Born to Hunt

Woman came to sport at 40, became a star in a man's world


Elizabeth Manning / Anchorage Daily News / November 23, 2003


What's a woman to do when she lies to her husband about hunting, then returns home with a caribou head?
That's the position Phyllis Tucker found herself in when she turned huntress at age 40. The Indiana woman had dreamed of stalking and killing animals most of her life but was married to a man who didn't think women should hunt.

Before Tucker went on her second hunt, a guided trip to Newfoundland, she lied and told her husband she was off to Tennessee for some hiking.

She returned home from the "hike" with a caribou head and antlers. Unfortunately, it was a weekend and all the taxidermists were closed. Rather than confessing, Tucker did what any prudent woman would do: She put a couple hundred pounds of meat in the freezer and cooled the head on ice in a bathtub.

The bathroom was one her husband rarely used, but she pulled the shower curtain shut just in case. It didn't matter. Fate intervened. Her husband stepped into the bathroom, and after a few minutes of silence, Tucker and her daughter heard a bang and a shriek.

"He screamed and fell off the toilet," Tucker's daughter, Nikki Haars, recalled. "He'd never seen a caribou before. He was just stunned."

Haars said her mom played dumb at first, but her father soon caught on. He confronted Tucker: "You went hunting for deer in Tennessee, didn't you?"

He was more baffled than angry, Haars recalled, and he remarked on what a large deer it was. Tucker again played dumb, but her husband soon learned the truth: This wasn't a deer at all, and his wife had traveled a great distance to shoot it.


PASSION FOR HUNTING

Tucker, who lives in Muncie, Ind., and has a cabin near Lake Clark in Alaska, said she used to sneak up on animals as a child. By the time she reached her late teens, she knew she wanted to hunt, even though she hadn't grown up around hunters and didn't know anyone who hunted.

Tucker, now 58, is today considered one of the top female big game hunters in the world.

Others are as accomplished as Tucker, but not many women hunters her age began the sport without the support of a male companion, said Kathy Etling, co-author of a forthcoming book on women big game hunters in North America. Solo female hunters were an oddity back then, Etling said.

Etling said Tucker is one of the most passionate hunters she profiled in her book.

"She lives and breathes hunting. It is her life. She knows who she is, she knows what she wants and she goes after it," she said.

Tucker planned her hunting life for years. She grew up in a poor family, one of seven kids, and no one she knew even owned a gun. Her husband didn't like the idea of her hunting -- he said it embarrassed him -- and her priorities back then were raising their two children and working in the family's home-building business.

During those years, Tucker wrote away to hundreds of hunting outfitters, signing her name as P.A. Tucker so no one would know she was female. She received piles of letters and brochures in return, which she stuffed into three bulging suitcases. After everyone had gone to bed, Tucker used to study the letters. She read magazines and books about hunting, the animals, their habits and habitats. She also scrutinized equipment so she would know what kind to buy when she could finally hunt.

Eventually, Tucker bought her first gun, a Weatherby Mark V .300-caliber Magnum.

"It was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen in my life," she said.

At first, Tucker had no idea how to shoot. On a trip to Tennessee, she drove down an old logging road and set up a target. She positioned the rifle on the roof of her Cadillac Seville and fired. The bullet didn't hit the target, but grooved a "V" across the top of the car. After cutting two more "Vs" across the hood and the trunk, she figured how to adjust the scope.
"That car was pretty shot up," Tucker admitted.

Today, Tucker is a dead shot with a rifle, according to those who have hunted with her.

Larry Heathington, a hunting guide from Arizona, said Tucker is an extremely accurate shooter. He said he once watched her put down a black bear with a single shot 200 to 300 yards away. Tucker is also good at keeping calm, say those who know her. In Africa, three lions charged her and a tracker. She shot the biggest at close range; the other two ran away.

Tucker and her husband split two years after she started hunting. She says her husband's disapproval of her hunting was a factor but not the only reason for the divorce. As a single woman, Tucker's hunting and professional life bloomed. She opened her own home-building business, went on to become a top builder in her county and quickly made up for lost time, booking more than a dozen hunting trips annually all around the world.

"I can work 24/7 to hunt," Tucker said.

Tucker has traveled throughout the United States and Canada to hunt. She has also made excursions to seven foreign countries: Mexico, Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, Turkey, Zimbabwe and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. In Kamchatka, she joined the first group of foreigners to hunt there since World War II. She took the first Siberian snow sheep on that trip.

