May 9th, 2017 by Sam Morstan

Partway along her life’s journey, an indoor girl took a detour into the great outdoors, and that choice continues to make all the difference.

STORY BY CRAIG HODGKINS • PHOTOS BY SKINNER SIGHTS

Sheila considers Coni Brooks (left), here at a Safari Club International Show with the leopard Brooks shot in Mozambique, to be a hunting mentor. “If Coni can do it, I can do it,” Sheila says.

When Andy and Sheila Larrson married about three years ago, Andy was the proud owner of Skinner Sights, a small gun-sight-crafting business in rural St. Ignatius, Mont.

Sheila was not even a shooter. The manager of a jewelry store 40 miles away in the bustling city of Missoula, she was a self-professed “indoor girl.”

“I wear dresses and high heels and get my nails done,” she said. “I’m one of those kinds of girls, so it just wasn’t my personality.”

But Cupid must have had a Skinner Sight mounted to his bow. The two met, fell in love, and determined to forge a life together. Sheila chose Andy and St. Ignatius over jewelry and Missoula, and right after the wedding, the two flew to Las Vegas.

Sheila cherishing the moment with her gemsbok, professional hunter Jaco van der Merwe (beside Sheila) and trackers Harry (left) and Ephriam.

But unlike most couples headed to the popular honeymoon destination, they were there for the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade, or SHOT, Show.

“We flew to Vegas and walked into the show, and for her it was a little bit overwhelming,” Andy said. “We spent three days wandering the floor, meeting with my contacts. She was trying to decide whether she was onboard or not. She wanted to be, but this was all so foreign to her.”

But Andy had an ace up his sleeve in the form of someone he’d served beside on a shooter’s advisory board a decade before.

“I took her to the Barnes Bullet booth and introduced her to Coni Brooks,” he said. “And the two of them had a 30-minute conversation where they really connected. And when we walked away from there, Sheila said, ‘If Coni can do it, I can do it.’ She was very impressed with this little lady that was all ‘blinged’ up and had just been to Mozambique and shot a leopard. That was Sheila’s real inspiration moment.”

At the prompting of Ellen Bell, Sheila took the opportunity to participate in SCI’s Amy Bell Blue Bag program, loading up duffels with gifts for African villagers in the area she and her husband were hunting.

FOLLOWING THAT FIRST S.H.O.T. SHOW, the two flew to Maui for an actual honeymoon, but once again, Andy found a way to incorporate the outdoor life into the proceedings.

“I set up a feral goat hunt with Maui Hunting Safaris. If you are going to take a girl from the jewelry store and get her into hunting (for the first time), I figured Maui was the best place to do that.”

[Editor’s note: Well played, sir.]

And although Sheila was all for it, it wasn’t without some trepidation.

“I told the guide, ‘I have no idea how this is going to go,’” she recalled. “I could just end up in a puddle. But when you get out there with a guide whispering in your ear, you get in the zone. You’re focused, and everything else just kind of goes away.”

Sheila got her goat. The two hunted closer to home for the remainder of the year, and Sheila soon bagged a mule deer. They attended the 2015 SHOT Show the following January, and then the annual NRA meetings, which led to Sheila’s next step in her development, one that took the Larrsons to the Texas hill country.

“Remington had asked Coni to head up some women’s shooting initiatives,” said Andy, “and wanted to make a video down at the FTW Ranch. So Coni contacted Sheila.”

The Larrsons had met ranch owner Tim Fallon at the NRA show, and were impressed by what they’d heard. The course was FTW’s popular but intense SAAM (Sportsman’s AllTerrain, All-Weather Marksmanship) training for precision shooting and safari scenarios.

“It was a lot in just a short amount of time,” said Sheila, “but it gave me a ton of confidence.”

During evenings and meals at the ranch, conversations naturally turned to hunting.

“The lodge is full of trophies,” said Andy, “and everybody is talking about the last time they were in Africa. There were all these stories being told, and Sheila was really inspired.

THE THREE DAYS IN SOUTH TEXAS also cemented the kinship between Sheila and Coni, and Sheila had truly caught hunting fever, a fact that manifested itself in a humorous way when the couple returned to Montana.

“By this time,” said Sheila, “I’m fully on board. He came home from work one day and found me binge-watching Jim Shockey’s Hunting Adventures.”

Soon, Sheila was putting everything she learned into practice. With Andy’s son Danny as a frequent and deft guide, Sheila quickly developed a broader set of hunting skills, such as adjusting for windage.

“I shot a deer at 330 yards in 30 mile-an-hour winds,” she said. “We’d been practicing the day before, and I was hitting steel at 700 yards in high winds aiming way off target, so I was feeing pretty confident. It’s always different when you’re on an animal and not steel, but I got the deer.”

“One shot,” added Andy proudly. “Double-lunged it. A beautiful buck.”

One picture from that day was used in the 2016 Meopta scope catalog.

