By Ken Perrotte
"Where did you find this girl?" After Jessica Kelley's second hunting trip with me to his Kinloch Farm in Essex County, Virginia, Bruce Lee asked. Lee and other experienced hunters who meet Kelley are blown away by her unbridled enthusiasm for living an outdoors lifestyle. They find her passion for hunting amazing and wonder what took her so long to pick up a gun or a bow.
Kelley, age 37 and a single mom with a three-year-old daughter, is – as the saying goes – "all in" when it comes to wanting to learn how to be a skilled, successful hunter. She readily asks questions and is an attentive listener, a serious student immersed in a latent passion for harvesting her wild game protein.
Her curiosity and quick grasp of details aren't surprising. She was her high school's valedictorian in Evans, Georgia, an Augusta suburb, before earning two bachelor's degrees, one in Spanish and another in nursing, and then advancing to dual-track master's and doctorate degrees in nurse anesthesia. Since 2017, she's served as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) Health in downtown Richmond. She works with pediatric and adult patients, administering different types of anesthesia and assisting anesthesiologists in supporting surgical teams.
Kelley grew up in a family of hunters, gatherers, and gardeners. Her father is a son of the South, raised in Sandersville, Georgia. Her mother is a Midwesterner from Illinois.
"Daddy used to say we would eat anything that didn't eat us first," Kelley said with a smile. "Mom doesn't like all the organ meats or game meats, but she would clean and cook anything and everything we caught or brought home."
Kelley cheerfully recounts fishing, crabbing, and shrimping expeditions in Beaufort County, South Carolina, just three hours from their Georgia home. "I learned to throw cast nets for mullet and shrimp off the dock, the back of a Jon boat or a canoe when I was a young child. We did a lot of pole fishing, too," she said. "My parents would take us flounder gigging in the creek at night at low tide with spotlights and the Jon boat. Daddy used to hunt and frog gig as a youth. He'd sell bullfrogs to one of the best restaurants in downtown Augusta."
Her mother's side of the family impressed her with their expert gardening, canning, preserving, cooking, and baking skills.
"They grew or caught almost everything they ate and had a garage full of shelves stocked with canned goods, and a freezer full of home-grown berries, vegetables, rabbit meat, chickens, and more," she said. "I grew up following my dad's example, eating liver and onions, tripe and beef, and cow feet cooked until the cartilage melted in your mouth."
Her parents involved all the kids in scouting, serving as den parents. "When I got into high school, I joined the Venturing troop, which was co-ed Boy Scouts. We did all kinds of outdoor adventures, but I never got to participate in hunting activities. Daddy took my brother dove hunting once with the Boy Scouts, but it was a father-son activity," she explained.
Drive for Self-Reliance
Like many adult-onset hunters, Kelley's journey to joining the ranks of license holders and heading to the fields and woods comes along a winding road, punctuated with demanding school and work pressures and lengthy, turbulent divorce.
"I realized I am a single mother raising a young daughter far from home and family during a global pandemic, no less. I want to be more self-reliant, like my great-grandparents. I want my daughter to have all the great opportunities of camping, gardening, growing and making our food, fishing, and hunting. I'm determined to show her these things whether I have a husband or not," she declared.
Kelley began taking her then-toddler daughter Miriam and their golden retriever tent camping at state parks across Virginia in 2020. She began dating a "country guy" from Tennessee a year later. They visited state wildlife management area ponds to go frog gigging and fished from kayaks for catfish in the Rappahannock River.
She soon realized she wanted to hunt and began researching gear options, eventually buying a compound bow and archery target, a shotgun, rifle, and camouflaged clothing. Hoping to break into duck hunting, she even bought a black lab puppy from a gundog breeder in March. It began retriever training in August. She studied online articles about successfully hunting deer and completed Virginia's online Hunter Safety course.
The dating relationship cooled, but that didn't dampen Kelley's newfound goal of becoming a hunter. She began hunting solo from a ground blind during early archery season, first going to WMAs and then signing up for an Outdoor Access account to allow her to hunt some private land. Next came the purchase of a climbing tree stand and safety harness.
The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources has a fledgling program designed to pair hunting novices with mentors. She signed up and was able to get some experience shooting her firearms. She was also advised to investigate nearby Fort A.P. Hill, which offers public hunting, albeit in a more regulated, managed environment than might be encountered in a state or national forest.
