Ellie Sharp was 98 when she had to give up her lifelong hobby of duck hunting.

"The gun just got too heavy," says Sharp, who celebrated her 101st birthday in December.

Her shooting days may be over, but for nearly 80 years Sharp would awaken before sunrise, don the traditional camouflage gear of a hunter and spend hours in a duck blind waiting for her quarry.

"There weren't any women," she remembers of the early days, when she would go hunting with her husband, Jim. As the only woman in the club, she remembers having to sleep on the porch of the Butte Sink Colusa Shooting Club clubhouse.

It was her struggle breaking down the barriers in a predominantly male world that has earned the Orinda resident the title of "The First Lady of California Waterfowl."

In recognition of her work in clearing the way for female hunters, Sharp was given the Artemis Award by the California Waterfowl Association. The award, named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, was presented to Sharp at a reception in Sunol on Monday.

Sharp, considered a role model and champion of women's outdoor opportunities, entered the sport of hunting in 1932. While visiting in-laws near Hanford, she told her husband that she was going to go hunting with him or was going home to play golf.

"They put a gun in my hand," she said. "The minute I fired the gun, I said, 'I like this.'"

That first gun was a Winchester 20-gauge shotgun.

Sharp eventually joined the Flamingo Duck Club near Marysville, which didn't require her to sleep outdoors. However, she was forced to change in the closet.

"They accepted me and they treated me like a man," she said.

Trisha Bonderson, 23, who recently returned to hunting, credits Sharp with paving the way. After stepping away from hunting and the tomboy persona for several years, Bonderson said, she realized she missed the sport.

"I absolutely love it. In the mornings, it's just dead calm," Bonderson said. "And the sky, when it's filled with birds ..."

The number of women in hunting is increasing every year and is the fastest-growing demographic in the sport, said Sarah Swenty, a spokeswoman with the California Waterfowl Association.

According to a November 2006 report by the National Sporting Goods Association, there are 3 million active female hunters in America, more than 14 percent of the total number of 21 million active hunters.

And the numbers have been growing. The association estimates that the number of female hunters grew by 2.4 million from 2001 to 2006. The fastest-growing group of female hunters is ages 18-24.

On Monday, the same day California Waterfowl honored Sharp for her role in shaping the future of hunting, the group introduced its new Women's Outdoor Connections Initiative, which is designed to support hunting and outdoors programs for women and families.

The nonprofit conservation group, founded in 1945, is supported by hunters and works to conserve the state's waterfowl, wetlands and outdoor heritage.

The new women's initiative is designed to encourage women and families to take part in California Waterfowl's existing programs.

"(The initiative) will support out-of-doors programs for women and families and create a network forum for women interested in volunteerism, hunting and conservation," said Tracey Fremd, co-chairwoman of the new initiative and associate board member for California Waterfowl. "By telling Ellie Sharp's story, we remind ourselves of women's contributions to the hunting legacy."

Meera Pal covers Pleasanton. Reach her at 925-847-2120 or mpal@bayareanewsgroup.com.