“We sent them to [PR consultant] Shannon Jackson,” said Andy, “She asked for permission and we said ‘Oh, sure,’ but didn’t know they were in there. We walked by the Meopta booth at SHOT in 2016, and this girl says, ‘Hey, you’re the lady in our catalog.’ And that was kinda fun.”

While at the FTW Ranch, everyone told Sheila that she needed to attend the Safari Club International (SCI) Show, which is held annually not long after SHOT. Again, fate intervened.

“When we got to the SCI Show,” said Andy, “I was thinking, ‘Let’s find a good plains game hunt where Sheila can go and really get her feet wet in a concentrated environment.’”

Fallon, who was also at the SCI Show, advised the couple that Namibia would be a great choice.

“At that point,” Sheila said, “I didn’t know Namibia from the Congo, except for what Tim had told me.”

“I was looking for something that was low fence,” Andy added, “not a canned hunt, with free-range animals so you didn’t feel like you’d gone out into somebody’s pasture and shot a cow. We found Jaco van der Merwe and Namibia Safari Corporation to be really personable.”

That evening, Fallon got a group of friends together for dinner. Coni Brooks and the Larrsons joined in.

“We had booked our Africa hunt that day,” said Sheila, “and at dinner that night, I was excited to tell people about it. I didn’t even know who I was sitting beside, but the woman said ‘You’ve got to take a Blue Bag. Do you know about this?’ And I said ‘Not really.’”

The woman was Ellen Bell, and she began to tell her about the “Pay It Forward” program that she and her husband, Larry, sponsor for SCI in their daughter Amy’s name.

Amy Bell was a gifted horsewoman and hunter with a passion to serve disadvantaged people of all nations. When she passed away suddenly in May 2014, her parents decided SCI’s existing “Blue Bag” program would be a perfect way to perpetuate Amy’s philanthropic spirit.

“I felt immediately connected to Amy the minute I heard about it,” said Sheila. “I came back to the room and I looked it up online and read everything I could about it. Amy had been to Africa many times. She was a young, beautiful soul and they lost her too soon, so they sponsored the Blue Bag [program] in her name.”

“You fill them full of whatever you want and give them to the kids,” explained Sheila. “Toys, candy, medical supplies, comfort items, pillows, blankets, soccer balls – anything that will help make their life better.”

“If you (fill them) in-country,” adds Andy, “you’re also putting money into their economy. The idea is to help people, to show people that hunters care. If hunters are helping (them) be sustainable, it reduces poaching because hunters become more valuable than poachers. It’s better for the wildlife and the villages as well. If you leave a good taste, those kids will remember forever.”

Andy and Sheila make new friends in a village.

THE NAMIBIAN HUNTS WERE A SUCCESS by any measure. The couple took a variety of African game, including gemsbok, zebra, kudu and wildebeest. But despite their shared accomplishment, it paled in comparison to distributing the contents of the SCI Amy Bell Blue Bags to the village children.

“It was a huge game-changer for me,” said Sheila. “It was the best part of Africa. Hunting was awesome, but the Blue Bags were better. I dragged those things through airports. They were 50 pounds each, and I was hauling them all over with the biggest smile on my face. I loved it.”

That’s not to say that Sheila has lost her passion for hunting. She and Andy have already booked a coastal black bear hunt for 2019 in Alaska, south of Juneau along the Inland Passage. The two will hunt out of skiffs along the edges of the coast during low tide. Wildlife conservation has also become a cause for Sheila, whose unique life perspective helps her understand both sides of the conversation.

“You listen to people talk about conservation,” she said, “and it doesn’t make much sense when you’re a nonhunter, because how is killing an animal helping to save animals? That used to be my mindset, so I really worked on educating myself on how that all works, and it’s pretty simple. It’s all part of the learning curve when you haven’t lived that way for years.”

“Part of it was wanting to be where my husband was, and wanting to be involved, and Coni sure helped. She was a huge catalyst. (When) I met Coni, we related on all kinds of levels, not just hunting. When you find somebody that inspires you and can teach you – and has been through all those different things – that really helps.

These days, Sheila is focused on her own version of paying it forward.

“I just started this three years ago. And what Coni did for me, I hope that I can inspire somebody else to realize that they can do it too. That’s what it’s all about – helping people find their strength and give somebody else a little bit of inspiration.”

In three years, Sheila has gone from being a nonshooter to someone who plans international hunts. Sometimes she reflects on the days before her transition from “indoor girl” to African huntress.

“Back then, I would have thought ‘never in a million years,’” she said, “but now I never let the word ‘never’ come out of my mouth, because the next thing you know I’ll be doing it.”

Sheila Larrson with her kudu, which she took in Africa with her custom Dennis Olsen-modified Ruger 77 Mannlicher in .30-06. This photo later appeared in the 2016 Barnes Bullets catalog.

 

“You are your own worst enemy if you put yourself in a box and decide ‘this is who I am,’ because you can be anybody. I can still be a ‘girly’ girl, I can still get my nails done, and I can still shoot a .300 Win. Mag. like a boss.” ASJ

Posted in Women and guns Tagged with: , , ,