It’s a crisp Friday evening at Shelter Island’s Mashomack Preserve and Zsakée Lewis has her hands wrist-deep in the hide of a recently harvested white-tailed deer.
Standing in a rustic barn, a small group surrounding her, Lewis — who is learning how to butcher a deer — searches for the next cut to make.
“This is more physical than you’d imagine,” she said, flashing a quick smile.
Lewis, 35, of Staten Island, was one of eight “mentees” who recently participated in a three-day bowhunting training program organized by Hunters of Color, the only nationwide hunting nonprofit led by people of color, for people of color. The group’s goal in organizing the event, and others like it across the nation, is to make hunting more accessible and to encourage more diversity in hunting, which is overwhelmingly dominated by older white men.
“We want to provide people of color a knowledge boost that helps them reconnect to the great outdoors,” said the New York ambassador for the group, Brandon Dale. “We hope our participants will become part of the hunting community and grow to be passionate conservationists as they get more involved.”
Nature Conservancy a sponsor
Over the course of the three-day program, co-sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and the New York chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the eight novice hunters (four women and four men) learned about tracking and reading deer sign, shot placement, and field dressing and butchering deer. Each was paired with an experienced, volunteer mentor and, before the weekend ended, every mentee had at least seen a deer while out on a hunt. Several took their first shots.
The group also enjoyed a wild game feast featuring gumbo with pheasant, squirrel, bear and venison, plus venison ragu, bear pot roast with venison backstrap, a smoked bluefish Caesar salad and roasted duck.
“I’m so glad to have help learning how to skin and process a deer now — before I try to do it on my own after my first successful hunt,” said Lewis.
Established in 2020, Hunters of Color was inspired by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey in 2016 that found 97% of hunters were white, with the majority aged 45 or older. In creating an inclusive space where novice hunters can ask basic questions without feeling embarrassed and gain hands-on experience from expert mentors, the organization aims to reinforce the message that the hunting lifestyle is open to anyone.
“So is the duty to advocate for conservation,” said Dale, 28, who noted that hunters are uniquely situated to be stewards of the land because they spend so much time and energy in the woods. “Through hunting,” he said, “people develop an in-depth understanding of the importance of protecting public lands from overdevelopment, habitat loss and over-consumptive use of our natural resources.”
People of color, said Dale, often have limited access to the hunting community for a variety of cultural and socioeconomic reasons. For residents of urban or heavily developed suburban areas, lack of access to public hunting property is also a hindering factor for would-be hunters.
Tracey Campos, 37, of Farmingdale, said she wanted to learn to hunt but didn’t know anyone to ask for advice.
“Really, where do you turn to get started if there’s no one to answer your questions?” said Campos, one of the eight mentees who participated in the Shelter Island program, held Nov. 3-5.
“I like to hike and bike, and I wanted to connect more with my food, so the idea of hunting seemed another great reason to get outside,” she said. “But I had no one to ask about it. None of my family members or even friends had ever hunted.”
Campos, who works in financial services, said she came across the Hunters of Color website, where she found Dale’s contact information. She followed Dale and the group for a while before attending a couple of programs, after which she signed up for the Mashomack event, she said.
Frederick Tran, 23, a college student from Brooklyn, said his interest in hunting was piqued after listening to podcasts that discussed hunting along with the benefits of self-sufficiency and eating wild game. He liked the idea of hunting as a conservation management tool but, like Campos, said he had nobody to ask for help getting started.
Eventually, Tran said he began target shooting at a New York City archery shop, where he heard about Hunters of Color from another archer.
“I had to start from square one, but finding this program helped get me up and running,” said Tran. “There’s just so many little things to learn. I could watch a video or go to the range to practice shooting a bow, but it’s all the other stuff, like where to place your tree stand, how to field dress and process your deer, and learning how to avoid getting picked out by deer in the woods that really make a difference. It definitely helps to have someone show you the ropes.”
Eliza Rojas, 33, a flight attendant from Queens, found her search for hunting help even more frustrating. She signed up for a bowhunting class, but it was canceled during the pandemic. She eventually was able to sign up and attend the class. But at the end of the program, Rojas said she asked her instructor where she could go for additional help or mentoring and was advised to join a hunting club.
“Do you belong to a club, and can I join?” she asked.
