Babbs in the Woods: Michelle Brantley epitomizes the outdoor woman
I met Michelle Brantley in February while at the National Wild Turkey Federation’s convention. We had dinner together, along with her husband, Realtree Editor Will Brantley, and outdoor writer Steve Hickoff. Out of the four of us – three of us are outdoor writers – this schoolteacher’s recent adventure in the mountains of Colorado beat any stories we could concoct.
You see, Michelle hunted for a mountain lion in Colorado before Christmas. The story of the hunt includes a lot of climbing, scaling a rock face, running through deep snow in hot pursuit and finally … well, you may read more about it below.
In the meantime, meet teacher, wife, avid hunter, noodler and “Cat Woman” Michelle Brantley.
Babbs: Name, rank and serial number
Michelle: I attended Murray State University where I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education (my major was in Elementary Education and my minor was in Spanish). I received my Master’s degree in Reading and Writing from Murray State University. I have taught for six years (Kindergarten and fourth grade). I have taught in both Kentucky (rural elementary school in Western Kentucky) and Tennessee (Memphis).
Babbs: I understand that you grew up hunting and fishing? Will you please tell me a little about some of the lessons you learned and about who is responsible for your outdoor education?
Michelle: I did grow up hunting and fishing; however, it wasn’t something my dad, an avid hunter, took to easily. I am the only female hunter in my family (and my husband’s family, too). I am the youngest of four children. My older brothers both hunted from time to time, and my older sister never showed an interest. I, on the other hand, knew that I was meant for the outdoors.
After pleading with my dad to let me go with him, and being assured that “one day” I could go, I put my foot down. I was about 9 years old. My dad had been at deer camp all weekend, and as soon as he put his gun in the cabinet and leaned back in his recliner to relax, I made my move. I had been secretly working on a proposal on the reasons why my dad should take me to shoot guns and hunt – complete with a poster listing the pros and cons. What the poster said, I don’t remember. Seeing how passionate I was, dad started taking me to shoot guns with my cousins (males), bird hunting and coon hunting. A few years later, he started taking me with him on deer and turkey hunts. Although, I was not allowed to actually kill anything on my own, my dad was teaching me about the animals, woodsman ship and how to hunt. My dad bought me my first slate call when I was a sophomore in high school, and he and I would sit in the living room floor and practice for hours every night.
Will, my husband, and I starting dating our junior year of high school and he had a reputation as hunter, and a damn good one. He did not hesitate to take me with him shooting, fishing, or hunting – and he seemed to enjoy teaching me. I can’t recall a time that he left me behind, even when he was going with his buddies. I became a regular. Being bitten with the love bug, I started spending more and more time fishing, scouting, and hunting with Will. He taught me there was more to hunting than just deer and turkeys. We did everything from frog gigging, predator hunting, fly fishing, 3-d archery shooting, mushroom hunting, and crow, squirrel, and dove hunting – you name it, he took me to do it.
When I was in high school, my dad had told me that he did not want me shooting without him, and I respected that. My freshman year of college, however, was a different story, I was eighteen – an adult. That year, instead of tagging along with dad on opening day of deer season, I joined Will on the Brantley farm. Will had set up two stands in a forked tree on the edge of creek overlooking a field. As soon as the fog began to lift, deer began crossing the creek and entering the field. Will coached me as I steady the scope of my hand me down .243. I killed a basket-rack 5-point that morning, and to me the rack didn’t matter. What mattered the most about that hunt came later, when I rolled up into my dad’s deer camp with my buck in tow. Words cannot describe how excited my dad was for me, and how disappointed that he wasn’t with me when I killed my first deer. When spring rolled around, and the turkeys started gobbling, my dad was first in line to take me and this time I was carrying a gun, too.
The people who played the most important role in my outdoor education were my dad (Larry) and my husband, Will. Each one teaching me different lessons along the way and different styles of hunting, but they have both taught me to love and appreciate the outdoors. The two teachers that I have been lucky enough to have by my side have turned into my two closest hunting companions.
