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January 20, 2014

SHE'S GOT GAME: Melissa Stewart was hunting before it was hip for women

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Melissa Stewart is surgical with a shotgun.

Turns out, she is ahead of her time, too.

More women in the U.S. are donning camouflage and whiling away the hours in tree stands with a trusty firearm by their side.

National Geographic recently reported that the number of women hunters spiked 25 percent between 2006 and 2011, citing U.S. Census Bureau statistics. According to the latest numbers, 11 percent of all U.S. hunters were women — compared to 9 percent in 2006, National Geographic reported.

Stewart was setting trends before they were on the national radar. For her, hunting is all about family.

The 36-year-old New Washington resident has been hunting since age 11 and competitively shooting since age 9. As a 10-year-old, Stewart, an e-learning coach for Greater Clark County Schools, won a state long-barrel shotgun shooting contest.

Active in basketball, softball and cheerleading as a youngster, hunting forays with her father, Mike Clapp, Marysville, provided respite from a busy schedule.

“It was the one time out of the year that would slow down and my dad and I could do something together,” Stewart said.

Her brother, Travis Clapp, Evansville, who is seven years younger than Stewart, would later join sis and dad each year on opening day of deer hunting season on 26 acres of land in Otisco owned by Stewart’s grandparents.

“With the three of us, it became a tradition,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s husband, Brian, a teacher at Charlestown High School, would later join the group to form a quartet. A sharpshooting quartet, no doubt.

The Stewart and Clapp family will be eating well this winter. Stewart bagged a 6-point buck and a doe on opening day with a 20-gauge shotgun. The avid outdoors family also dresses their own kill at Mike Clapp’s quonset hut in Marysville, which was the only structure on his property to survive the 2012 tornadoes.

Venison steaks, tenderloin, sausage, jerky “and lots of vegetable soup” will be consumed, Stewart said.

Husband was just as lucky: Brian Stewart also killed a buck on opening day. That one’s going on the wall.

Hunting is serious business for Stewart and her clan. Worried how she’d be able to climb into a deer stand when she was pregnant six years ago, Stewart’s father “built me basically a shack in a tree,” Stewart said.

She’s being humble. The structure has sliding glass windows, a rolling office chair, walk-up steps and even a small porch.

“My friends call it my condo,” Stewart said.

That doesn’t mean she’s immune from the elements — or critters.

On hunting trips, Stewart was always instructed to wait for her dad and brother to return from their treks deep into the woods, but one day “I waited and waited and they never came,” said Stewart, who was growing anxious with each passing minute.

That’s when a peculiar rustling noise started above her head. The woman who has been handling shotguns since she was 9 years old became the victim of a squirrel attack. She scurried down from the tree only to find her dad and brother dragging in their kill —  wide-eyed at the hysterical woman in front of them.

“I’m bawling my eyes out, and they’re asking me, ‘what happened?’” Stewart said. “I told them, ‘I got attacked by a squirrel!’

A nickname was born.

“Now they call me ‘Squirrel,’” Stewart said. “Even my kids make fun of me. I hate squirrels.

“My dad says it was just looking for a nut.”

No wonder Stewart considers hunting synonymous with family.

“The family tradition means the most to me, the bond between family members,” she said. “It’s not so much about hunting, but what you do with family and friends when you go out to do it.”

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Literacy Is For Everyone Director Don Walker, Jeffersonville, stands in the former sanctuary at Faith Lutheran Church in Jeffersonville on Tuesday afternoon. LIFE is a new program sponsored by the church designed to help adults overcome literacy issues.

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