“I do,” came the reply. “But it’s only for men.”
Mentor Julia Weisenberg, 49, of Shelter Island, said, “It’s tough to get started in hunting without a support net, but programs like this one can really be a positive influence.”
Weisenberg, who also serves as a state Department of Environmental Conservation hunter educator, is co-founder of the popular Facebook page, Long Island Babes and Bucks, and she believes the Hunters of Color’s mentored hunting programs bring together not only the education and equipment needed for beginning hunters to be successful, but also access to legal hunting land.
Hunting on Shelter Island
Mashomack Preserve, a 2,039-acre coastal nature reserve, is managed by the Nature Conservancy, which generally prohibits public hunting on the grounds.
But “the Nature Conservancy has opened its doors here to Hunters of Color participants, so right out of the gate people have a place to go,” Weisenberg said. “The entire program is also a safe haven where you can learn and ask as many questions as you want. It provides the access, experience and resources so participants can try things out and determine if hunting is really something they want to pursue.”
Weisenberg said that at a roundtable discussion before Saturday night’s game dinner, several mentees revealed they had no one in their lives who could teach them to hunt. Most of the mentors, on the other hand, had somebody — usually a family member — who could enlighten them to the process and introduce them to the local hunting community, she said.
“That’s a huge advantage, and it makes me feel privileged to be giving back to the sport here,” said Weisenberg.
Mentor Travis Kaiser, 47, a contractor from Center Moriches, agreed.
“I want people to learn how to hunt safely and effectively, but I also stress how important it is to enjoy the camaraderie of the sport and the community surrounding it,” said Kaiser, a longtime hunter with six years of experience as a state hunter educator. “Most attending this program had already learned to shoot, but getting out into the woods is a whole different ballgame, especially if you don’t have a hunting mentor or family history in the sport. For me, seeing our participants have another outdoors venue to enjoy is really the most important thing — and I think that comes across in this program.”
Year Two at Mashomack
This year’s hunt was the second at Mashomack Preserve and, unlike last year, Dale said mentees had more opportunities to interact with deer.
“Last year was our first Shelter Island hunt, and while the learning sessions went well, record warm temperatures up to 86 degrees seemed to keep the deer from moving around,” Dale said. “This year was a lot cooler, and the whitetails were very active. I’m thrilled everyone got a chance to at least see a couple deer while actually on their hunts.”
Indeed, a few mentees were able to take shots, although none actually hit their target. A few arrows were deflected by briars in the dense Shelter Island woods while other hunters shot low and missed.
“That’s no matter,” assured Dale, noting many things have to go exactly right for a successful hunt, and it often takes beginners up to three years to figure it all out. “Besides, actually taking deer isn’t how we measure success in this program.”
Speaking to the program’s success, Dale said he couldn’t be happier with the results.
“The point is to have people believe they can actually get in the game after experiencing our program, and I think we accomplished that,” he said.
In addition to having a racially diverse group of mentees, with an equal number of men and women, Dale noted that for the first time, he was not the only Black mentor.
“I’m also thrilled that 50% of this year’s participants attended last year’s hunt,” said Dale. “That’s an indication we are on the right track.”
For Campos, the highlights of the program were listening to the mentors exchanging stories prior to dinner and learning how to use a mobile tree stand. Tran, meanwhile, said he was thrilled to see a buck and grateful to learn the deer butchering process. For Rojas, the game dinner and field dressing the deer both scored high marks, while Brooklyn firefighter Martin Paul, 40, said he enjoyed meeting people with similar interests and being part of the hunting community.
“It was an outstanding experience,” he said. “I can’t believe I even got to take a shot.”
‘Loved the venison ribs’
Lewis, meanwhile, said nothing compared to a 10-minute heart-pounding stare-down with a spike buck she and mentor Chris Borgatti, 46, from Newbury, Massachusetts, experienced.
“I got tenfold more than I had hoped for with this program — and I really loved the venison ribs served at the game dinner,” she said.
Borgatti chimed in: “Getting closer to nature, making new friends, improving skills, and becoming part of the hunting community are what keep most of us coming back for more. Just keep in mind this is a sport where you’ll have to earn your success. That takes time, but it’s also what makes the rewards so sweet.”
“Well, that and the right barbecue sauce,” said Lewis.