One young woman’s journey to becoming a hunter
By Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
Harleigh Lisius wasn’t born into a hunting family, but she always knew she wanted to do it. The daughter of a fourth-generation farmer, the 23-year-old grew up among cattle, corn and beans near Juniata and spent countless hours playing in the shelterbelt on the farm, fishing her grandparents’ pond or camping.
Every Thanksgiving, highly-anticipated visits from her aunt and uncle brought exciting tales of the couple’s lives as wildlife biologists in Minnesota. Harleigh also marveled at the wild game they shared.
“I never got to experience hunting as a kid, but was constantly hearing about my aunt and uncle going hunting,” Harleigh said. “They’d always bring back smoked goose and venison for us during Thanksgiving, and it was great. I really wanted to experience that and be able to gather food for myself.”
Outside of an unsuccessful turkey hunt with a neighbor in 2018, which showed Harleigh just how much she loved to sit quietly and watch wildlife, her hunting aspirations wouldn’t be realized until several years later. Without a mentor, Harleigh felt hesitant to pick up the sport on her own, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing a career in conservation in the meantime.
After graduating high school, Aunt Becky and Uncle Jason sagely invited Harleigh to visit them in Minnesota. She expressed a real interest in wildlife conservation, and her relatives thought it would be a good idea for her to spend a couple of weeks job shadowing them in the field — Becky works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildlife manager, and Jason is a prescribed-fire burn boss with the state.
While there, Harleigh received firefighter training with Uncle Jason and conducted wildlife surveys with Aunt Becky.
“I spent some time with my aunt doing grouse surveys. I also helped with some snowshoe hare surveys, which was really hands-on,” she said. “I got to spend my first night in a prairie-chicken blind. It was absolutely amazing just sitting there and feeling the chill running up my spine as the chickens started cackling back and forth at each other.”
Harleigh’s visit to Minnesota solidified her college plans. After earning her associate degree at Central Community College, she transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to pursue a fisheries and wildlife degree — and she hit the ground running. She soon signed up for a Pheasants Forever summer internship in 2021, a partnership with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Harleigh received training in checking Conservation Reserve Program acres and other government-contracted ground.
“I had no plant identification knowledge before that, outside of what was considered a ‘weed’ on the farm. So, I got hands-on training, and we were out in the field all day. I would hike from pivot corner to pivot corner on plots all over Stanton County,” Harleigh said. “I got to work with some really amazing people.”
Additionally, she assisted with goose banding and helped with events to promote prescribed burning and its benefits.
“That was really cool to see communities come together and be encouraged by the possibilities of the different ways of managing [land],” Harleigh said, and she’s had similar conversations with her father on implementing changes on the family farm. “My dad is very supportive. I’ve actually been talking with him about different options that we could use on the farm — maybe doing cover crop and putting corners into CRP.”
Since Harleigh’s internship with Pheasants Forever, she has worked at Two Rivers State Recreation Area and received training to become a park naturalist. Additionally, she received her Master Naturalist certification in 2022. She currently works as an archery and firearms instructor at the Turpin Outdoor Education Center in Lincoln.
It was through Harleigh’s work with Game and Parks that her next hunting opportunity finally unfolded.
While working the Missouri River Outdoor Expo, Harleigh connected with Christy Christiansen, a Game and Parks outdoor education specialist, who told her about the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program.
In October 2022, Harleigh attended the Ladies’ Learn to Pheasant Hunt program at Oak Creek Sporting Club near Brainard. The three-day event was sponsored by BOW and Pheasants Forever’s Women on the Wing initiative. Pheasant hunting would prove to be the perfect initiation — Harleigh had experience shooting trap with her boyfriend, who shoots competitively.
“I felt so excited to shoot my first bird — the almost shaky anticipation of waiting for the bird to pop up, and when it does, it’s almost like watching it in slow motion, and sweeping your barrel over the bird to just the right spot so that you can really hit it. And then watching the poof of feathers as it falls and kind of being in shock that, ‘I got it!’ I believe I hit two pheasants and a chukar that day,” she said.
The hunt gave Harleigh confidence where she felt lost or overwhelmed before. She felt lucky to be guided by Game and Parks’ Christy Christiansen and Julie Geiser.
“It was great to walk into the field with them and have them give me advice, in saying ‘slow down’ or ‘stop,’ ‘wait’ and ‘look that direction,’ and helping me spot things that I wouldn’t have necessarily spotted as a new hunter,” Harleigh said. She also learned how to clean and take apart birds, which had been a mystery. BOW and Women on the Wing instructors broke down every aspect of upland hunting, step-by-step.
“They made me feel like I wasn’t so unknowing, and they guided me in the right direction,” she said. “It was also really nice to hunt with other ladies, too, who either had no experience or maybe had some but were trying to get back into hunting. The connections were awesome in meeting women from all walks of life.”
Since the pheasant hunt, Harleigh was invited to hunt waterfowl near Lexington. As an inexperienced waterfowler, Harleigh took advantage of Nebraska’s new two-tier program and opted for Tier II, which allowed her a three-duck limit with no species and sex restrictions. She shot her limit of mallards that day, one of which she sent to a taxidermist to mount.
In January 2023, Harleigh attended another BOW program to hunt deer during the late river antlerless season. She hunted on private property near Brady with Geiser and was successful in shooting her first deer, a white-tailed doe. The hunt was memorable because Harleigh took her great-grandfather’s .308.
“It was special because I know my grandpa has shot deer with that rifle,” she said. Afterward, Christiansen invited Harleigh and a couple of other mentees to a “processing day,” when they learned how to break down the quarters of the deer into different cuts of venison.
Today, Harleigh takes every chance she gets to sit in a blind, whether to view sandhill cranes or prairie-chickens with her camera or to hunt with a gun. Career-wise, she has taken interest in conservation photography and communications.
Harleigh is set to graduate this spring with a degree in fisheries and wildlife, and wherever her passion ends up taking her in conservation and/or in hunting, she will be one to watch. ■
Women on the Wing
Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s Women on the Wing is an initiative to encourage more women to gather and collaborate in the hunting and outdoor space.
Events across the country include field days to engage female landowners in conservation; Women, Wine and Wild Game events to build community; women’s learn-to-hunt events; wing shooting clinics; and public land hunting days. Many of the offerings are made possible through partnerships with state agencies and organizations.
“Since 2017, we’ve hosted 332 women’s events across the country with 5,383 participants,” said Ashley Chance, hunting heritage program manager at Pheasants Forever.
To get involved, check out the events calendar: bit.ly/3R94wgi
Additionally, take advantage of Pheasant Forever’s How to Hunt Upland Birds film series, which showcases five hunters as they give lessons on how to hunt across the country. The online course is free and covers the basics of equipment, technique, safety and more.
Becoming an Outdoors-Woman
Nebraska’s BOW offers a variety of outdoor workshops, clinics and camps throughout the year. Come learn something new or improve existing skills, including shooting, hunting, kayaking, fishing, ecological education and more. Nebraska Game and Parks also offers women-only hunter education courses.
To view events, visit bit.ly/3MPrUNh.