MICHIGAN OUT-OF-DOORS: How did you get introduced to the outdoors?
STEVEN RINELLA: My father was a hunter and fisherman. Most outdoorsmen are like me, in that they get introduced to hunting and fishing by their father. But my dad was an exception. He was raised on the south side of Chicago by his grandparents. They spoke Italian in the home and knew nothing of the outdoors. They were removed from it both spatially and financially. After serving in World War II (my dad had me when he was fifty years old) he got interested in hunting and fishing along with an entire generation of other returning soldiers. Today, a lot of folks don’t realize this, but the modern blue-collar sportsman was in many ways a creation of the guys who fought in WWII. Someone at the time put it this way, more or less: You can’t teach an entire generation to shoot and camp and then not expect them to become hunters.
How did your outdoor experiences growing up in Michigan shape how you view hunting, fishing and trapping?
I grew up in Twin Lake, in Muskegon County, and was surrounded by hunting, fishing, and trapping opportunities. We fished Lake Michigan, Muskegon and White Lakes, plus tons of other ponds and creeks and lakes in our area. My brothers and I could walk from our house to hunt squirrels, and we trapped muskrats on our own lake. We even caught a mink about 200 yards from our house. We were generalists, obviously, up for any kind of outdoor activity. That’s still my philosophy today. I’ll chase everything from bullfrogs to muskox as long as the eating is good.
Steven Rinella bowfishing on Muskegon Lake (Photo by Tracy Breen)
Do you still hunt, fish or trap in Michigan? What species and methods?
I was just hunting and fishing in Michigan this past December while visiting my family. We chased squirrels and rabbits, then fished through the ice for northerns. It was great to get my kids out on the same land and water that I hit when I was growing up.
Did you get into cooking because of wild game, or vice versa?
If I wasn’t a hunter and fisherman, I wouldn’t be a cook. My interest in cooking was born out of necessity. I had a lot of game on my hands, and I wanted to know how to deal with it in the best way imaginable.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
It’s a long list: coyote, porcupine, red howler monkey, raccoon, muskrat, beaver, domestic dog, rattlesnake. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
You sometimes hunt in Wisconsin’s CWD zone. How have you dealt with the potential of eating a CWD-positive deer?
The last couple of times that I’ve hunted in Wisconsin we had our deer tested for CWD. So far, I haven’t killed a deer that tested positive. If I did, I’d have a very hard time enjoying the meat. That’s not to say I’d discard it, but I’d have to think really hard about it. I worry about CWD and what’s it’s going to mean in the future for wildlife and hunters. We should all be paying attention to that issue and we should all be prepared to make some hard choices. There are cases where blame lies on those who insist on transporting captive wildlife. That’s totally preventable.
With turkey season coming up in Michigan, we have to ask: Is there a difference in how you prepare and cook wild turkey verses how most people cook store-bought turkey?
Yes, you have to be more careful. A wild turkey’s flesh is much less forgiving. You really cannot get away with overcooking it. Nowadays, I brine all of my turkeys in a simple brine before I grill, smoke, or roast them. See my guidebooks if you want to know what I’m talking about.
Rinella turkey hunting on MeatEater (Photo courtesy of Zero Point Zero)
Is focusing on wild game the best way for us to connect with non-hunters? What has your experience been with converting new hunters, or even just helping non-hunters understand what we do?
It is the best way, by a long shot. There are other things that help, some of them tremendously, but nothing comes close to what I call “venison diplomacy.” I have served literally dozens upon dozens of people their first taste of wild game. Every single person was moved in a positive direction by the experience.
What’s the most challenging hunt you’ve been on?
That’s a hard question, because there are so many forms of challenge. But in general, I’d say that Dall sheep hunting is the most rugged and demanding hunt that I know about. It requires a constant attention to detail, a willingness to suffer, and the ability to get abused day after day after day.
Do you see virtue in challenging hunts?
