The hunter exhales a cloud of breath into the late autumn air behind the duck blind. Mallards fly overhead as dawn spreads across the sky. With a careful aim and a practiced hand the trigger is pulled. Gunshot shatters the quiet and a duck splashes into the water below.

The scene Anna Rose Alexander describes is a stark contrast to her fall Friday nights. The junior at Mountain Brook High School spends them in green and gold under bright stadium lights, with a radiant smile and swinging ponytail, as a cheerleader for the high school’s football team.

The Draw to the Hunt

It’s understandable why some may be surprised to learn of Anna Rose’s double life as an experienced hunter, but there are similarities between hunting and cheerleading, believe it or not.

Both sports take a skilled performer who is cool and precise under pressure, impervious to weather extremes with a high tolerance for pain and an absolute dedication to honing their skills. Both can result in a boost of confidence for the athlete. “You get a lot of adrenaline when the duck’s flying over your head,” Anna Rose says. “I really like being able to do it and having satisfaction of shooting.”

Where cheerleading or other organized high school sports allow parents to watch their child in action, hunting has the added bonus of allowing the whole family (even the dog) to participate. “I also like spending time with all my family and my dad,” Anna Rose says.

The key to facing those dawn hunts at Central Alabama Water Fowl Preserve in Maplesville where the Alexanders hunt, according to Anna Rose, is a steaming cup of coffee and McDonald’s breakfast and then watching the sunrise while she and her father drive down country roads to the hunt site.

“My dad taught me everything I know,” Anna Rose says.Anna Rose’s father, Chris, introduced his daughter to duck hunting almost seven years ago after he began Dunbarton Game Calls, his handcrafted duck call business.

“I knew after that first time, she was stuck,” Chris Alexander recalls of his daughter’s natural alacrity for the hunt. “Now she’s just an old pro.”

The Alexanders have made a tradition of duck hunting during the Thanksgiving holidays and plan this year to follow the flock’s migration south from Canada into Stuttgart, Arkansas, referred to as the duck capital of the world by ESPN.

Speaking of family, Kathryne High, a senior at John Carroll Catholic High School who hunts and cheers, says she has also learned a lot from her cousins and older brothers, all of whom hunt. She has been hunting since middle school and also points out the distinction between the two activities. “In cheer, you’re trying to engage with people and be super loud and excited, and hunting is more calming, and you’re not really around people,” Kathryne explains.

After a hunt, Anna Rose says she enjoys her father’s culinary skills, especially his duck poppers—juicy nuggets of duck wrapped in bacon.

For this family of outdoorsmen, quality time transcends the hunt. “I could do away with the hunting part of it and everything and just go be with her for a while,” Chris says.

Nature Escape

Cheerleaders who hunt may or may not be a phenomenon in the Mountain Brook area. Anna Rose’s cousin Frances Gaut, now a freshman at the University of Alabama, was also a cheerleader during her time at MBHS and is now an avid deer hunter.

Still somewhat of a beginner, Frances learned how to hunt last deer season thanks to her boyfriend (and her MBHS high school sweetheart), Owen Conzelman.

“He’s a big hunter, and it’s a big part of his life,” Frances says. “So, he just wanted to show me what it was like.”

“It was very exhilarating,” Frances says of her first hunt. “I was really nervous because I had never done it before.”

She shot her first buck, an 8-point, while on one of her five hunts with Owen, a sophomore at Alabama, and his family on their land.

In addition to enjoying spending time with Owen and his family, Frances also recognizes the benefits of escaping into nature to decompress after a long week of lectures and exams. “It’s really peaceful in the woods, and sometimes it helps me to take my mind off of other things,” Frances says.

Like Frances, Kathryne’s game of choice is deer. “It’s so peaceful being out there in the woods,” Kathryne says, echoing Frances’ sentiment. “Like nothing’s bothering you.”

Frances explains that a hunter may sit in the woods for hours observing nature, patiently waiting for a deer to appear. Among the winter woods, it’s easy to imagine how a hunter can enter an almost meditative state and foster an appreciation for the skill and beauty of her prey.

The skull of her first deer hangs in her room. She’s painted it with a pink and gold marble effect, proving that being proud of yourself can be downright beautiful.

Welcoming New Recruits

Anna Rose, Frances and Kathryne all have the unusual experience of being young female hunters, a growing trend Chris Alexander has noticed in the past few years.

As an example, Chris notes big game hunter Kendall Jones, who is sponsored by brands like Orca, SixSite and APA Archery and who also was—you guessed it—a cheerleader in high school.

Another hunter Anna Rose looks up to is the Alexanders’ family friend Bridget Wilson, who hunts with Anna Rose at the preserve in Maplesville.

“She made [Anna Rose] comfortable from the get-go,” Chris says of his daughter’s hunting mentor. “Bridget is a big hunter, so I think that had a major influence on her. . . The very first time she went, Bridget sat with Anna Rose, she talked her through everything, and I think that made her feel really comfortable from the very beginning, so that was a real blessing.”

The fresh generation of female hunters is eager to offer advice and encouragement to other young women interested in hunting.

“I think all girls should know that they can hunt,” says Anna Rose. “It’s not a boy thing. You can hunt, and it’s so fun when you get into it.”

“It’s good for boys and girls to hunt,” Frances says. “I would definitely tell them to try it. Because before I tried it I didn’t think I was going to like it, and once I did it was a really exciting experience. So I would definitely tell them to try it and branch out. It’ll be fun!”

Maybe this trend of cheerleader-hunters isn’t a phenomenon after all, maybe—and probably more likely—there just happen to be some superbly confident, well-rounded young women growing up right here in our little corner of the world.

Photographer’s Note: Thanks to the dog trainers who helped with this photo shoot: Ralph Gibson, Obedience and Service Dog Trainer, and​ Chris Alexander (Selma); ​ Ben Griffith of Griffith Retrievers (Delta); and ​Chris Adams of Oak Bowery Kennels (Stella)—and to Stella’s owner and handler as well as our hunting consultant, Robert Fritze.