Steven Rinella says that if it weren’t for the fun and the food, he wouldn’t hunt, but it’s hard to imagine the outdoors celebrity doing anything else.
With a back-story of hunting squirrels and whitetail deer as a youth in Michigan, he burst onto the public scene in 2008 with his book, “American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon.” Interlacing the story of his own buffalo hunt in Alaska with history and legend, the book won the prestigious Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. Since then, he has written several more books, including two wild game cookbooks.
By 2011, he had his own TV show on the Travel Channel, “The Wild Within,” which was succeeded by “MeatEater” on the Sportsman Channel (now also available on Netflix). Amid all that, he launched a MeatEater podcast, which quickly became the top-ranked outdoors podcast on iTunes.
Rinella and his MeatEater crew will sit down for a live podcast recording Thursday at the Ames Center in Burnsville (no tickets remain). In advance of the podcast, Rinella talked about his shows, tensions in the hunting world, and more via e-mail.
Q: Most hunting shows on TV are 22 minutes of whispering in a blind, climaxing with a shot and a dead animal. In your show, the climax is often the preparation of the meat after the hunt. How has the different rhythm of your show been accepted by the hunting community?
SR: People often assume that MeatEater is a sort of reaction against traditional hunting TV, but it’s really not. I never watched hunting TV growing up, so I wouldn’t have known what I was supposed to be responding to. The show has enjoyed some measure of success, in that we recently completed our 100th episode. We premiered six years’ worth of MeatEater episodes on Sportsman Channel, where we have a great relationship, and it was the first hunting show to be licensed by Netflix. It’s been really cool to see the show there. New and emerging hunters make up a big segment of our viewership. The food aspect of the show speaks to them in a big way.
Q: Here in Minnesota, we’re in the land of the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion. You’ve said that if it weren’t for the food, you’d quit hunting. So does that mean you’re not interested in overseas trophy safaris, since hunters usually can’t bring meat home from those trips?
SR: I’ve said many times that I wouldn’t hunt if I didn’t enjoy it, and I wouldn’t hunt if it weren’t for the meat. Both of those things are equally important to me. Remove one and my interest would be gone. I have done some overseas hunting, including in New Zealand and with Amerindians in the jungles of South America. In those cases, I was able to personally enjoy as well as share the meat from my kills. Those moments proved to be the highlights of those trips. As for African safaris, I might be interested in someday seeing that world, but in all honesty it’s pretty low on my list. I prefer to hunt where I understand the conservation history and the complexities of what’s happening on the ground.
Q: Speaking of the dentist who shot Cecil the Lion, you talk a lot about the negative portrayals of hunters in popular culture. Where do you think this came from, and how are you trying to combat it?
SR: Negative portrayals of hunters are nothing new, and neither are the tensions between hunters and nonhunters. Dig into your Bible and read about Jacob and Esau if you want to see what I mean. I’ve found that the most effective way for a hunter to combat these stereotypes is to be as honest as possible about why you hunt, be forceful in expressing your love for the natural world, be forceful in protecting wildlife habitat, and cook a lot of game for buddies. If those buddies happen to be nonhunters, all the better.
Q: You’ve credited podcaster extraordinaire Joe Rogan with getting you started on a podcast. How did that happen?
SR: Joe Rogan reached out to me through my friend Helen Cho from Zero Point Zero Production, the company that produces MeatEater. I had never heard of Rogan and I had never heard of podcasts, but Helen insisted that I go to Los Angeles and meet him. Right away, I became a believer in the power of podcasts. After joining Rogan on his show a few more times, I took his encouragement and launched my own show. He was hugely helpful in promoting it.
Q: Your podcast is particularly relaxed. Conversations often take tangents, and long stories are told. Some episodes are more than two hours. To a listener, it often feels like we’re at a campfire with you and your hunting buddies. How have you cultivated that vibe?
SR: I don’t think I’ve ever told this to anyone publicly, but I was trying to create a cross between Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air” and the “Howard Stern Show” as I knew it from the early ’90s. That is, the intimacy of Terry Gross and the raucous camaraderie of Stern. No one would ever guess that from listening (to MeatEater), but that’s what I was thinking about. Imitation is like that, I’ve found. When you try to imitate something you’re probably going to miss the mark. If you’re lucky, you’ll miss it and hit something else.
Q: We’ve got perpetual controversy around the Department of Natural Resources here in Minnesota. Currently, it’s about whitetail deer numbers and also the walleye limit on Lake Mille Lacs — hunters and anglers are upset about both. You often speak in defense of those who work for the government agencies that regulate hunting and wildlife. Why are you predisposed to trust their judgment on limits, seasons and other matters?
SR: I tend to trust credentialed biologists, yes, but they don’t get a free pass. I question everything and try hard to test the assumptions of myself and others. As (philosopher) George Santayana said, “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.” But when it comes to understanding natural resources, I do put more faith in government biologists than armchair experts from the local bar.
Q: Does the steady decline in hunting and fishing license sales concern you? What do you think we can do about it?
SR: I’d like to understand the decline better. How much is it a matter of metrics, and much does it reflect a winnowing of passive participants rather than die-hard hunters? Those are just a couple of the things that I wish I knew. Regardless, any decline in hunters is a bad thing. Less money from hunting licenses means less money for wildlife research, enforcement of laws, and habitat improvements and protections. It also points toward a growing apathy of people toward the natural world. Those things should worry everyone.
Q: We’ve trapped a bunch of nuisance beavers off our property in central Minnesota, but I’d never considered eating one until watching you prepare one on your TV show. What have you currently got in your freezer at home?
SR: Including, but not limited to: gray squirrel, eelpout, Canada geese, antelope loin, elk heart, caribou tongue, razor clams, bluegills, a pack of dove breasts, a rib rack from a mule deer.
Q: What can people expect if they attend your MeatEater Podcast Live Tour? Will the conversation be particularly focused on Minnesota?
SR: I’m sure that we’ll discuss some stuff that’s entirely relevant to Minnesotans and some stuff that’s completely out of nowhere. Expect some laughs, some wrestling with vexing questions, some hunting tips, some wild game pointers, some marriage advice that might end up being counterproductive.
Tony Jones is a writer and editor in Edina. You can find him at ReverendHunter.com.