Yes. We have a problem in this country with what my dad described as “candy asses.” It’s important to learn how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
You recently talked with Starbucks employees about hunting. Did you learn anything about what we as hunters can do better to communicate with non-hunters?
No, it only reconfirmed what I already know to be true. People want straight, honest answers from hunters – and sometimes the questions are difficult. We need to take the time to engage with others and to explain where we’re coming from. To do this effectively, hunters need to study the conservation history of this country as well as the guiding scientific principles of wildlife management. I’ve met folks who are pleasantly surprised to learn that there are hunting seasons and bag limits. They honestly believed that it’s a total free-for-all out there. That demonstrates how much work we have to do in our public outreach.
What’s your take on catch & release only waters? Do we miss the boat by not allowing at least a sacramental fish for the grill?
Yes, I’m a bit annoyed by designated catch-and-release waters. A guy who feels sanctimonious because he caught and released twenty fish is actually killing way more fish than a guy who catches one, kills it, and goes home. Depending on the conditions, there can be huge mortality from catch-and-release. It’s especially weird to me when we create catch-and-release fisheries around non-native species such as rainbows and brown trout. It feels like we’re trying to turn our wild places into artificial worlds that resemble golf courses. As you can see, I’m a big fan of the idea that we should try to restore our native fisheries as much as possible and stop worrying so much about perpetuating non-natives.
Rinella trapping beaver (Photo by Garrett Smith)
You used to trap quite a bit. What do most people – hunters and non-hunters – not understand about trapping?
I find that most people don’t understand anything about trapping. They are blinded by the controversy. In fact, I know a lot of seasoned outdoorsmen who’ve never been on a trapline despite spending a lifetime in the outdoors. Misperceptions abound, and there is very little fact-based thinking going on.
What’s the future for trapping in America?
It’s uncertain. Trappers have a lot of work to do if they’re going to survive the next couple of decades – especially those trappers who live in heavily populated states like Michigan. I have ideas for them, but I don’t know if they’re ready to get really serious about saving themselves. When I was trapping, I was blinded by my dislike for animal rights activists. I wrote them off as whackos with no real connection to the natural world. And there’s a bit of truth to that, for sure. But it’s going to take more than antagonism to beat the animal rights movement. It’s gonna take a willingness to understand their message and to understand how that message is received by the general public. The die-hard animal rights folks are very few in number. The battle lies in the minds of the “silent majority” of Americans who make impulsive decisions at the voting booth.
What does public land mean to you?
To me, our public lands system is one of the most vivid personifications of the American ideal. It’s one of our great inventions as a country. Our system is a symbolic slap in the face to the aristocracies of Europe, where hunting and fishing rights are attached to wealth and social standing. When someone questions the legitimacy of public land, they might as well be questioning the legitimacy of liberty.
What would you say to politicians trying to sell it?
I’d say “watch your ass. Hunters and fishermen and conservationists are going to turn on you, and you’re going to lose your job. And you will not be remembered fondly.”
Why should Midwestern hunters, who might regularly hunt private land, care about what’s going on with public lands?
On the most basic level, they should know that private land permissions come and go, but public land permissions do not. And they should know that the political and conservation clout of hunters and fishermen relies on us having strong public participation. If you don’t protect the public land hunter, you will find yourself increasingly isolated in the political and cultural sphere. And that won’t be a good thing for your hunting and fishing rights.
(Photo by Rick Smith)
What projects are you working on for MeatEater that we should look forward to?
We are working on a new wild game cookbook that covers both fish and game. And for two years we’ve been working on cranking out a documentary project about hunting in America. It’s going to be an impactful film. And then there’s the MeatEater Podcast, which has been blowing up in popularity.
Finally, what conservation organizations do you support, and why?
I’m a member of several, including a lifetime member of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and a supporter of National Wild Turkey Foundation. But if you want to stay on top of all serious conservation issues that will impact your hunting, fishing, and outdoor lifestyle, you should get involved with the TRCP, or Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. From public lands issues to clean water, they are fighting the fight at the highest levels.