get her on, one because she found a voice. Let’s start right there because you said something so meaningful about finding your voice.
For hunters, for outdoor women, being able to be confident and knowing that you have every right to be at the table the way that everybody else does help you find your voice. You’ll be able to convey how passionate you are about the things that you’re doing and why it matters. Other people get interested in it if they know that you are interested in it. Being able to be proud of your experiences and wanting to share those with other people.Find your voice and you'll be able to convey how passionate you are about the things that you're doing and why it matters. Click To Tweet
For a lot of people, seated at the table means that you’re involved in conservation, you’re involved in different groups. You’re involved with the blog. How did that get started?
I was interviewed by another outdoorsman several years ago. He wanted to talk about women in the outdoors and I had some stories, but it was one of those, “I’m going to have to do this interview and people aren’t going to know where to find me.” I started the blog and frantically put up a whole bunch of posts about all the photos, all the outdoor activities that I had been doing. It exploded from there. This is my tenth-year writing for And A Strong Cup of Coffee.
Are you monetized? Do you have people supporting you?
It’s me writing it because I love it.
It’s a labor of love. How many viewers do you have on a per day basis?
400 to 500.
You’ve got a good strong following then.
Is that dispersed throughout the country or localized there in Maine?
No, it’s widespread. It’s cool to go in and look at the analytics every once in a while.
You do have a voice and you’re very passionate about the hunting tradition. How did that get passed down to you?
I grew up with a dad who was a passionate outdoorsman. He’s a big deer hunter. It was not uncommon to get home from school, open the refrigerator and see a heart floating in the water. Somehow, when I was twenty years old, I decided I wanted to go with him and he let me. I was the loudest thing in the woods. I snapped every branch. I crumbled every single leaf. The first time I saw him shoot a deer, I was hooked. I had rattled it in giving myself a blood blister because I was so dedicated to the cause. He asked me if I wanted him to shoot it and I said yes. Seeing that deer, knowing that it was going to be feeding our whole family, seeing that you could do that with a one shot, one kill and you have food for the year, I was hooked. I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it all the time. I wanted to dive in full force.
Your first hunt, you were twenty years old. You were a mature adult and you said, “I want to go with you,” then you rattled within. What rattling sequence were you doing or were you just banging horn?
I was winging it. I have no idea what I was doing.
What time of the year was it?
Our rifle season starts on the last Saturday of October. It was somewhere end of October, early November.
The deer in Maine, I’m assuming they were in a rut. Was it cranking up then?
One thing that I’ve found personal and been told by other people is that pre-rut is a good time to rattle because they’re in the pecking order. Hearing the deer get rambunctious in the woods, they’re going to come over because they’re inquisitive. They’re very social animals. People don’t realize that but they are. They come over and are like, “What’s going on?” It’s like schoolyard bullies. You know what happens when a couple of kids go after it and all of a sudden, there’s this whole circle of friends or other kid looking, “They’re going for it.”
It was a little crotch horn. It wasn’t this big bruiser of a deer, but it was the best thing ever.
Every single animal that I’ve ever taken is a trophy, from the smallest to the biggest. It’s the same with the fish I’ve caught. Some of the best fish that I’ve had are little six-inch brookies on those little creeks in New England and stuff. I can remember doing that as a kid. I’d come out and catch a massive brook trout. I’d bring them home and eat them. They taste so good. You’re talking about a six-inch fish. Offshore, they’re not even bait size. It’s a good mess of brookies. At springtime, the turkeys are clucking, putting, purring, doing all the things that they do and then you’re messing it up with the brook trout. That is some magic times there. Let’s talk about some of those magic times for you. You’ve been in the wilds of Maine. Let’s go down to the memory lane a little bit as I was reminiscing about some of those special moments you’ve had in the woods.
My first year, I was with my dad and we had built a treestand and we were hunting from that stand. I only shot a gun twice and my mom was telling me that I was going to be shot out of the back of the treestand because of the kick from the rifle. I was excited but I was also cautious. I had a little spike horn come in and I got super excited sitting next to my dad. When I shot it, I had to ask him if I’d hit it even though I saw its foot jerk back. It was a perfect shot placement and I had the time to be able to make that shot. Dad was super excited. He puffed out his chest then I was done. At that point, I was throwing money because I wanted to do this all the time. I wanted to buy the gear, I wanted to immerse and mount it. They’re hanging in my office because it was the very first deer that I got. I always look at those with the other trophies that I have and think back to that morning in November.