Learning to hunt successfully as a novice is one thing; trying to do it with a preschooler in tow is another. Still, Kelley wanted her daughter to share in the experience, hopefully seeing what it's like to bring your meat home from the woods. She learned from other hunters with young kids that ground blinds offered the best option. Still, any trip to the woods is a logistical exercise.
"When I brought Miriam with me to A.P. Hill and the WMAs, I carried extra snacks and food and blankets for her to lay on in the blind. I brought a book and tablet for her to read or watch movies with headphones," she said. "She's pretty quiet when in the blind but still learning how to walk quietly through the woods. She has trouble staying out until dark, but I hope that will change as she gets older. She loves coming with me."
Let's Get a Deer!
Kelley's hunting novice chops were slowly developing. Despite a solid effort, though, she didn't see deer; she wasn't sure how to respond even if she saw one. Managing expectations is a must. New hunters must understand they will not have an opportunity to take a deer every time out. On many days afield, they might not even see a deer. Developing outdoor skills takes an investment – not just in gear but in time. Many novices learn through repeat trial and error. Kelley knew additional coaching could only help in shortening her learning curve.
I worked for years as an Army civilian at Fort A.P. Hill. Deer hunting can be good, but hunting private land managed for deer is usually a better option. Many novice deer hunters, especially youngsters, killed their first deer at Lee's farm. He supported the Virginia Deer Hunters Association's annual youth hunts for years. My grandson Kenny took his first deer there.
I asked Lee if I could mentor Kelley at Kinloch. He agreed but stipulated the hunting would be for antlerless deer. Lee adheres to quality deer management principles, seeking an appropriate balance of bucks and does. He wants any buck a hunter takes to be a prime adult deer. A cooperator in Virginia's Deer Management Assistance Program has a limited supply of either-sex deer tags each season.
Kelley and I met at the farm. We set up an impromptu range where she could get familiar with our Mossberg Patriot rifle chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor. I knew she'd find its recoil infinitely more comfortable than the .30-06 she owned.
The firearms experts at Green Top Sporting Goods in Glen Allen, Virginia, mounted the scope, a GPO Passion 4-12x42 model. The rifle was zeroed, but we needed to adjust it for Kelley's eyes and practice.
Shots at Kinloch can range from extremely close out to 200 yards. Loaded with Hornady Precision Hunter 143-grain ELD-X ammunition, the Mossberg was well up to any task within that range. Uncertain, though, was Kelley's shooting ability, given her limited experience.
We placed a Caldwell Deadshot shooting bag on a picnic table and set up a 100-yard target. It soon became evident that Kelley needed work in mastering shooting techniques. The 100-yard grouping was not great. We then moved the target to 60 yards. Things tightened up across the next few shots. Still, opportunities in the field when adrenaline is pumping, and anxiety may be in play were something we'd have to evaluate carefully.
Upon arriving for an afternoon hunt in a big box blind, we first ranged distant, and near landmarks, then practiced stealthily raising the rifle and positioning it out of the shooting windows. We discussed the importance of being quiet and, even though we were in a blind, the need for slow, cautious movement, especially when deer were visible.
A pair of antlerless deer showed up early, about 125 yards away at the far end of a dirt road, near a lone oak that had littered the ground with acorns.
"Can I try a shot?" she asked.
"Nope," I said. "Too far. We've got some time yet. Let's see if any deer appear closer."
Again, we used the opportunity to practice positioning the Mossberg, finding the deer through the scope, and then dialing up the magnification until we had a good aiming point. The deer didn't spook. I detected a bit of disappointment, but as we quietly discussed, we owe it to the animal to make a quality, clean shot.
An hour later, Kelley pointed to the window at her left and whispered, "Deer."
A young spike was feeding leisurely in the oats, just 60 yards away. Three other deer, all young bucks, soon appeared on the opposite side of the field, some 90 yards from the blind. All we could do was watch. Watching is always a good thing for a novice, getting to see how deer move and react. Mentally assessing shot angles and practicing quiet positioning when deer are present are valuable exercises.
The end of legal shooting saw Kelley exhilarated, simply at seeing deer.
We preceded the next day's hunt with a bit more shooting practice, this time with better results. A small deer ran from the food plot as we approached our stand in a secluded part of the property. Ninety minutes later, a deer reappeared from the general vicinity where the original animal ran. My betting was it was the same deer.