Dad and I are hunting buddies. We call each other at least once a week, and talk about hunting, fishing, food plots, trail cameras, how the weather is going to effect the turkey crop this year, etc., and when something is in season it is every day.
Will and I live for hunting and fishing. It consumes our lives. Although we rarely sit together in the woods, Will and I are an everyday hunting team.
Babbs: Do you have a favorite memory or two of your childhood outdoors that you’d care to tell the readers?
Michelle: Where I grew up there was several strip-mine lakes around, and access to them required a mile or two trek up and down spoil banks to get there. One in particular we called the Flat Pond, and it was covered up in bluegills and keeper size bass. With rods, tackle, and lunch in tow, Will and I had set out for a day of bluegill fishing. While we were reeling in tiny bluegill hand over fist, Will started to notice a bass hitting the surface. After tying on a bass bait, Will started easing his way around the bank casting as he went. Having wandered away from me, I decided that I need to follow him.
As I made my way around the bank, I was oblivious to the fact that the button on my reel had been pushed in, and my line had snagged on a limb. I had a hundred yards of line tangled behind me. Having realized it, I stopped under an old dead limb to assess the damage. While I was looking at the mess in the trees, I started feeling like something was crawling up my legs. In fact, hundreds of little some things – seed ticks – were crawling all over my legs, arms, neck, etc. I was standing in the middle of a nest of ticks. When I looked down, my white tennis shoes were literally brown with ticks! Will, in the mean time had landed the bass, and was gloating about how big it was. I was yelling that I was “covered” in ticks, and he kept saying just pick them off and come on.
Upon arriving on the scene, Will who noticed my tangled mess started cutting the line loose ignoring the whole tick situation. This wasn’t my first encounter with ticks, but, quite frankly I had never been infested with them either, so I kept complaining. Finally, Will came to investigate and proclaimed that dipping my shoes in the water would remedy the tick situation. Well it didn’t, and we decided the best option was to take my shoes off and leave them. Which meant I was forced to walk back barefoot. Needless to say, my feet were raw and bleeding by the time we made it to the truck. When we got back to Will’s parents house, I got in the hot tub, and the ticks started floating off. Having surrendered my clothes to the trash, I had to borrow a pair of underwear from Will’s mom –completely humiliating. Oh, and Will’s bass was at that time the biggest bass I had ever seen, and so I insisted that he carry it back and have it mounted. Despite his protest that it wasn’t big enough and he should release it. Now, we have a 3-pound largemouth mount in our house.
I drove in from college one afternoon to turkey hunt by myself for the first time. I met dad at the house, and told him that I would be hunting on the backside of the farm, and would be back about dark 30. We parted ways. Me to kill a turkey, and him I assumed to feed the cattle and do chores around the farm. I didn’t have a decoy but, I had my old slate call dad had bought me years ago and a box call Will gave me tucked in my vest. I set up at the base of a big tree on the edge of a food plot, and made some light yelps every now and then. Lo and behold, a hen started answering me. I kept calling, and she eased over to where I was at, and got 15 yards from me and finally went up to roost. I thought that was the most awesome thing I had ever done, and was pumped to go back and tell dad. I did have to wait long because on my way back to the house, I spotted my dad in the next field over, full camo, at the base of a tree. When I asked him what he was doing there, with no gun mind you, he said hunting. Sure dad, checking up on your little girl is more like it.
Babbs: How do you incorporate your outdoor yearnings into your busy life as a fourth-grade teacher?
Michelle: Being in the outdoors, whether it involves hunting and fishing or not, takes up the majority of my free time. I am going to be out there regardless! I am naturally a very organized person, who is always looking ahead, and as a teacher, this helps me to structure my life in a way that I balance both. During early bow season, before the time changes, I am able to get away in the afternoons at least three days out of the workweek to hunt. The other days are spent with the students. On the days I get to hunt, my clothes are always laid out ahead of time, my backpack packed, and Will’s already put my gear in the truck (climbing stand and bow). And there are times that we shoot a deer and are up until midnight tracking and quartering, but it doesn’t matter.