I know you reach out to women and want to empower women, how do you share that feeling with them or that desire? How do you do that?
I have been going to speak to a lot of different groups, talking about conservation and talking about becoming an outdoor woman. How do you get connected through? Social media is fantastic because you can get connected with fly fishermen in your area or turkey hunters in your area. You can go as broad as you want or you can go as narrow as you want to find a group to connect with. I created a nonprofit called Women of the Maine Outdoors, and we provide scholarships to girls and women who want to take outdoor education classes that have a cost associated with them. We’ll help defer some of that cost so that women can get out and experience more, learn more, hopefully get connected with other people that share their passion and want to maybe go with them. Maybe it’s a future hunting buddy. We’re doing as many things as we can to break down any barriers to get girls and women outside.
What’s the number one question women come up to you after a speech? What do they ask you?
They’re interested in trapping and they’re interested in how they learn more. They’re interested in what the next step is. I usually send them to our Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. It does a becoming an outdoor woman program, the bow program. It’s a fantastic introductory program for women who want to learn a little bit and see if they like hunting or if they like fishing. Usually, they’re anywhere from a day to a full weekend for the classes. It gives them a little smorgasbord of opportunities in the outdoors.
You’re able to get the ladies to the right place. Ladies, in any state in the United States, you can go to DOW or DNR and ask them, “I want to learn the sport,” and you’re going to find somebody that’s going to be able to help you because there are courses for you. You need a hunting safety card if you’re going to go hunting. A lot of states have archery proficiency tests or card. There are things that you need to do. The biggest thing is that you get on social media and say, “I want to do this.” There are a lot of forums for women, GIRLS WITH GUNS, Shoot Like A Girl, a couple off the top of my head. Get in touch with somebody in your area and say, “I like to go have a cup of coffee and talk about hunting.” Hunting is for everybody. It’s the fastest growing segment in the outdoor sports. That’s all sports. I had a friend that climbed a fourteener. They didn’t quite get to the top. It was brutal weather, but she and other friends climbed it.
Why not? It’s a good winter outing if you have the right gear. Mountaineering is dangerous. It can kill you but if you have the right gear, then you’re going to be fine. The adventure is out there and you hear these stories. I like what Erin said. She was hooked from the beginning. She realized that she could go out and do this. You don’t have to be a triathlete. You don’t have to be somebody that you see on Instagram that is pumping iron or is an unbelievable physical specimen. Most of us will never get there. The people who do are unbelievable and dedicated to it. Having said that, I’ve never been an exceptional athlete in the outdoors, but I’d never backed down from a hunt. I don’t think Erin has either. In mountaineering, you learn very quickly. It’s step-by-step. You keep doing it until you summit.
Know that you can do it. Have the confidence that you have every right to be there.
I’m glad you brought that up because I was reading something about a book by David Baldacci. It’s a good book. The central figure is an FBI woman agent and she missed the Olympic team by 2.2 pounds. Because of her mental process, she could do it physically but mentally, she couldn’t get the technique down to do the snatch. She said that it wasn’t the physical part that beat her, it was the mental. How important in hunting is the mental process?
I think it’s huge. Much of it goes into you having the confidence to make that shot placement, either with a bow or rifle. You’re knowing your own limits so that if it is one degree, are you going to go out, are you not going to go out? You don’t want to put yourself in a bad situation. It’s having the confidence and having the mental stamina. I’ve hunted in four-degree weather and I also have a heater in my stand. I huddle over that thing and keep walking or keep looking for anything walking by. You need to know what shots you can take and what shots you’re comfortable with so that you’re not making a bad one and you’re not rushing to try to get off a shot that is not ethical.
For me, I know that I need to sit in a treestand. I’ve been on the ground and I watched the deer run right past me because I’m not quick enough to be able to have my brain go, “There’s a deer,” lift up my rifle, put the sites on it and be able to shoot. If I’m in a stand, I can have that ten-second freak out and then I can make sure that I have my shot where I need it to be and make it count. It’s the same thing with bear hunting. I want to make sure that when I squeezed the trigger, I need to do it once. Being mentally prepared for that is huge.
