The following is the debut article of Steven Rinella’s Fare Game column, which will appear in each issue of Petersen’s Hunting magazine. Make sure to check out future issues of HUNTING for more of Steven’s writing and other great hunting features and columns.
One of the hardest things about being a hunter is trying to explain why I hunt. Whenever I attempt this, so many things come to mind that it would take a week to cover them all. Just the pleasures of eating wild game would take me a day to explain. And then I’d want to discuss the thrill of hunting, the adventurous travel that it involves, all the cool guys I’ve met, and of course I’d want to explain the primal skills that a seasoned hunter accumulates throughout his life. At least by then I’d be getting warmed up…
Recently, though, I found a much simpler explanation.
It occurred to me over the course of a very strange moment while I was hunting turkeys in the badlands of Southeast Montana. My brother Matt and I had hiked back in there the day before, to a not-quite-but-almost inaccessible chunk of BLM land where we’ve killed almost 20 toms in seven years without ever seeing another hunter. We were accompanied by Matt’s two pack llamas, Timmy and Haggy, who were loaded with food, water and camping gear.
In the predawn darkness, Matt and I left the llamas tethered near camp, and we headed off in different directions. Matt went south, and I headed into the next valley to the east. Hunting turkeys in this area often has more to do with spot-and-stalk hunting than it does with the conventional way of hunting turkeys by sitting against a tree and calling. So I climbed to a high place where I could glass the surrounding meadows with a pair of 8×40 Vortex binoculars. Soon I heard a distant gobble rising up from the bottom of the gorge below me, and I started sneaking down in there to have a look.
As I got closer to where I hoped the tom would be, he gobbled again from a distance way up the valley. We call this sort of tom a “cruiser.” Hen-less and lonely, he’d probably spent the morning wandering in a willy-nilly fashion while gobbling here one minute and then 400 yards away the next minute. I followed along, hoping either that he’d stop or I’d catch up enough to try calling to him. From the location of his last couple of calls, I guessed that he was going to climb out of the canyon and drop into the next valley. I hurried along, hoping I might catch him cutting through a gap in the sandstone cliffs that rimmed the valley’s head. Not only did I get to the gap too late, my prediction about the tom’s route was wrong. From about 150 yards away, I watched the turkey scale a cliff that would have made a bighorn proud. There was probably no catching him now. As a farewell, I scratched out a couple of notes on a box call.
The tom surprised me by bombing off the rim of the cliff and flying so close over my head that he would have been in range if he were a duck. He crashed like a downed plane into a stand of ponderosa pines about 75 yards below me. I turned my head in that direction so that my chin was over my left shoulder, and I gave him a couple more hen clucks. Nothing. I waited a few minutes and called again. Still nothing.
I didn’t know where the turkey was or where it might be coming from. Soon I’d been holding dead still with my head over my left shoulder for a period of about five minutes. And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, a person sighed very loudly just behind my right shoulder. He sounded mildly annoyed and perhaps a little out of breath from running up a hill. My immediate response was to turn my head in that direction, of course, but just as my chin reached my right shoulder I realized that I was not in the presence of an annoyed human after all. It was a large black bear, standing on its rear feet with its front feet propped up on a log that was leaning against the same log that I was.
I once heard an interview with a neuroscientist who studies human responses during stressful situations, and he described how a person who has fallen from a roof will later remember dozens of distinct thoughts that passed through his head in the fraction of a second that it took to hit the ground. The scientist suggested that the person doesn’t actually have those thoughts while he’s falling; rather, through a trick of memory, he just thinks he had them whenever he tries to recall the event.
Regardless, I’m telling you honestly that I had seven thoughts during the half-second the bear and I stared at each other:
1) I thought about what it would be like to get mauled and killed by a black bear
2) I marveled at the stunning coincidence that this bear and I both happened to be hunting in the same place at the same time
3) I thought about how strange it was that I was trying to deceive a turkey in order to kill and eat it and how I had deceived another creature that wanted to kill and eat a turkey too
4) I thought how it was strange that I’d be willing to kill and eat this bear under certain circumstances and how he’d most likely be willing to kill and eat me, but that I couldn’t in fact kill him unless he tried to kill me because that area was then closed to bear hunting and I’d have to have a claim of self-defense
5) I wondered what effect a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with #5 pellets would have on a bear at close range
6) I wondered if I’d actually be able to hit the bear if it really came down to it, because he’d most likely be chewing on me by the time such an action became warranted
7) I imagined myself telling this story, regardless of the outcome, over and over for a very long time.
The bear interrupted this immense whirlwind of thought with a woof, and then he ran off through the thick timber at the casual pace of a jogger. He did this without hitting any trees, despite the fact that he kept turning back to look at me for three or four strides at a time. When he was gone I leaned back to wait for my pulse to chill out, as it was racing at a speed that I figured to be very unhealthy. When my pulse finally did slow down, I felt about as good as it’s possible to feel without breaking some kind of law. And within the feeling of that moment, I realized that I’d found a perfectly reasonable explanation for why I hunt.
Steven Rinella is the author, most recently, of American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon.
Visit him at Stevenrinella.com