I have often thought that at times getting up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for work was like sleeping in. Instead of staying late, I go in extra early.
I grade papers in the stand. Especially in the early season, when I am hunting over a food source or when I am going to be making a long sit I will bring papers or something to jot down lesson plan ideas on. My kiddos have come to expect their papers to be wrinkled and covered in mud/blood from time to time.
It consumes me, to point that holidays and family events are often scheduled around hunting. In fact, the morning of my bridal shower was spent in the turkey woods. I washed my face, threw on some clothes, and went. Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house is planned around what time I will get in from duck hunting. With me being a teacher, winter break means four weeks to hunt! Will and I always plan a hunt whether it be to Louisiana to duck hunt, Florida for hogs, or a mountain lion in Colorado. With that said, that means that we have spent a lot of Christmas dinners with families of others.
Babbs: How do you pass along your love of the outdoors to your students?
Michelle: Anyone could walk into my classroom and know that I love the outdoors. My classroom is adorned with shed antlers, skulls, furs, turtle shells, feathers, spurs, fossils, fish bones and photos of my past and present students and myself with our kills. My favorite subjects to teach are math and science, and I equate hunting/conservation into my lessons where I can. Many of my students come from hunting families, and love to share stories and ask questions. In fact, my first year teaching, I had a student bring his deer mount to school to show it to me.
Also, I help expose my students to programs such as Project Webfoot (an old DU program about wetlands conservation), the Junior Duck Stamp Program, the Whooping Crane Project, the KY Conservation Education program, and most recently the Archery in Schools Program.
Babbs: Recently, you went on a mountain lion hunt in Colorado. Please will you tell us why you decided to do that and how you got fit for it?
Michelle: Hunting a mountain lion has always been on my list of things to do, and when our good friend Miles Fedinec from Craig, Colo., offered to take us … I was all over it. Having gone out West to Snowbird, Utah, for the Bowcast at the Bird 3D archery shoot, I knew that the altitude and rugged terrain were something that I was not physically ready for. I had been an athlete in high school, playing soccer and running track, but years had gone by and I couldn’t even run a mile without stopping. Thus, the training began. I started out running a mile a day, lifting weights, and doing calisthenics. At the end of the summer I was competing in 5Ks. The hunt wasn’t until December, so I had to maintain my current routine through deer and duck season. I made a pact with myself that if we were out late tracking or skinning I didn’t have to run. But regardless of how tried I was if we didn’t, I had to work out when I got home from hunting. As it got closer to my hunt, I started running two miles a day, and always outside so that I could get my lungs and body used to the cold. In all of my training, I lost a considerable about of weight.
I had planned to take my bow on my mountain lion hunt, and did a considerable about of shooting in order to prepare as well.
During all of my working out and bowing shooting, I would often refer to myself as a “mountain lion hunter in training.”
Babbs: And now, what happened on that mountain lion hunt?
Michelle: Like many Western hunts, lion hunting can require a week or more of hunting, so we planned my mountain lion hunt over my winter break. We met Miles Fedinec at the Denver airport on Christmas day, and drove the three and half hours to Craig, Colo.
Miles is a top-notch big game guide; however, he does not guide mountain lion hunts, and had enlisted help from several of his long time buddies/mountain lion guides to help put me on a cat.
When you think of Colorado in the wintertime, you probably picture an abundance of snow. That wasn’t the case on this trip. While there was snow of the ground, it wasn’t fresh snow, which is key to cutting a hot track. The hunting was slow, really slow. For four days we drove nearly 500 square miles of country looking for any sign of a cat. We had found several kills and day-old tracks, but nothing that the dogs struck out on.