Let’s go back to what you said about ground hunting. I had an accident so I’m not confident about the ground anymore. I want to keep up in the treestand. I was up in a treestand twice and it didn’t work out so well. I hunted completely from the ground. I had one of my best seasons ever. I had the deer within ten feet of me and I hunt with a crossbow. I’m thinking, “How do I shoot it?” because I can’t move. They got me so pegged. That close, they know I’m there. They don’t know what I am because of the scent control and everything was set up correctly. It’s very hard. Back to Native Americans, the people that first hunted deer didn’t have a treestand. It was either spot and stalk or it was on the ground and they waited until the deer walked by within feet. They shot it with the arrowheads.
My dad spot and stalks. My dad would go crazy sitting in a stand so he’s constantly walking and that’s how he shot all of his deer. For the most part, it’s spot and stalk.
Did you ever meet the Benoit Brothers and have them talk?
No. Our local celebrity is Hal Blood. He goes up in the big woods in Jackman and he does that. He’ll stalk a deer for a full day in the big woods.
Help people understand the big woods of Maine. What does that mean?
The endless wilderness. There’s a lot of logging and it borders the Canadian border. When you’re going into the woods, you’re not going to run into anyone else. If you’re out there, you might come across the deer that’s never seen a human before because it’s the wilds of Maine.
There’s something called the Allagash in Maine. Is that big woods?
That’s way up there. It’s swampy. There are big woods. If you look at the map of Maine all through Jackman up to the Allagash, there’s not a whole lot of roads. Maybe some logging roads but that’s not heavily populated, not that Maine is but this is definitely not.
What’s the biggest city in Maine? Is that Portland?
Yes. Portland, then Bangor and Augusta.
Most of the people are in those areas.
Most of the people live within an hour of the coast.
You’re hunting whitetails and you do it from a treestand. How do you pick your treestand?
Based on where we see a lot of the deer sign and where we know they’re crossing, either a stream or food to the bedding area, then we will build them and put them up.
Are you back to plywood in 2x4s?
Yes, we are. They’re heavy duty.
I built stands in 1966. I won’t hunt with those, they’re down because I’m too old to get up into a wooden ladder stand.
That’s what we use. We’re replacing one of them this year. It’s the old school wooden ladder stand. It’s all enclosed. It’s nice. We put shingles on the roof. It’s a box.
It’s not just a wooden ladder stand. It’s a box stand.
They’re big boxes. It helps keep out the wind, the rain and the snow.
It does get cold during the hunting season.
We might wake up and it’s four degrees with a high of fifteen or twenty. I hunted in sleet, freezing rain, snow squalls, sunny, everything. You have no idea what it could be one week to the next.
Do you have potbelly stove wooden heaters?
No, I have a little Buddy Heater that I put in.
Little Buddies are great but I have seen a box stand with a natural heater. The guy is sitting in there, he’s toasty, warm and the smoke curling out of the chimney and they still kill deer. What’s up with that?
I don’t know. I would love that.
Think about that. People say with smoke and stuff, the deer knows you’re there. The deer knows that you’re in the stand anyway. It’s how comfortable they are and how secure they feel whether or not you make a lot of noise or whatever. I know people that will sit in box stands with a potbelly stove going or small out west little camp stove in a box with heat. That’s part of their choice. They put a pile of wood for the season and they go on up the ladder to grab a couple of things or wood.
I would be afraid that the porcupines, the squirrels or any of that would get up in there and gnaw on all the wood. That’s one of the issues that we have.
Can’t you screen it or something so they can’t get in?
We’ll see. We haven’t yet. It’s one of the issues that we need to take care of, how we critter proof it and maybe able to get up in there and make a good shot.
It is a problem. I know guys that leave their bows strung and crossbows everything in their treestand or their box. I go, “What if a critter came in here and snapped that?” The critter would die but you don’t have a bow to shoot it because you blew it up. Your blinds, do you have them insulated, carpet on the floor and all that good stuff?
There’s carpet on the floor. We have some canvas around me, they’re pretty nice.
You mentioned your mom and you have a very understanding husband. Typically, it’s a very understanding wife, but Erin has a very understanding husband. How did all that work out?
He deer hunts and he didn’t get into it much until we got together. He comes out and goes deer hunting and my wonderful mom will watch the kids. Usually, he’ll end up tagging out first, which then he stays home with our kids and I keep hunting. When I go bear hunting, I’m gone for three to five days, so he’s in charge of the kids, getting them to school, meals, bath time and the whole deal. I’m very lucky that I can go out and do these hunting things and he stays home.
