The Life of an American Hunter

Outside correspondent Steven Rinella talks to his longtime editor, Mary Turner, about his new book (and TV show of the same name) Meat Eater, how he got started fishing and hunting, and why he’ll never stop

    Photo: Courtesy of StevenRinella.com

You’ve always seemed kind of immortal, dodging grizzlies and crazy things out there in the wild. But you got really sick recently. What happened?
I spent my first night ever in a hospital. Four nights, actually. There’s still some mystery about the exact details of my illness, but here’s the leading theory: I contracted Giardia or crypto while stupidly drinking improperly treated water from a canyon bottom in Arizona. (I was hunting coues deer.) I went up to California from there and got really bad poison oak from a wild pig that I killed and skinned. Unbeknownst to me, he’d been rolling in the stuff. A doctor in California put me on powerful steroids to combat the poison oak, which compromised my stomach’s ability to fight off the waterborne parasite I’d contracted. So things progressed from bad to worse and I developed a very painful colon infection. I was passing copious amounts of blood. The whole thing was pretty rough.

Sounds pretty horrific, and begs the question, why do you hunt?
Food is the most immediate, tangible answer. I eat a diet of wild game. But the deeper answers have to do with cultural continuity, adventure, maintaining an open and interactive relationship with wilderness. Also, I have a lot of good ol’ fashioned fun out there.

Tell me about your TV show.
It’s called Meat Eater, and it airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on the Sportsman Channel. It explores the intrinsic link between hunting and food. Our rallying cry is “Killer Hunts, Killer Foods.” We don’t skimp on anything. I take viewers on the wildest and most rugged hunts out there, and then I eat the wildest and most rugged foods. It’s a blast.

How’s it different from, say, Bear Grylls’ Man vs. Wild?
I don’t know Bear Grylls but the title of his show implies an adversarial relationship to the wild. I don’t think that the point of being in the wilderness is to get out as quickly as humanly possible. In the woods I find things that are spiritual, redemptive, and worthy of contemplation. I don’t run around thinking, Holy shit! Watch out! And I don’t smear mud all over my face.

What do you say to people who think hunting is cruel and gross?
It depends on where the person’s coming from. If they eat meat, I ask them to explain and justify the circumstances that put flesh on their table. It's hypocritical to call a hunter cruel if you go to the store and buy chicken or beef or bacon. Someone killed those animals, and just because you’re ignorant of the details of how they were killed doesn’t make it somehow better. In my mind, it’s far more ethical to take responsibility for the killing that your meals require. Doing so leads to a much greater appreciation for the resources that we consume. On the other hand, if the person asking the question is vegan, I tell them that I understand their perspective. Hunting does involve death and blood and some amount of suffering. There’s no hiding that. Thinking of this leads me to an honest question that I've been wondering about: Do anti-hunters think that chimps and dolphins and wolves should all quit hunting, or just us humans?

Fair question. Think you could you ever be a vegetarian?
I doubt it. Even with all the clinical proof that it’s healthier to avoid lots of red meat, I can’t envision a life without it. That’s because hunting is my passion. And if you’re good at it, you tend to have a lot of meat on hand. Keep in mind that I also like to drink alcohol and run whitewater and climb mountains into dangerous terrain—and there aren’t many doctors who’ll say that those practices are adding years to my life.

What's the toughest terrain to hunt in?
I just got back from hunting tahr in the high-glaciated mountains of New Zealand’s South Island. You sometimes need ice axes and crampons to hunt that stuff, and you get into places where a fall is going to kill you. But for all-around general toughness, there’s nothing more aggravating than hunting on tussocks in the Arctic Tundra. A buddy equated it to walking all day on top of volleyballs that have been loosely tethered to the floor.

Your wife, Katie, is more of a city girl, and you live in Brooklyn with your two-year-old son. What does she think about all the bloody animal meat you bring home?
She hates seeing it; she loves eating it. And she doesn’t even bother rationalizing her perspective. That’s kind of what I love about her.

Is she coming around to heading out into the wild with you?
Our son is now obsessed with fishing. So she knows the out-of-doors is going to become a bigger and bigger part of her life. The other day we learned that our new baby, due this December, is going to be a girl. That night, Katie made me promise that I’ll teach our daughter to hunt and fish with the same enthusiasm that I use with our son. So that tells me that the Rinella family is going to be hitting it hard.

Will it be important for your son to hunt and fish? What if he hates it?
Obviously I’d love for him to enjoy hunting and fishing. But that’s not a requisite for my love. I keep telling my wife that I hope he’s either a hardcore hunter or a ballet dancer. It’s the middle ground, stuff like soccer, that makes me nervous.

When did you start fishing and hunting?
I was fishing on my own at three, hunting small game at seven or so, trapping at 10. I started hunting deer when I was 11, but didn’t kill one until I was 13.

What's your favorite game meat?
Elk. It’s really versatile. You can use it for anything from jerky to burgers to pot roast to steaks on the grill. And it’s consistently good. There’s no such thing as bad elk. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about a lot of other species. Not that that stops me from eating everything I hunt. You kill it, you eat it. If all hunters stayed true to that motto, we’d have a lot fewer public relations problems.

I’ve had some of your elk. It’s delicious. Wanna share a recipe?
Rub a piece of elk loin in corn oil and then dust it in salt and pepper and put it on a hot grill. Cook just until the inside starts to warm up a little bit. Slice thin.

How much of the meat that you eat in any given year have you killed yourself?
Either I killed it or a friend killed it, unless I’m in a restaurant. We don’t bring domestically produced meat into our home. I did cook a lamb at my house not long ago, but my brother raised that on his own property and shot it with a .22 rifle.

I bet you have a freezer full of meat now. Tell me what’s in there.
For fish I’ve got home-smoked bluefish fillets, striped bass, and porgies. For meat I’ve got a bit of wild turkey, tahr, coues deer, whitetail deer, black bear, javelina, and wild hog. I just gave about 10 pounds away to a friend in need because we’re getting close to the fall hunting season and I need to clear out my supplies to get ready for a new influx.

What do you always take with you into the wild?
I’m such a gear snob that it’s hard for me to answer that question without compiling a very detailed list. But one thing that I really honestly never go without is a multi-tool that has a good knife and a sturdy pair of needle nose pliers. You can get through some sticky situations with one of those.

What's the best campside meal you've ever cooked?
Fire-roasted beaver tail. It’s good because it’s so unexpected. Their tails are full of a white fatty substance, not unlike the gristle on a steak. If you’ve been undernourished on a long trip and you bite into that, you’ll be smiling.

You're an interesting contradiction: You have an off-the-grid cabin on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska yet you also have fancy dinners in New York City on occasion with the likes of writers Jay McInerney and Bill Buford. What's that all about?
It’s honestly all about hunting. It seems that every time I meet an influential or famous person, it’s because of some interest that they have in the hunting lifestyle or the food it provides. I welcome any opportunity to cook game for the uninitiated. They always, and I mean always, come away from the meal with a positive impression of hunting. I can’t say that the skulls and antlers hanging in my living room have the same impact on people.

Well, not everyone likes to go freeze in the hinterlands of Alaska. Why do you love to be all wet and cold out there in the wild?
I like to put myself into situations where I can experience the unconfused purity of being a human predator. Situations where my circumstances are stripped of everything that is nonessential to the moment. Just me, my boots, my pack, my rifle. In those moments, especially when there’s a sense of impending violence, of making a kill, you are often gifted a beautiful glimpse of life.

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