Raised in the poorest of poor families at the back end of a dirt road in Tennessee, Brenda Valentine grew up knowing only one thing when it came to meat on the table. “We ate what we could kill,” said Brenda. Didn’t matter what it was, either: squirrel, coons, rabbits, and groundhogs, to name just a few, were regular fare. “Once you get the hair off it, it’s about the same. Squirrels were everyday food, about like chicken today,” said Brenda. This story starts long enough ago when no deer were around. Brenda remembers the first time she saw one along the tobacco fields when she was about 12 years old.
“I had never seen a whitetail deer, other than pictures in a book, and alongside a honeysuckle-briar thicket, I saw a tail flash,” reminisced the hunting industry’s long-standing, legendary huntress. “I scouted the tracks. People came from all over to just see those tracks. It was such a big deal, we hadn’t seen a deer before.” Turns out some folks had started a stocking program and this deer had migrated a bit from where those efforts were in place. “Once we had a deer hunting season, and it was one buck per year; I killed a deer with my .30-30 Winchester with iron sights. That started bigger hunting goals for me. I was so hooked on deer hunting, that I scavenged every board I could find and built a handful of ramshackle deer stands.”
Tennessee added an archery season, and when Brenda caught wind that she could take a second deer and start her season earlier, she was thrilled. She set off to buy a bow. At this point she was married with two small girls, cutting men’s and women’s hair in her salon. “It wasn’t your typical beauty shop,” said Brenda. “There were photos of every dead animal I killed (or my customers killed) up on the mirrors.” One of her customers was Hank Williams, Jr. When she approached the sporting goods store manager about getting a bow, he promptly assured her that a woman would not have the strength to bowhunt. He handed her the bow and, not knowing a thing about them, grabbed it in her “wrong” hand and upside-down. He laughed at her. “He told me I couldn’t use a climbing stand, either. Nothing but pure spite drove me to manage that climbing stand. I didn’t have any skin left on my body. It was miserable.” But she loved her bow; empowered by its strength, the success she encountered fueled a fire. “The bow became my worst addiction,” said Valentine.
There were 3D community shoots back in the day in various folks’ pastures. She showed up with her bow and the guys quickly dismissed her, so she shot the course after they were done. Then one other gal joined her, and eventually an old man decided he would shoot with the gals rather than the younger guys. Next thing you know they were turning in their scores. “Once the guys saw how high my scores were, they wanted me to shoot with them, to see if I was cheating,” Brenda said as she thought back on those early years.
Serendipity landed Brenda in the sporting goods store on the day that an archery salesman from PSE was in the store. “If I give you a bow, will you shoot it?” he asked her. “Golly, what’s the catch?” Brenda asked. Turns out there wasn’t a catch, they were just thrilled that a woman was interested in archery. “I felt like I had reached the ultimate,” said Brenda. Over time her involvement with the company grew and she joined their shooting staff. Soon she was competing in tournaments on weekends all over the country, pushing her outside of her comfort zone into big cities like Chicago. In 1992 her team won the Nationals. Then the general manager of PSE moved to Browning and invited the prostaff to move with him. “He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted less tournaments and more time for hunting,” said Brenda. “I started mentoring outdoor writers about bowhunting, and I had more time for hunting myself, which was what I loved.”
Back when Bass Pro Shops had only their flagship store in Springfield, Missouri, they invited Valentine to speak at an August store event. She arrived with a couple of dead deer heads and a CoolWhip bowl of strained doe pee from a bladder, not a shelf in the store. She saw the lineup of speakers and discovered who was before and after: Myles Keller and Bill Jordan. Talk about intimidation. “I thought, ‘oh, they’ve put me in between so everyone can have a break.’” To her surprise, the place was packed—every seat was taken and the standing area was bursting at its seams. “I was so flustered, I could hardly speak.” Brenda had thoughts that she should be back home cutting hair. “What was I thinking? Then I saw three old guys in bib overalls in the front row, and I decided they were somebody I could talk to.” Of course, this gal knew her stuff. She lived it and the guys all respected her immense knowledge.
At the end of the presentation, Bill Jordan told her, “Stick around, I want to talk to you.”
From there you might know the rest of Brenda Valentine’s story. Seven years on the Realtree pro staff and then she moved to the Mossy Oak pro staff 12 years ago. She’s been on the BassPro Shops’ RedHead pro staff for over 17 years. Valentine and Michael Waddell are the national spokespeople for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). Brenda’s work with NWTF deserves its own column for another day.
She was never a glam-girl. Brenda Valentine always looked to the garden, the woods, and the waters to provide food for her family. For all the women who enjoy hunting and shooting sports in 2014, it would be good to remember the gals who blazed a trail with their knowledge and hard work. It wasn’t all for television shows or for the spotlight, either. For some, like Brenda Valentine, it was because it defined who she was—and is. This Valentine loves the outdoors that much.
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.