FAIRFAX — Ten years ago, Tammy Miller was going through a divorce. To make ends meet, she decided to hunt in order to put food on the table for herself and her pre-teen son.
Miller soon met her husband-to-be, Eric, who taught her archery and how to use a rifle. Years of hunting practice, marriage eight years ago and a lucky moose lottery draw for 2015 eventually led to last Friday, when Miller took down a 931-pound bull moose in the woods of Norton with a bow and arrow.
In addition to filling up their freezers with meat for a good two years, Miller became the new archery record holder.
“It’s a crazy ride,” Miller said Wednesday.
Sitting in a Fairfax restaurant, Erica’s, Miller, 46, explained how she began hunting. Soft-spoken but confident, with dark brown hair and thoughtful eyes, Miller said she was prepared, having grown up on a Fairfield farm and helping with barn chores, butchering beef and cleaning the deer her relatives would bring back from a hunt.
“None of this was new to me,” she said. “Once I started hunting, I was hooked.” Eric, now 53, gave Miller her first bow as an engagement ring (no joke) and she began practicing shooting in her backyard.
“He helped me and patiently taught me and worked with me and gave me feedback,” Miller said of Eric. She would practice taking ethical shots, or shooting an arrow into the “kill zone.” That consists of the heart, lungs and chest, about the size of a basketball on a moose and much smaller for a deer.
By shooting in that zone, it ensures the animal will die quickly and won’t just be wounded. When those shots aren’t available, said Miller, you also have to know when to let an animal walk on by.
Strength to pull back the bow wasn’t an issue for Miller – she did power lifting several years after she moved off her family farm. Sitting in a tree stand, 15 to 20 feet off the ground, however, was. Miller gets vertigo.
Fortunately, the skills needed to handle vertigo are also good for successful hunting, said Miller.
“It’s a lot of deep breathing and centering myself and focusing and quieting everything, which is what you do when you hunt. That’s why I like archery hunting,” she said. “You have to be in tune with nature and what’s going on.” Miller described looking all around herself, feeling which way the wind is blowing and keeping a keen ear out for the sounds of the woods.
“For me, it’s a very quieting, connecting [experience],” she said.
It’s also, by hunting standards, a fruitful one. In her first year, Miller took three deer hunting in Pennsylvania. According to her husband Eric, Miller seems to have very good skill, and maybe some luck, when it comes to bagging game.
“She was successful her first time, 10 minutes into being in the tree stand,” he said, laughing.
Miller is also lucky, it seems, in the moose lottery. She drew her first tag nine years ago and her second this year. It’s one of just 40 archery permits, all part of a Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife program to manage moose herd populations.
This year, Eric was listed as Miller’s sub-permit holder – he also could shoot an arrow if need be – and their friend from Pennsylvania was listed as an unarmed guide on the permit, too.
Knowing that she had the opportunity this year, Miller said she practiced for months for the moose hunt. Both she and Eric took the whole week off from work – Miller works as program manager for Laraway Youth & Family Services in Johnson, and Eric is a services manager for Lapierre USA, a maple equipment company – and they camped up in the Northeast Kingdom from Oct. 1 to 7, the length of the moose permit.
“That goes by pretty fast,” said Miller. “We put a lot of prep work in. We’d spent the five Saturdays before scouting.” She and Eric found heavy moose trails and scrape marks from antlers, and they chose their hunting locations based on where they could take close range – 20 yard – shots.
They received permission from a private landowner in Norton to hunt, and on Oct. 2, Miller said they were out in the woods early. A bull walked right in front of them on a logging road, and shortly after, Eric called the moose by rubbing a moose scapula on brush, imitating a challenging bull.
In 15 minutes, said Miller, the moose came within sight. He stepped out within her range, a perfect shot.
“I shot and it went straight in the pocket and Eric shot immediately after me, which was the deal,” said Miller. They were worried if the moose wandered too far and didn’t leave a blood trail, it may end up over the Canadian border, which was nearby.
“And then,” said Miller, “the bull turned and looked straight at us from 15 yards away.” Worried that it may charge them, Eric then stood up and startled the moose by saying, “Hey, what you gonna do, huh?”
The moose decided to walk away for a bit before going down to the ground. That’s when the adrenaline started to slow down, said Miller, and when she felt “incredulous this all happened.”
After wondering how to get a massive moose out of the woods, Miller and her husband pulled him for 100 yards with a rope, and then eventually borrowed a friend’s six wheeler.
Then the moose was weighed.
She wasn’t thinking about it at the time of the hunt, but Miller quickly learned that her 931-pound moose set a new archery record for Vermont. “I knew he was big,” she said. “[But] that was a total surprise.”
“It was his misfortune,” said Eric.
Over the weekend and into this week, Miller and her husband have been butchering the moose and storing the meat – they’ve had to use an excavator to hold the bull up while doing so. So far, they’ve filled up two refrigerators and have had to buy an extra freezer. Miller figured the meat would feed her family for two years.
Out in the woods after the shot, and every time she uses the meat, Miller said she gives thanks to the moose for what he is providing for her family.
“There is always a moment of giving thanks to the animal, of being grateful for the opportunity,” she said. “It’s truly being part of the circle of life. Yes, I took the life of the animal, and I’ll use every bit of it. I’ll be grateful for it every time I cook.”
The Millers almost completely rely on the meat that they have from bear, moose, deer, turkey and fish they’ve hunted –which was key when Miller’s son and Eric’s two older boys were living at home.
“Our kids have always known where their food has come from,” said Miller.
It may be upsetting to some, said Miller, but she and Eric plan to mount the moose’s skull in their home, too. It’s not a trophy, she said. “We don’t look at it like that at all – it’s a tribute to the animal and to use having it. For us, it’s a place of honor in our home.”
It’s also a way for her to remember that experience, said Miller, when she’s having a tough day at work or just a hard day in general. To go back to that moment – in the woods, with the moose, with the help and support of family and friends – is special.
“That remembered connection in our home as sort of a balance of life helps,” Miller said.
In addition, the meat, the skull, the memory and her standing record remind Miller of something else: that she’s capable as a woman.
“Being capable is important,” she said. Beginning with helping her family farm growing up and continuing by being able to provide for her family, Miller said her gender never held her back.
“I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who believed I could do anything I wanted as long as I put the time and work into it,” she said. “I don’t know if a lot of girls get that support.”
On the drive back from Norton, said Miller, crowds would gather around the moose in the trailer, and her favorite onlookers were the young girls.
“What was moving was the moms that took their daughters over and they were excited – the smiles on their faces, the happiness that a woman had done it,” said Miller.
She added, “I hope it shows you can be a professional woman and you can have hobbies that are taxing and out of the ordinary.”