Bear hunting, is that with a bow or with a rifle?
People do it with a bow. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, so I’m rifle hunting them.
I need to practice. It goes back to the mental thing. I am not confident enough yet to know that when I let go of that arrow, it’s going to make the shot that I wanted to make. I need to keep practicing and getting my confidence up a little bit. I know I’m good with the rifle.
You’re baiting bear, right?
I’ve been fortunate to take them both with bow and rifles and that was that. I shot the bear right through the heart so it didn’t go far. It was eerie when he moaned.
We had a referendum in 2014 against The Humane Society of The United States. They wanted to remove all bear hunting methods and we won twice in ten years, to keep the hunting methods that we have. In Maine, you can trap, you can hunt over bait, you can still hunt and you can use hounds. When I was writing about the referendum in bear hunting, I wanted to be able to have some firsthand experience. I had a friend of mine teach me how to bait, how to get the barrels all set up, how to go out to bait. I sat over bait. I didn’t see a single bear. I went out with a couple of guys who have hounds and that’s how I shot both my bears.
Was the bear running when you shot him or was he at bay?
I have been very lucky that both of my bears have gone up to trees, so I’ve shot them from the tree.
That is fortunate.
Watching those dogs work is incredible. Watching the guide watch those dogs on the GPS and be able to tell you which dog is in which location and the sounds that they make when they’ve to treat a bear versus when they’re chasing a bear, it’s phenomenal. I love it.
It is exciting. There’s no question about it, especially with the GPS and everything because the guides know what they’re doing plus they know where the dogs. Every little sound means something.
The dogs are so passionate about it and they’re so excited. It was such an incredible experience. The first bear I shot was the only hunt that I had cried over. I was emotional about it because I had learned how to bait. All the time and energy go into having a successful bear hunt. All the time, energy in training and dollars that the guide had to put into the dogs, so that they could go out and get me a bear. I was surprised but I was very emotional about it.
Talk to me about the bear meat versus venison. This is something that a lot of people don’t talk about. A lot of bears are shot and I don’t know if it’s as revered as venison, I think it should be. Let’s talk about that.
I will take bear meat over deer meat any day of the week. I liken it to rich beef. If people don’t like it, they say that it’s greasy or that it’s too gamy. If that’s the case, then it’s either been butchered wrong or it’s been cooked wrong. I make a point of making a bear chili and then I will share it with my neighbors. I will share it with coworkers. I’ve brought it into my rotary club because I want people to understand that we’re not out just hunting bear to hunt them but that they are delicious. They are so good. I love it.
Let’s talk about your favorite recipes. We mentioned chili. You’ve got a bear chili going on. What else?
I will do a roast. I slow cook it and we put some delicious spices. The thing with bears is that you have to treat it like pork because you could get trichinosis, so you have to make sure that you’re thoroughly cooking it. You are figuring out ways that work for you to ensure that it’s cooked but not so dried out that it’s disgusting.
How do you prepare it the best? You go field dress and skin the bear, correct?
Yes, get as much fat off as you can because that will start to leak into the bear meat.
Do you render the fat?
I have not yet, but I know a lot of people that do.
You get the skull and then you have the hide. We have a lot of trophy parts. I boil the skull out and that’s what they have. I know all the people that have bear hides. There are people that know how to take care and spend time preparing the bear meat.
The first bear that I shot during the year of the referendum, I had the skull done and I had an actual bear rug. The average bear taken in the State of Maine is about 120 to 250 pounds. Mine was 457 pounds. My bear rug is in my office. My kids sit on it and listen to books on tape. It’s like this huge area rug that happens to have claws and a head.
That’s a good size bear. In Colorado, we have huge bears because we don’t hunt them. We lost our referendum. We can’t bait them, we can’t run dogs. It’s what it is. It’s not right. DNR is missing out on revenue, but I’m not going to change that. Having said all that, you encapsulate this, then you sit down, put words to pen, words to the computer and start your blog. And A Strong Cup of Coffee is well-known. It’s out there and you’ve done a lot of different things with that. What is your motivation to do a blog on a continual basis?
