LA PLATA - JoAnn Ranoull jumps from a pickup truck and staggers as she unloads her freshly-killed 8-point buck. Then her ear-to-ear grin melts into a look of bewilderment.
"OK," the rookie hunter says, gesturing at the carcass. "I have no clue."
Quickly, veteran hunters hand her a knife and talk her through field dressing the buck, which Ranoull does without hesitation.
"Will I do this again?" she says, straightening up from the task. "Absolutely."
Ranoull has become one of a growing number of women who think of fall as the perfect season to climb a tree stand or hunker down in a marshy blind. In Maryland, firearms season begins today and lasts until Dec. 14.
With the number of male hunters declining, there's an urgency among manufacturers, sportsmen's organizations and state game officials to attract eager pupils such as Ranoull.
Outfitters are selling camouflage and blaze orange clothing in women's sizes. Gun and bow makers are producing lighter-weight equipment. Women-only hunts, such as the one Ranoull participated in, are being offered by clubs and state agencies. And traditional Saturday morning outdoors TV shows include women and feature an occasional woman host.
"There's a lot of opportunities out there now," says Stephanie Henson, manager of the National Rifle Association's "Women on Target" program. "We're getting more calls about our hunts and we're selling out."
Over the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the proportion of hunters in the nation's adult population declined from 13 percent to 6 percent, as the group aged and far fewer youngsters took up the sport. Although the number of hunters increased 31 percent from 1955 to 2001, the rate did not keep up with the expanding population base.
The new blood is women of all ages, with the percentage of women among the nation's 13 million hunters rising from 6 percent to 9 percent in a decade.
The National Sporting Goods Association says nearly 3 million women take part in shooting sports - from hunting to target shooting.
Demographically, female hunters are attractive to sporting goods manufacturers. As a group, they're younger than their male counterparts. Because they're learning to hunt later in life than men do, they're buying gear now, according to marketing surveys.
Women say they enjoy the challenge of hunting and the accomplishment when they bag an animal.
"It's not a women's lib kind of thing," says Kimberly Shaw, 38, a mother of four from Waldorf. "We're not making a statement. You don't have to be a crude roughneck to enjoy this sport. You can still be a lady."
In Maryland last year, women bought 2 percent of the 121,800 resident hunting licenses issued.
The state overall has lagged nationally and regionally, and Maryland began its outreach to women in 1995 as a way to boost hunters' numbers - and increase revenue from license sales. That year the Department of Natural Resources adopted the "Becoming An Outdoors Woman" program, which began a decade ago in Wisconsin and has expanded to 47 states.
"Women are enjoying the opportunity to challenge themselves and learn a new skill," says Karina Blizzard, who runs Maryland's BOW program.
All 25 slots have filled quickly in each of the two women-only hunts that she has offered in the past two years.
As a managed hunt, it can be held at times other than firearms season. Participants receive one day of classroom training on deer behavior and hunting ethics and then qualify on a shooting range. The second day, they hunt from tree stands on a former military post at Blossom Point in Charles County.
The National Wild Turkey Federation also offers a workshop, "Women in the Outdoors." It began five years ago in 17 locations around the nation and has expanded almost tenfold, including an annual June retreat at Woodmont Lodge in Maryland.
The women say the programs fill a need.
"There's a lot of women who'd like to know, but don't have a place to learn or have husbands who won't take them hunting," says Desira Fritz, 41, of Westminster, who killed a four-point buck at the BOW event.
And beyond the basic knowledge, women say they enjoy the atmosphere of a program geared for them.
"My husband and two sons hunt, and I thought I wouldn't be as nervous here as I would be if I went out with them," says Ranoull, of Westminster. "Everybody's been really supportive, and that's the big thing."
The BOW outings aren't completely women-only. Men help teach the course, deliver hunters to the stands and do some of the heavy lifting when it comes time to haul deer carcasses.
For some of the men the hunt is a learning experience, too.
"Sometimes we have to be reminded that the women can do for themselves. They're perfectly capable of field dressing a deer," says Bob Wardwell, a manager at the Blossom Point Field Test Facility. "It's something that's not easy for a lot of men, but we work hard at it."
A women's studies professor at Skidmore College says the fact that women want to hunt makes sense.