Tucker has won a number of awards from Safari Club International and built a trophy room on to her home that rivals a small natural history museum. In that room, Tucker camps overnight and pretends to hunt with her two of her grandsons, Ethan, 6, and Austin, 5. The boys call her "Grand Bear."

Tucker has also become something of a celebrity in hunting circles. Petite and pretty with coiffed blonde hair and carefully-applied makeup, Tucker has been featured on Cabela's Under Wild Skies TV show, on a hunting calendar and in hunting magazines, such as Wild Sheep Magazine and Women Afield.

Next year, ESPN's Outdoor Channel plans to follow her to Africa to film her pursuing dangerous big game. The channel is planning 10 episodes based on Tucker's hunts.

Tucker no longer hunts as much as she used to, but she still manages a half-dozen trips annually. In recent years, her focus has shifted to finishing her cabin near Lake Clark, hunting more in Alaska and spending more time with her family. Later this month, she is taking her 12-year-old grandson, John, deer hunting. And in fall 2002, when her daughter and son-in-law were living in Eagle River, Tucker guided her son-in-law, Mike Haars, on his first brown bear hunt.

People were surprised to hear that he had gone hunting with his mother-in-law.

"But she gave me the confidence I needed," Haars said. "That was the first animal I'd taken. But I was with her and knew it would be OK."


A MAN'S WORLD

Gaining acceptance in what has traditionally been a mostly male sport has not been easy, Tucker admits.

On her first hunting trip, pursuing sheep in the Talkeetna Mountains, her guide made her walk up a mountain while the other male hunters were flown into spike camps. She didn't get a sheep that trip but loved being in the wilderness. She was hooked.

The guide was so impressed with her dedication, he offered to guide her the next year for free.

While brown bear hunting in the Russian Far East, Tucker said she was forced to sleep in an unheated tent while the other men spent the night in heated wall-tents.

In Turkey, she slept under tree branch shelters and once in a cave.

Tucker doesn't look like your stereotypical hunter, either.

Even in remote hunting camps, Tucker carefully arranges her hair and applies makeup, touching herself up again before she has her photo taken with a trophy.

Eugene Yap, a Hawaii-based hunting guide, said Tucker worked as an apprentice guide for him for three seasons. During that time, he said, she rose at 4 a.m., got ready using her battery-powered makeup kit and then drove to the top of the mountain to get phone reception to make business calls. By the time she came back to camp at 7 a.m., the men would just be stumbling out of bed.

Yap recalls Tucker hunting once in a white silk blouse underneath her rain coat. Everyone else was covered in red dirt but she managed to keep the blouse clean. When it time for a photo, she took off her coat and looked ready for a night out at the theater.
Tucker said she has been teased because of her appearance but said she is just being herself. She also thought she stood a better chance of being accepted if she looked and acted like a lady instead of a man, while still doing everything the men did.

Etling said Tucker is the "epitome of femininity" and a good role model for other women hunters. Heathington called her "all woman with a gun," and added that she always maintains a good sense of humor.

Heathington said she isn't as savvy as some of the best hunting guides but is competent in the wilds.

"I wouldn't want to let her loose on Kodiak Island for two months with nothing but a .458 and see if she lives. But she might," he said.

Other hunters have tried to change her, with only mild success.

On one trip, hunters tossed potatoes at her tent one night in an effort to get her to come out without her makeup on. Another time, an Alaska guide refused to take her brown bear hunting until she took off her black eye makeup, Tucker said. He told her she looked like a raccoon. She had waited five years for the trip and had worked hard at rehabilitating herself from a broken leg just to go. She begged and pleaded with him but finally conceded.

She now only wears a fraction of the dark eye makeup she used to use, admitting she looks better.

Yap said he thinks Tucker was driven to hunt in part because some men told her she couldn't do it. But he also said she possesses a natural passion and spark for the sport he rarely sees, among men or women.

"Somewhere down the line she must have come from hunters," he said. She's the real McCoy when it's time to ... hunt."

Tucker said she "was sort of like a joke to some outfitters" in her early hunting years. But she now gets invited on more hunts than she can possibly do. She doesn't hold a grudge against anyone for all those times she had to prove herself. She said she just feels grateful to be out there hunting.

The way she sees it, she lived the first half of her life for other people. The second half has been for her.

"If I live to be 100, I'll still be out in the mountains hunting," Tucker said. "I have a strong will and determination. As long as I'm standing upright, I'll be hunting. I think about it day and night."

Daily News reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at emanning@adn.com or 257-4323.


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