Steven Rinella: Why I Hunt

Steven Rinella: Why I Hunt

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.

The Reason Why

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 8x40 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.

Unexpected Epiphany

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.

Recommended for You

Companies in the outdoor industry know how to get our attention. We know, it might seem cheap, but SHOT Show

Booth Babes from the 2012 SHOT Show

PH Online Editors - January 18, 2012

Companies in the outdoor industry know how to get our attention. We know, it might seem cheap,...

Pass on your passion and make hunting fun for children with these tips! How-To

How to Make Hunting Fun for Kids

Jeff Johnston

Pass on your passion and make hunting fun for children with these tips!

These four hunts will test your endurance. North America Big Game

North America's Toughest Black Bear Hunts

Brad Fitzpatrick

These four hunts will test your endurance.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

2018 Petersen

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 8: Midnight Sun Grizzlies

Kevin Steele and CZ-USA's Jason Morton return to Alaska's arctic tundra for Kevin's second and Jason's third attempt on the legendary species. Things are looking up on day one but time will tell if the boys will get a shot a the king of the tundra.

2018 Petersen

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 12: High Plains Elk

David Draper teams up with Fred Eichler to hunt elk on the high plains of southern Colorado.

Cheeseburger Poppers

Cheeseburger Poppers

David Draper shares his recipe for making delicious cheeseburger poppers with wild game in this edition of "Fare Game."

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Didn't draw? Here are five great places you can make a last-minute mule deer hunt. North America

5 Great Last-Minute Public-land Hunts

Joseph von Benedikt

Didn't draw? Here are five great places you can make a last-minute mule deer hunt.

These rounds have proven themselves most worthy in the field. Ammo

America's Top 10 Big Game Cartridges

Joseph von Benedikt

These rounds have proven themselves most worthy in the field.

What's The Best Coyote Cartridge? .22-250 Versus .223 Ammo

What's The Best Coyote Cartridge? .22-250 Versus .223

Joseph von Benedikt & David Faubion

What's The Best Coyote Cartridge? .22-250 Versus .223

See More Stories

More Stories

Tough terrain demands the best in conditioning, equipment, and of course a pack full of protein-rich snacks. North America

5 of the Toughest Hunts in North America

Lynn Burkhead

Sponsored By
Jack Link's
For your redneck brother who is about to make the biggest mistake of his life is blessed enough to Stories

Redneck Bachelor Party is a Blast

Awesome Rednecks - September 23, 2013

For your redneck brother who is about to make the biggest mistake of his life is blessed...


I Went Hunting With a Girl

David Faubion - July 30, 2016

"It won't be easy," I told her. "In fact, you'll be cold, hot, tired, dirty and sweaty. Your

See More Stories

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Temporary Price Reduction.


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.