On the fifth day, Russ Behrman, a guide we had met the night before, called saying he had cut a fresh track. We joined Russ and his 16-year-old son, Talin. When we spotted the cat, it was climbing into a den on the side of a rock face. Knowing that getting up to the cat was going to be tricky, Miles talked me into leaving my bow in the truck and taking the AR instead. In order to get to the cat, we had to climb up about 300 feet and then weave our way across the rock to the base of the den. The passageway across was barely big enough for two people so my Will, Talin and Kyle had to hang back with the dogs.
It was just Miles and me … and the cat.
After we got into position, we peered over a small juniper, and there was the cat looking down at us about 15 yards away and getting nervous. Taking the only shot I had, I placed the crosshairs at the base of its neck, and gently squeezed the trigger … except, the gun didn’t go off. It misfired. Not hesitating, Miles grabbed the gun from my hands and cycled another round. As he handed me the gun, the cat bolted out of the cave at a dead run. I threw the gun up on my shoulder, and fired. A red mist filled the air, and the cat turned and clawed its way straight up the rocks.
Miles and I rushed forward, while Will, Kyle and Talin unleashed the dogs and headed up the mountain. As Miles and I neared the top, Talin told us that we needed to go back down because the dogs were after the cat on the next mountain over. The cat had climbed out the cave, down the backside of the mountain, across a flat and up another mountain in a matter of minutes. After rushing off the mountain, jumping in a truck and driving the near two miles around, I opened the truck door to the sounds of hounds baying in the distance. In all of the commotion, Will and I had been separated.
This time instead of rocks to climb, I had shin deep snow. The dogs had the cat treed in a juniper, which made it difficult to get a clear shot at its vitals. But after hitting the cat again, it went to jump trees and for the first time I had a clear shot at its vitals, and it was over. It was without a doubt the most physically and mentally changeling thing that I had ever done.
Babbs: What’s next? Are you planning another hunt soon?
Michelle: Well, immediately turkey hunting in April. Ninety-five percent of my hunting is done with Will around home, and I will probably spend 10 days or more hunting turkeys in Tennesse and Kentucky. After that, we will be fishing, bowfishing and noodling, and getting ready for bow season in September. As far as other hunts, hopefully, we will be going on an alligator hunt this summer. I am planning to take my bow.
Like most, I have a “Bucket List” or “My Top Five.” Before this year, they were alligator, mountain lion, buck in velvet, Peacock bass, and a Harlequin duck. This year I was lucky enough to take a 12-point buck in full velvet with my bow and a mountain lion. If I had to add anything to replace the velvet buck and mountain lion, it would be an elk in my home state of Kentucky or a wolf (where hunting is legal).
Babbs: Oh and this noodling thing? You actually do that?
Michelle: Sounds strange I know, but I am a noodler as well. And, I have only missed two trips since we started. When Will went to Greenwood, Miss., to fish with Bob Henderson on the Yazoo River for the first time in 2005 for a Field and Stream assignment, I did not go.
I have caught several fish over the years, but I am not as gung-ho as the boys are. Some people are naturals at noodling, but I don’t consider myself one of them. I prefer to only grab fish in shallow holes, and some of the holes that the boys check are 10 or 12 feet deep and that is not for me. Although, I am not scared of the fish, I still don’t like the surprise of unknown as you are reaching into a hole. When I am not blocking holes or helping wrangle one to the bank, I am snapping pictures and taking videos. The biggest fish I have caught was a 20-pounds-plus flathead, and have helped bring in many 40- and 50-pounders.
Babbs: Anything else?
Michelle: I don’t hunt because my husband does nor to make a statement, I hunt because it is something that I am truly passionate about—it is in my nature.
On our one-year anniversary, Will bought me “a new set of jugs!” Catfish jugs—for jugging for catfish!
Michelle is featured often in Will Brantley’s blogposts at Realtree.com.