Joey Nelson had the hunting season of her life in 2008. An avid bowhunter with a passion for the hills she filled all her tags, along with her freezer, that fall.
Nelson, of Bozeman, was already looking ahead to the 2009 hunting season when she broke her arm in a freak accident. She shattered the radial head in her right arm, dislocated her elbow and tore numerous ligaments. The fracture required a titanium plate be surgically placed in her arm to mend properly.
Her first question for the surgeon – would she still be able to hunt?
Nelson spent the better part of 2008 working with a physical therapist to repair her shattered bones, to relearn how to draw a bow, to get back in shape for the season.
So it came as a huge surprise when that March at the Montana Bowhunters
Association’s (MBA) annual banquet in Billings talk turned to a woman who had broken her arm. Even more surprising – it was in the middle of the presentation of the MBA’s Bowhunter of the Year award.
“I though ‘Oh my God, is that me,’” Nelson said on Tuesday. “I looked at one of my friends and he pointed at me.”
Sure enough, on March 7, 2009, Joey Nelson became the first woman to be honored as the MBA’s Bowhunter of the Year.
“Joey didn’t win it because she is a woman, but because of who she is and what she has done,” said MBA president Jason Tounsley. “The names on that plaque, these are the legends of bowhunting in this state, the people that stories will be told about for years and years. When we speak about great bowhunters, when you see her name on that plaque, it is a big deal.”
The MBA was founded in 1973 as a nonprofit organization. Its goal is to “unite the state’s bowhunting sportsmen to work towards a common goal of preserving and promoting the sport of bowhunting in Montana.”
The MBA promotes ethical bowhunting through community-based education, works to improve the relationship between landowners and bowhunters and provides a voice in the management and preservation of Montana’s big game species and wildlife habitat.
Nelson, 43, came to hunting later in life. Not born into a hunting family, it wasn’t until she met her husband Jesse Nelson that she became involved in the sport.
“I think our first date, Jesse called on a Sunday and asked if I wanted to go bear hunting,” Joey said. “I didn’t know anything about it. I have always loved the outdoors and like to hike, but if you asked me then if I was going to hunt I would have said no.”
That first introduction to hunting turned into a passion for Joey. Shortly after their first date, Jesse bought Joey a bow. Joey started shooting and entered archery tournaments to hone her skill. She spent her first hunting season scouring the hills with Jesse taking in all she observed.
It wasn’t long before Joey was ready to take her hunting interest to the next level.
“After about a year I asked him if I could hunt,” Joey said. “The first thing I shot with a bow was a doe. It was fun, so I just kept going.”
Joey said she networked with other hunters and began hunting as often as possible. Occasionally she used persuasive means to find a way into the hills.
“We have a good group of friends that would take me hunting,” Joey said. “I talked them into taking me with baked goods and sandwiches.”
Tounsley said Joey’s passion for hunting was apparent from the start, but as for all hunters, there was a steep learning curve.
Tounsley said Joey put her time in and though she became proficient with a rifle, turned her attention toward the bow. He said watching her develop as a bowhunter was a unique experience for him.
“Being 30 and having never hunted, she was going through those stages we went through at 14 and 15,” Tounsley said on Monday. “Some people that have hunted their whole lives, they can get kind of jaded. To see her learn as an adult – she is so appreciative of every chance she gets.”
Tounsley said good bowhunters all share some of the same basic attributes – patience, the drive to keep going and the ability to pick yourself up after repeated failures. Tounsley said Joey possesses those key traits, but more than that she genuinely appreciates the opportunity to hunt and she works to share those opportunities with others.
Joey is an active member of the MBA and works as an archery instructor for a ranch in the Crazy Mountains. She said she’s eager to help anyone interested in bowhunting and has helped others get set up with bows.
It is the excitement for the sport that keeps her going.
“I have been in elk that were five yards from me,” Joey said. “I thought an elk was going to step on me once.”
Joey said that when she started hunting nearly 15 year ago, she didn’t know many other women involved with the sport. That’s changed, she said, and hunting manufacturers have taken note.
“Now I think there are more and more women getting into hunting,” Joey said. “I know when I started it was hard to find bow weights and draw lengths for women. I think the equipment is getting better so there are more options.”
Nelson said hunting has given her many great memories. She said some of her fondest include hiking in the hills south of Bozeman with her husband and dogs scouting for mountain goat, packing elk across the Gallatin River and shooting her first deer.
She’s looking forward to forming many more great memories in the future.
“Hunting to me is about the experience of being out in the woods and sharing time with people,” she said. “The award is an honor, but I don’t think it changes me. I just got an award for doing something that I love to do.”