Wyoming Wonders: On the Hunt in the Year of the Rabbit
- Published In: Columns
- Last Updated: Jan 16, 2023
By Amber Gibson
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Hunkered down in bitter cold, a semi-automatic Ruger 10/22 rifle in hand, Jessica Casper spotted a furry gray blob – a cottontail rabbit – hiding under the brush. She didn’t have a clear shot at the cute but prolific pest, so she tilted her head to signal to her hunting partner, KLa Watts, and kept as quiet as possible to avoid scaring her prey.
That was back in 2021, when Casper and Watts won the Women’s 5-Shot Rabbit Hunt for the second consecutive year. The duo are teaming up again this year, and their stealthy technique, sharp shooting and mutual trust make them favorites heading into the 44th Annual Women’s 5-Shot Rabbit Hunt.
On Jan. 27 and 28, Casper, Watts and huntresses from across Wyoming will gather at the Elks Lodge in Riverton, in Wyoming’s Wind River Country, for the event.
The Shoshone Chamber of Commerce founded the women’s hunt in 1978 in response to the big buck hunt for men. Since then, the Women’s 5-Shot evolved as its own organization, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were as many as 20 teams competing for the title. But participation has dwindled in recent years, a trend the tenacious organizers hope to reverse.
Co-organizer Jessica Smith, 40, has been judging the event for seven years and organizing it for the past four years. Her co-organizers Casper and Watts, both 36, are two-time champions, claiming the title in 2020 and 2021. Casper and Watts both learned to shoot old tin cans as kids, growing up in Wyoming and Kansas, respectively, and Watts began competing in silhouette and target competitions as a preteen.
Casper, on the other hand, didn’t shoot her first animal, a deer, until she was 19.
“That began my lifelong love of hunting,” said Casper, who was married and five months pregnant with her first child at the time. “All of it, from the stalk to the packaging of the meat has become a passion that I am passing on to my own children.” Casper has four children, including three daughters between 11 and 16.
This year, there is a new division for competitors 17 years and younger. Watts’ 14-year-old daughter will compete, along with one of Casper’s daughters. Smith believes it’s important to encourage hunting in the next generation and hopes this will help revive the competition post-pandemic.
“Kids like to be competitive, too, so we thought it would be fun,” she said.
All participants must possess a valid small game license, conservation stamp and hunter education certificate. Rabbits can be harvested from any legal location outside municipality town limits. Teams consist of two women; each team member is allocated five bullets. Whichever team harvests 10 cottontail rabbits in the least amount of time wins.
“Winning is great, obviously, and it’s the goal,” Casper said. “But so much more than just winning is the experience. We see Wyoming sunrises that others sleep through. We see parts of the state that others deem as drive-by locations. And we meet women from all over the state to celebrate our love of the outdoors and hunting. These friendships will last a lifetime.”
On Friday before the hunt, participants gather for a spaghetti dinner social and silent auction to raise money for nonprofits like the Wyoming Breast Cancer Initiative. “Women’s health, wildlife conservation hunting access and veterans’ hunting opportunities are our main causes,” Smith said. “We always try to find ways to give back.”
Saturday morning, the hunt begins at 7:30 a.m. sharp. A judge accompanies each team in the field to ensure that competitors don’t use extra shots and that all rabbits are freshly killed. Cottontail rabbits are considered small game, so hunting regulations require that the meat doesn’t go to waste. Smith said most teams will take their rabbits home to clean after the hunt; in the past, they’ve donated extra rabbits to elderly people in the local community who can’t hunt themselves anymore.
“During the awards banquet our first year winning, I was so nervous my hands were sweating,” Watts recalled. After successfully defending their title in 2021, the duo didn’t compete last year due to scheduling conflicts and illness. But they are coming back with a vengeance this year.
In 2022, the field shrunk to three teams due to illnesses. The winning team of Cortney Casper and Bailey Smith completed their 10 kills in just a few hours, finishing before noon. Entrants still have time to register for the hunt this year.
“We really do hope to see new faces and returning faces this year,” Watts said. “If any ladies have questions or the slightest interest in seeing what this is all about, please reach out to us.” By changing locations, tweaking the schedule to be more accommodating and opening up the competition to youth hunters, the organizers hope to garner fresh interest.
“The event really harnesses the best parts of Wyoming’s hunting culture and allows us the opportunities to pass those values and skills down to the next generations,” Casper said.
Smith agrees that hunting is an integral element of life in Wyoming. “We celebrate women’s hunting with the rabbit hunt to help promote being independent and self-sufficient,” she said. “Our hope is to build camaraderie and lasting friendships with other women who hunt or enjoy the outdoors.”