Written by Nicky Whitney - (AKA @tennesseehuntress)
Let me tell you…I love hunting. I repeat, I love hunting, y’all. Compared to most hunters you know, I’m still a novice. It’s something that I have only just grown a true passion for over the last couple of years. But I love my little mountain in Tennessee where my tree stand is. I love hating life while waking up at 4 AM to get out there (entirely too early if you ask me) to sit in my stand and wait for my chance to take my shot. I love that I hunt public land (even though trail cams only last about 2.4 seconds in my spot before they’re capturing the views of someone else’s trails). I love that not being able to track their habits through a camera forces me to learn the land and behavioral habits of the deer in order to put food on the table. I like that there are no catchy names like Thunder Dome or Five Finger Frank for deer where I live. If I name one Paul and pass him up one morning in hopes of finding him more matured next season, I could almost guarantee that Paul is filling someone else’s freezer by that evening (if it’s brown it’s down). Yes, I even like that part because it challenges my own personal ethics and makes me really think about the shots I take, even though someone else is probably going to take that shot anyways. I like that baiting is illegal where I live and that I have to do so much of my hunting the “old fashioned” way. I love that I have more embarrassing stories with my hunting sister Ashley Dill (@lethallybonde_) that make me laugh than I do ones that make me sound like a professional. I love all of those things because that is what makes it a gratifying experience for me. It’s hard work with a million different emotions. It can be frustrating, exhausting and disappointing. But I am also proud. I’m super hyped up and possibly/probably crying (don’t judge me). But most of all, I am honored and I am grateful for the people who have been willing to teach me the skills I need in order to experience something so incredible.
Are you asking me what this has to do with being a mermaid yet?
I may enjoy hunting, but I should have been born with fins. Since the moment I first heard the crashing of the waves, my heart has belonged to the ocean. Being born in Florida, the salt water runs through my veins. I love the suffocating heat, the smell of the air and I even love the sand that gets literally everywhere. After moving away from Florida, to satisfy my waterlust, my dad raised me fishing the lakes and rivers of Tennessee. I’m not going to lie, I am possibly one of the worst cat fishermen you have ever seen (I seriously struggle with the random acts of terrorism that catfish bait wages on me every time I use it), but I do love me some bass fishing. For years I told myself that was enough. Fishing whenever I could, working my butt off to have a successful hunting season and counting down the days until I could go on off shore fishing trips. That has been my yearly routine...fresh water fish, hunt, salt water fish, repeat. But it’s never been enough.
A little over a year ago, I was introduced to the world of spear fishing by my friend Jake Latendresse of Latendresse Media. He has an eye for all things beautiful (and knew my love for the ocean) so through his encouragement, I decided to experience spearfishing at least once. I started following people like @sharkgirlmadison and @valentinethomas and I couldn’t wait for the chance to get my own fins wet. As it often happens with social media, I discovered Bri. Not only did she have a heart for the ocean, but she spearfished too! Soon the stars aligned and Bri and I planned a trip to spearfish with Valentine Thomas. This was both exciting and terrifying at the same time. I knew I loved the ocean, but I had never tried free diving before. It takes a lot of training to hold your breath in order to dive down and stay down there long enough to find and shoot fish. But, I’ve never been one to shy away from new adventures. Especially ones involving the ocean.
My first day on the water I kept up a brave face. I smiled as I was instructed on how to relax my body and the proper breathing technique in order to dive. I smiled as I put on the mask and fins while my hands were shaking, all while I was praying that I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself. I laughed with everyone when I forgot I had my snorkel in my mouth on the boat as I tried to ask our captain a question (who am I kidding, that happened like three times at least). I smiled when we jumped in the water and my stomach was doing somersaults as I tried to calm myself for what I was about to do. Finally, I smiled when I laid on top of the water and relaxed my body and attempted to slow my heart rate. Only this time, for the first time since I started this trip, my smile was completely genuine.
The thing I love most about hunting is the challenge (yep, we are back to that, but it ties together I swear). Learning where to find your game, figuring out shot placement, having the right equipment (and knowing how to use it) and being able to blend into your surroundings so that you don’t scare away what you’re attempting to hunt. Spearfishing is just as much, if not more challenging. But in the very best way. Learning to do breath holds (Bri and Val apparently just breath underwater), breath ups and relaxing your body is really a huge mental thing. Like hunting, being in the right head space means everything when it comes to making an ethical shot. Having bowfished, I thought for sure I’d know exactly where to aim while spearfishing. Nope. It’s not the same y’all. Being completely submerged underwater (and trying to stay down there) and remembering you can’t just breath like you do topside all while holding an odd mix between one of those rubber band guns and a cross bow...I realized quickly that mastering my shots is probably going to take some time. But what is hunting without having to train and learn.
My spearfishing experience was nothing short of incredible. Not being able to hear anything but the sound of my heartbeat and the calming sound of the ocean. Not being able to see anything but the ocean floor and the marine life that existed below me and knowing that I had found another way to provide for my family. I knew the moment I felt my that first genuine smile that this is what I’ve been missing. This is what I was made for. Even before I made that first 30 foot dive successfully and even before I heard all of my friends’ cheers as I topped the surface, I knew. I’d never go back from this. I’d never love anything more than diving and I’d never work harder at anything in my life.