She Guides: Meet Donna McDonald, Montana Big Game Guide and Outfitter

Donna McDonald is a big game guide and outfitter in Montana. There were not many women in the sport when she started, and she’s on a mission to change that. 

 

Remington-Model783

She Guides is sponsored by Remington Outdoor Company

I don’t remember not hunting, so that’s a great memory in itself. 

I’ve been fortunate to live at a homestead ranch that my grandfather built in 1910. My dad absolutely loved hunting and sharing it with others. Long before we ever became an outfitting business, you never knew who was going to walk through the door. My dad would bump into folks in town or at work and he’d say ‘come to the ranch and we’ll help you out.’  I remember following my dad around. The first few trips were more educational; what to do if you got lost, how to stay alive. He let me carry around a single shot .22, but he kept the bullets in his pocket. I still felt like I was a pretty deadly animal myself out there. I always had a passion for it, a love for it. 

My horse Calamity Jane

Donna riding her horse Calamity Jane.

I’m 58 now; when I was in my teens it was not so cool to be a woman hunter. 

Thank goodness that has changed. My hat is off to all you ladies who helped make that happen! When I started, I didn’t have a whole lot of women in the industry I could turn to for advice. My father and my brother were very supportive and once I became a wife, my husband was as well. I actually hunt a lot more than he does, but he puts up with all my taking off at the strangest hours and doing crazy things! 

When I started guiding I was in my 20s and a woman guide was pretty much unheard of. 

One of the first fellas I guided said it was the best guided hunt he’d ever been on, that he’d never learned so much, or had so many opportunities at an animal. But still, after the hunt he said to me, ‘My wife is not going to understand. When I talk about my hunt, I’m going to refer to you as Don instead of Donna.’ When people looked at my husband and me hunting together, their attitude would be ‘I hope he gets something … oh, and I hope she doesn’t slow him down very much.’ He would put them all in their place and say, ‘She’s the hunter, not me. I’m the one stepping on the twigs, I’m the one goofing the hunt up, she’s telling ME to be quiet! If you want the best guide, you want HER!’ 

My big elk harvested last season

Donna’s big elk harvested last season.

We don’t even use the word kill when we talk about it; we say harvest.

If I have someone on the phone who calls me up and they are just talking about ‘I want to kill this, I want to kill that. I want it to be this big …’ I usually send them somewhere else. If people aren’t going to appreciate what the outdoors has to offer and the beauty of an area, and all they’re going to get out of it is the ‘kill,’ that’s not a good fit for me. I’m getting too old to book people who aren’t going to be a good fit. I don’t want to sound stuck-up, by any means, but I just want to help people appreciate the outdoors and I feel as an outfitter that’s our job. It’s to get them into the game, it’s to get them an opportunity … but, that’s just a part of it.

donna and miranda

We have been running a women’s hunting program for about 10 years where we take a week and we teach ladies about the outdoors. 

We teach them how to track, how to look into the tree, not just at the tree. What’s this tree going to offer you for shelter, for survival. We take them to the shooting range, we build confidence. The big job is building confidence and a love of the outdoors, and after that, the hunting just comes naturally. The program is not all about hunting, that’s something I strive for. It is making sure they’re looking around, that they’re enjoying and appreciating the outdoors.

 I love to teach children to hunt, their little minds are so amazing. But telling them to sit still for an hour hoping something comes in, that’s like torture. Don’t do that to a child! We’ll start to identify plants, or look for tracks, or why did that tree grow crooked like that? If you’re looking at the whole picture, THAT is when you see the animal, not when you’re looking only for that 1 thing. 

On the hunt with Karen Butler

One of my most memorable days guiding was with Karen Butler [Shoot Like A Girl founder]. 

We had been hearing this big bull bugling all day; it was just one of those days everything was moving and talking. We get to this little area and you can tell it’s close, a ¼ mile just by the sound of it. The hairs on the back of our neck are up, we are so excited we can hardly stay still. This bull comes just storming through the trees. It’s on top of us before we knew it, the bull chose to take a different trail and passes by Karen directly through trees blocking the shot. She doesn’t shoot. I have this little mouth call I do with my voice, it’s just a squeaky little sound but it can stop anything in its tracks and I’ve perfected it over the years. I give the call and it stops – 25 yards out. Karen pulls back and a twig got caught in her cam and the bull runs off. That was 4 or 5 years ago and I still get excited and I see the whole picture in my brain. It’s a fun story to tell!

The one tip I give new clients before they come is don’t take the tags off the clothes you buy. 

Throw them in the freezer, take them out and rub them together. If they sound like ski pants take them back to the store. When it gets cold and windy and freezing in Montana and you’re walking through it, it’s certainly a whole lot different sound than walking in an aisle in a comfortably heated store. Once they arrive, I’ll teach them hand signals, how to fox walk which is a native American way of walking through the mountains without making a lot of noise, how far sound carries. I teach them how to use binoculars, yes, it takes some skill! You can tell differences in color, teach your eyes to operate in a direction other than just left to right. 

Fishing with my grandson big game guide

Donna fishing with her grandson.

Conservation is first and foremost … as a guide and as a hunter. 

We are the ones donating our time, our resources and funds to protect the land and the animals. I’ve been on a number of state and national boards. I was on the board for 18 years [Montana Outfitters and Guides Association] and a member for close to 30 years, and was the first female president. I go to DC with America Outdoors to help protect our hunting privileges and have helped write legislation. You have to get out there and make sure our voices are heard. 

What would I say to a woman who’s looking into getting into guiding? Oh, call me and I’ll help them as much as I can! 

Seriously, if anyone is a little apprehensive or nervous about getting into the sport, I will sit on the phone and help them – no matter where they’re calling from. Just be humble. Be yourself. I have learned so much and the men have been so helpful. I have had men take absolutely more time to help me. More than another man. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, if you go into it like you know it all, you’re not going to learn anything. But if you’re open and you’re honest and you are humbled and thankful when you learn something new, you’ll be amazed how much you will learn. if you go into it with the attitude that you already know everything, who wants to help you? If you run across someone who’s a little sour and doesn’t want to help you, you’ll run into 10 more that do want to help you. My advice is don’t give up. You’re welcome in the sport, you just need to find the right person to help you. 

Remington-700

 

Remington recommendation

The 7mm-08 Remington was one of my first rifles. Most of the animals that I’ve harvested have been with my Remington .30-06. I’ve harvested elk, mountain goat, antelope, whitetail, mule deer. I loved that rifle. I used to say it was like the best dog you could own. I would point it in the right direction and say, ‘Sic ‘em!’ and the animal tips over.

  • About Courtney Nicolson

    Courtney Nicolson is an outdoor writer, hunter, and angler based in Denver, Colo. She is an active member of numerous conservation groups and is passionate about empowering women in the outdoors. Courtney is the senior producer/editor for Outdoor Sportsman Group Networks.

     

The Conversation

3 Comments
  • Donna Upper Canyon Outfitters says: September 4, 2018 at 8:38 am

    Thank you WON and all my family and friends who have supported me. Donna

  • Ellen Bumgardner says: September 4, 2018 at 8:23 am

    This article exemplifies the true nature of Donna McDonald. She is a true expert in her field, and loves every minute of it. She will also share past experiences, impart wisdom and understanding to anyone who needs a shot of confidence or just a tune up. Above all else, Donna McDonald is humble, gracious and a true example of a sportswoman.