It has been a commitment. If you look at my archive, you can tell when I’ve had children because it drops off and it comes back up. It’s wanting to share my experiences. It’s wanting to archive them so that my kids can always access them and go back and say, “This is what mom did before I was born or when I was one.” I shot a deer when I was pregnant with both of my kids. That story is up there with those pictures. For me, it’s a way to chronicle what I’ve been doing, the emotion behind what I’ve been doing and to hopefully help others to say, “I shouldn’t go by that outdoor every year. I should be able to be confident to go do X. If she can overcome her fear of snakes and go fishing, so can I.” It’s any of these little things that might make other women feel that it’s okay to go try new things.It's okay to go try new things. Click To Tweet
You wrote an article about Why We Hunt. I posted it on your Facebook thing, the podcast we did with a panelist across the country about why we hunt. Why did you write that article?
A lot of people think that we’re doing it to be horrible or we’re doing it to go out and kill something, that it’s not women who are introducing organic meat into their families or thinking about population control. There are so many other levels to it that I think nonhunters or even anti-hunters don’t necessarily know what a hunter looks like. Getting people to realize that I’m paying a lot of money to go out and do this, which is helping conservation efforts and bringing home organic meat for my family, for my kids. I’m helping the population and I’m keeping the population in check. I’m making sure that from a biological standpoint, everything is all good. There’s something about being out in the woods and only hunters understand this. When you’re out, it’s dark, you’re watching the sun come up in the woods and you hear those first birds chirp, there’s something magical. It’s almost Zen-like when you’re out in the woods and you’re able to witness all of this stuff without the animals knowing that you’re there. It’s phenomenal. I am getting people to understand that it’s more than just squeezing the trigger.Hunting is more than just squeezing the trigger. It’s making sure that from a biological standpoint, everything's all good. Click To Tweet
Thank you for that. We talked about the hunting tradition. We talked about your blog. What’s next for Erin?
I have my hands in lots of pots. Conservation stuff, more writing, getting more women to begin the outdoors. I want to do more. I have some things on my hit list. Getting into fishing more, getting into trapping more and then getting my kids to appreciate that and understand where their food comes from.
When we started off, I mentioned someplace along the line and I asked you, what’s the one big thing that you wish you knew five years ago?
Not to buy into the imposter syndrome, not to think that because I don’t have a million people following me on Instagram or I don’t have these huge numbers of people following me. If I could go back ten years when I was starting my blog and say, “Everything that you’re writing has a purpose and it’s going to evolve into so much more,” that’s what I would go back and think about. You’re not an imposter and that you have every right to be out there, sharing your experiences and just the overall pattern for what we’re doing.
A guy told me, “Bruce, get started.” Craig Boddington, one of his key phrases is, “Die first and quit.” My message is simply to echo what Erin said. If you’re passionate about something in the outdoors, get started doing it, whatever that looks like for you.
There’s a whole bunch of us that are as passionate that are going to welcome you into our tribe.
It’s a matter of the discussions that we’re having. Thousands of people will read this down the road, realized that Erin and I are completely no different than you. We’re passionate about what we do. We want to share it and we want to welcome you to the campfire, to sit down and be who you are and share what you know. Do you have any last words you want to share with the audience, Erin?
Reach out if you have any questions either to me or to anyone who does this for a living. There are always resources out there if you’re interested in getting more information about how you become an outdoor woman program, how you get into deer hunting. One of the coolest things that I take my kids out and do is to look for animals. You can tell what a turkey track looks like in the snow or a deer track and how recently did the deer walked by compared to the snow. All these little things are cute learning tools to get more and more interested in the outdoors. We’re welcoming groups so anyone that wants to be a hunter, a trapper, a fisherman, reach out because there are tons of us that are willing to help. Keep adding more and more people to the things that we love to do.
How does somebody reach out to you?
Erin, you had been an absolute joy and I look forward to having you this interview. It’s great to sit, chit chat and touch on a lot of things because people do have questions. It’s people like you that are so welcoming and so real that makes the show successful. Thank you so much.
Thank you very much.
- Erin Merrill
- And A Strong Cup of Coffee
- Women of the Maine Outdoors
- Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife
- GIRLS WITH GUNS
- Shoot Like A Girl
- David Baldacci
- Benoit Brothers
- Hal Blood
- The Humane Society of The United States
- Why We Hunt – Article
- Craig Boddington
- @WoodsAndCoffee – Instagram
- And A Strong Cup of Coffee – Facebook