There’s an old adage about not meeting your heroes because you’ll likely be disappointed. My time with Steven Rinella dispels this assertion. The man behind the popular outdoor platform “MeatEater” is every bit the outdoorsman and authentic communicator he comes across as through his writing and on his television show and podcast. At the end of the day, he’s just a down to earth dude who loves to hunt and tell stories about his experiences. Only he does both better than most could ever imagine.
I first met Rinella six years ago at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas. He was signing copies of his book, American Buffalo. I ran into him again later in the evening at an awards show and we struck up a conversation about turkey hunting in Missouri. We tentatively planned a hunt, but then jobs and life and a million other things happened and we lost touch. Last summer, I was at a conference with a mutual friend and asked her to remind him about our past plans. A couple of emails and a phone call later, the dates were booked and turkey camp was set.
Standing on top of the highest point behind my cabin a half hour before sunrise on April 16, Rinella, his producer, Janis Putelis, and I eagerly waited and waited and waited for an opening morning gobble. Fear set in as the minutes ticked away. These guys had traveled from Washington and Montana to turkey hunt based on my assurance of an incredible Ozarks experience – rife with gobbles ringing from every ridge around. Instead, utter silence. At one point I compared the morning to the actualization of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. There wasn’t a critter moving. The sky was dark and gray. The woods were extremely bare and the wind was howling. It felt like the worst winter with no semblance of spring.
After giving up on hearing a bird gobble from the roost, we split up. Rinella and I began working slowly down the ridge, stopping every hundred yards or so to call. Putelis bailed off onto a side ridge heading down into a deep holler. For Rinella and I, the silent spring continued throughout the morning, only to be interrupted at 7:15 by a single report of a shotgun from the direction Putelis had gone.
He came across what must have been the loneliest bird on the mountain. While all his comrades were closed-mouthed, this gobbler couldn’t help himself. Putelis said the hunt was everything he had hoped for. The gobbler was still on the roost, so he slipped in close enough to know he had to sit down or risk spooking the bird. When the gobbler pitched down, he put on a show. Strutting, gobbling, spitting and drumming until the old Ozark ridge runner came too close and Putelis dropped the curtain.
We rendezvoused at our agreed upon time of 10:00 a.m., and Rinella and I were motivated by Putelis’s story of success. We set out to check every spot I could think of where gobbler might have been doing his thing, but we never heard a peep the entire opening day. Steve Jones, our wild game camp chef, alleviated some of our dismay with an incredible dinner of sous vide venison loin and fixings. Parker Hall, USDA Wildlife Services Director for Missouri and Iowa, arrived in camp just in time to eat. He rounded out our camp of four hunters and a chef.
The next morning, as soon as I stepped out of the cabin, the world felt right. The temperature had nearly doubled and the wind had laid down. I stepped out into the driveway and let out a loud owl hoot. To my surprise, a gobbler went off down by the creek. Hall and I went after him while Rinella and Putelis headed back up the ridge.
It didn’t take long to figure out the gobbler was across the river up on a bluff. Meaning the chance of calling him down and across was tough, but as it turned out, not too tough for Hall, who generously deferred the first bird to me. He laid down the sweetest, soft yelps. I couldn’t believe the gobbler could hear him over the sound of the river. Then, he came sailing down from the bluff, gliding through the fog rising off the water and lit on the gravel bar. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen in the wild. Every time he gobbled, I could see his breath. I could feel the vibrations as he drummed just out of range. Then, he closed the distance, looking for the lone hen begging for his attention. Now two of the four of us were done.
Rinella and Putelis were on birds all day, but never pulled the trigger. Just when they thought it was about to happen, another hunter shot the bird they were working. To which these western public lands advocates both said, that’s how it goes. We were out hunted. The day ended without a bird for Rinella, but Wednesday did not. He came across his Ozark gobbler deep in a holler with less than an hour left to hunt on his last day. Hall had one within 60 yards, but we were picked off by a wily old gobbler in a forest so bare we might as well have been sitting in a pasture.
Going three for four under tough conditions on public land was an incredibly successful camp. I desperately wanted to show these guys a good time while experiencing a classic Ozarks turkey hunt. I am satisfied with the results. To hear much more about our hunt, and Rinella’s take on Missouri turkeys, subscribe to the MeatEater podcast available on iTunes or visit www.themeateater.com. And to hear me interview Rinella and Putelis about conservation issues, check out my podcast, Conservation Federation, also available on iTunes or www.confedmo.org . Both will be out in the near future.
See you down the trail…