Megan Rhode is one of the most enthusiastic hunters you'll ever meet.

And she's never killed a thing in her life.

Rhode, 25, of Hastings, recently learned how to shoot a shotgun and hopes to harvest her first wild game this fall. She and four other first-time female Canada goose hunters hunkered in a blind Saturday near Chaska, partaking in a women's goose hunt, a new event sponsored by Delta Waterfowl, a waterfowl conservation group.

"Hunting already has changed my life," Rhode said. "I've met so many good people. I'm passionate about getting more women involved in hunting."

Rhode and her fellow female hunters are among a wave of women who are being recruited nationwide to fill the gap of a declining number of hunters. While hunter numbers are stable in Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources and conservation groups are boosting efforts to target women -- long ignored by wildlife agencies, sportsman's clubs and conservation groups.

But not anymore.

Nationally, waterfowl hunter numbers dropped 27 percent from 2001 to 2006. In Minnesota, duck hunter numbers have fallen from 109,000 to 78,000 in the past 10 years, and the number of Canada goose hunters have declined from 76,000 to 56,000 in the same period. Lack of access, time constraints, urbanization, an aging Baby Boomer population and, in some areas, a lack of ducks all are blamed for the decline.

"They need us," Rhode said, who was introduced to hunting through a former boyfriend. She's been target shooting this summer and hopes to hunt ducks, geese and pheasants this fall. "We mean more money for conservation, through our hunting licenses and stamps."

They also add memberships for conservation groups. Delta has launched First Hunt, a program to recruit and retain waterfowl hunters.

"Our goal is to recruit hunters from all demographics--youth and adults," said Tori McCormick, Delta's communications director. "Youths are the future, but we also target adults. They have the money, education, transportation and can be easily trained as hunters."

The women's goose hunt will be an annual affair.

More Minnesota women are joining hunting's ranks. They now make up about 10 percent of the state's hunters -- up from 9 percent a few years ago.

"We're a growing contingent," said Linda Bylander, Minnesota's Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) coordinator with the DNR. For 15 years, BOW has offered women a variety of clinics and workshops on hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.

There never have been more opportunities for women to learn how to hunt.

Besides Delta's goose hunt last weekend, Pheasants Forever and the DNR are sponsoring their first mentored pheasant hunt on Oct. 23 for women; 44 have signed up. And a new Upland Bird Day Sept. 25 in Dakota County, open to all adults and families with hunting-age children who want to learn how to hunt upland birds, has attracted 66 people so far. Two women's mentored archery deer hunts near Mora are full.

On Saturday, Rhode joined Alice Anderson, 30, of Burnsville; Jamie Gangaware, 30, of Spring Lake Park; Leslie George, 32, of Glenwood and Ann Geisen, 37, of Brainerd for a day of instruction, target practice and goose hunting. Some had hunted before. They attended a Delta Waterfowl calling seminar earlier this year.

"The biggest increase in waterfowl hunters is in women," Scott Terning, Delta's director of recruitment and education, told them at the Minneapolis Gun Club in Lakeville. "You can hunt. We need you."

The women Saturday learned about hunting, tactics, calling, regulations, ethics and decoy placement. They shattered clay targets. Then they drove to Chaska, where Rick (Swede) Peterson of Swede's Guide Service took them to pit blinds for an afternoon goose hunt. Peterson, a longtime guide, gave them calling tips that seemed to attract mostly mosquitoes.

Only one flock of geese showed itself, far in the distance. By sunset, no geese had come and no shots were fired.

"Well, we tried,'' Peterson told them.

"I still had fun,'' Rhode said.

Added Geisen, sounding like an experienced hunter: "That's why they call it hunting and not grocery shopping.''

Doug Smith •