A Q&A with Steven Rinella
By Craig J. Heimbuch
As a sort of professional outdoorsman, Steven Rinella gets paid to travel the world in pursuit of his passions. A best-selling author and host of the TV show MeatEater on the Sportsman Channel, Rinella has managed to turn the hunting skills he learned from his father and grandfather into a successful career.
It’s not about the hunt with him. Well, it is, but the hunt is about more than just the hunt. It’s about connection and understanding, about food and conservation. It’s about how he sees the world.
I’ve never met Rinella in person, but he’s had a big influence on my life. He’s made me second-guess how and what I eat. He’s made me rethink what it means to “be a man.”
I contacted Rinella recently to discuss sporting; life as a father since the birth of his son, Jim; and the most important lessons he’s ever learned.
How did your relationship with the outdoors take root?
In my book, Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, I explain how hunting is traditionally passed down from father to son. That was certainly true for me. My dad got me started hunting and fishing at a very early age. If he were alive today, I think he’d be pleased to know that I make a living doing something he taught me. He always said, “You work a third of your life, so you better do something you love.”
You’ve written before about your family—your father, your brothers—and the outdoors. How did having those experiences with them when you were young influence you?
I learned about fortitude and discipline by being in the outdoors with my dad and my brothers. We did a lot of things that were tough and uncomfortable. Things like wading deep into swamps in the dark to hunt ducks; pulling ice-fishing gear on sleds across huge, windblown lakes; busting through ice with our bare hands to check underwater muskrat traps. Sometimes it was miserable, but I learned to find a sense of pride in being able to accomplish these things. My dad was hard on us, or at least I considered him to be hard on us, but now I understand what he was driving at.
What’s your favorite place to hunt?
My favorite hunting states are Montana and Alaska. Both offer a lot of deep wilderness hunting experiences, which are hard to find in many regions, but I mainly like them because I’ve got a brother in each place. We’ve had some amazing adventures in those mountains, chasing big game like elk and Dall sheep. Doing my show, MeatEater, keeps me on the road about half the time, so I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like. I envision a future where we’re three gray-haired old men, out hunting together like we’ve been doing our whole lives.
To that end, what hunt is on your life list? Where do you want to go before you die?
A few years ago, I drew a tag to hunt muskoxen on Nunivak Island, in the Bering Sea. I wasn’t able to go because of work and family issues, and I’ll always regret missing that. It’s a March hunt, with low temperatures of -40 degrees and just awful conditions. I’d love to face that challenge. Annually, you only have about a 4 percent chance of drawing that tag. So I’ll probably never hit it again. But if I do, nothing will keep me from going.
What do you hope to teach people about the connection between hunting and eating?
I hope that hunters who read my stuff see the importance of the wild game they harvest and make sure it’s used responsibly. On the flip side, I hope that non-hunters come to a better understanding of what motivates hunters. I want them to understand that we value our resources.
You’re a city dweller, living in Brooklyn, married to a city girl. Do your New York friends scratch their heads when you talk about work? What about your wife?
Not at all. In fact, they love hearing about hunting. They especially love eating the wild game I bring home. When I’m in town, I have a constant procession of friends over for dinner, and they’ll eat anything I put in front of them. In fact, I’ve found that city people typically have way more adventurous palates than rural people. I could cook up a dinner of beaver tail and javelina and they’d clean their plates. That wouldn’t happen where I grew up, where people generally have more limited notions of what’s acceptable—unless they grew up eating the stuff themselves. Somehow, barriers get erected when it comes to eating, and those barriers are different for people with a lot of exposure to diverse ethnic foods and oddball ingredients. As for my wife, she eats more wild game than 90 percent of the hunters I know. We’ll be having a blade roast off a mule deer tonight, and she’s looking forward to it.
Have you taken your son hunting yet? What do you hope he remembers about you when he’s grown up?
We’ve done a lot of fishing already, and he’s only two-and-a-half years old. But we haven’t hunted together yet. He still asks me what the moose that’s hanging on our wall is going to eat, so I don’t think he’s ready to see a large animal get killed. I think it would confuse him. But next year, when he’s three, we’ll start hunting together. I’ll begin with squirrels. When he grows up, I hope he looks back on our time together and recognizes that I never tried to oversimplify things for him, or to take the easy way out on parenting.
You’ve turned hunting and adventure travel into a career. Do you ever just go to a baseball game?
I’ve never been interested in sports, at least not since fifth grade or so. I’ve always chosen the wild fecundity of the outdoors over the manicured and more predictable world of sports. But I like to read; I like to cook; I like to hang out with my buddies and throw back a few drinks. And when I come off a long trip, the thing I most look forward to is sitting around watching movies with my wife after we put our son to bed. That’s the pinnacle of relaxation for me.
If someone handed you the keys to a new Silverado tomorrow, where would you go?
I’d pack up my wife and kid and take them to see some of the places in the West that shaped my perspective on life and the outdoors. I’d show them where General Custer and his 7th Cavalry were annihilated by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, because a place like that can teach us a lot about myth and pride. And I’d take them to see the Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump in Alberta, where pre-contact tribes drove tens of thousands of buffalo off cliffs over a period of hundreds or even thousands of years. A place like that says a lot about resourcefulness and continuity, and a little about waste. And then I’d take them to my favorite bar in Missoula, Montana, where a chef from Louisiana prepares these amazing catfish po’boys. A place like that says a lot about good eating.
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Craig J. Heimbuch’s newest book, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (William Morrow/HarperCollins), traces the year he spent learning to hunt in order to better understand his large, Midwestern family.