This deer offered broadside opportunities for 20 minutes. I could tell Kelley was eager to make something happen. I asked if she thought she could make the 110-yard shot. "Yes," she answered. She seemed ready. With 30 minutes of legal light left, I gave the okay.
The Mossberg came out the window. I suggested dialing the scope to 10 or 12, again coaching on breath control before the trigger squeeze.
"Okay, I'm ready," she whispered.
I raised the binoculars. The deer slightly flinched at the shot but quickly threw up its tail and fled into the woods. I wasn't sure if it was a hit or a miss. Most deer don't put up their tails when shot. We reached the area where the deer had stood just a couple of minutes before dark. Careful inspection of the ground nearby showed no evidence of a hit. I explained how to do a zig-zagging search along the deer's expected route, looking for blood or the dead animal itself. A 100-yard-plus search yielded nothing. Likely, it was a clean miss.
Kelley was dejected.
"All I could think was, I thought I had it in the scope, but where was the deer?" she said. "I didn't see what happened or where it went in the seconds after the shot, and I was miserably unprepared with my dim little headlamp for the reality of blood trail tracking in the dark through thick brush. It was a great learning experience, seeing what to do in that situation to find the deer. Thankfully, it was a clean miss, and the deer escaped unharmed."
Kelley said she liked the Mossberg Patriot, calling it "a pleasure to shoot." Adding, "I really liked the scope, too. I just need to practice more with targets so I can be more consistent with accuracy."
'If at First, You Don't Succeed….’
Lee's hunt club members noted Kelley's enthusiasm and invited her to join them that Saturday on drive hunts where they use close-ranging bird dogs to get deer moving. She texted me updates, outlining her excitement, likening it to scouting adventures or being part of a team on a battlefield. Helping drag deer others shot was a highlight.
Lee told her she was welcome to hunt until she took a deer, so she returned the following Monday. However, I couldn't be there, so hunt club member Mark Sauder assisted, setting her up in a blind where he routinely saw does.
Sauder hunted another stand, leaving Kelley solo.
"Seeing anything?" I texted at 4:37 p.m.
"Not yet" she replied.
Thirteen minutes came the momentous news, "Got a doe, fell right away 68 yards!" A photo of the deer with a closeup proudly showing shot placement accompanied the text.
"I looked through the binoculars to see if I saw any antlers and couldn't see any, so I slowly brought my gun up to the window ledge and found the doe in the scope, ambling, and grazing," Kelley explained. "I waited until she stopped moving, put the crosshairs behind the shoulder, and pulled the trigger…I was so excited."
"Mark asked me if I needed help field-dressing the deer," she continued. "He asked if I wanted to watch him do it or try myself, and I told him I wanted to do it all! So, he held the legs and instructed me while I did the field dressing with my plastic gloves that come up to the shoulder and the knife my cousin had given me for Christmas."
They hung the deer in a walk-in cooler to age a few days, but Kelley brought the heart and liver home for dinner that night. She wore her now bloodied hunting clothes and picked up Miriam from daycare, sharing the hunt details. The youngster's, "I'm so proud of you, Mama!" made this now successful first-time deer hunter beam with pride.
A week later, I coached her on skinning and butchering the deer into pristine cuts of boneless meat.
"Nothing is more rewarding than the feeling of providing food for my family and me," Kelley said. "Now that I've completed the hunting process from start to finish, I have a better understanding of and much more respect for the effort that goes into getting deer meat - or any wild meat - on the table. Hunting wild game is a skill I want to continue to learn and improve, so maybe I won't have to wait so long for the next successful hunt!"
Looking ahead, Kelley is getting into small-scale farming, raising chickens, planting berry and garden plots, and building a small greenhouse. She says she wants to learn about rabbit, turkey, gamebird, and even raccoon hunting and anticipates joining a hunt club. Eventually, she's looking for a place with some acreage, big enough to farm, garden, and even hunt on her land.
"I would love to mentor others someday, once I know what I'm doing," Kelley said. "I mentor learners new to anesthesia at work all the time, and I enjoy it. I believe you must be a follower before being a leader. I've still got a lot of learning to do, and I hope by the time my daughter is old enough to shoot and hunt, I can be a great role model for her and others."