Category Archives: Hunting

Hunter’s Ed

The hunting memoir is becoming a regular feature of the spring and fall publishing seasons—even as the number of  hunters in the U.S. continues to decline as a percentage of the population.

This counter-intuitive development might be explained by the trendiness in all-things-foodie. Or it might say something about the changing demographic of today’s hunters, who are looking for something more than just a how-to guide. Many of these new hunters haven’t had the benefit of a mentor—a father or uncle to initiate them into what was once, generations ago, a rite of passage for nearly all American boys—and a growing number of these hunters are urban or female. The hunting memoir helps to fill this void. It’s a vicarious ride with a knowledgeable hunting buddy, with waypoints of instruction along the route.

Two new books this season offer such rides, with much more than how-to information. Lily Raff McCaulou’s journey from New York professional to Oregon hunter in The Call of the Mild will resonate with many readers, female or male, who are trying to reconnect with the natural world, whether via hunting or other outdoor pursuits. Steven Rinella’s Meat Eater is a different sort of book, and while it dispenses all kinds of wisdom for would-be hunters, the pleasure is mostly in the telling, like listening to an old-timer spin yarns by the fire. (That Rinella is still in his thirties makes it all the more surprising.)

For McCaulou, a cross-country move to a new job as a reporter in Bend, Oregon, and a boyfriend (later husband) with a flyrod are the blood sport catalysts. He takes her fishing on Oregon’s famed Deschutes River. She then takes it a few steps farther, picking up a firearm and learning how to hunt game birds and, eventually, larger, hoofed quarry. Like Georgia Pellegrini in Girl Hunter, McCaulou faces challenges specific to her gender.

But mainly her decision to hunt is more personal, with an added dose of food politics. She quotes what are now familiar statistics to anyone paying attention: According to the United Nations, 30 percent of the earth’s land surface is used to raise meat (including the growing of grains for feed); 18 percent of greenhouse emissions are caused by the meat industry; the average American eats 241 pounds of meat per year. And yet, despite all that meat eating, we are more distanced than ever from the processes that make such a diet possible.

As a lifelong meat eater, I feel a responsibility to see for myself that uncomfortable thing that has always been at the heart of a human diet, since long before animals were domesticated and their upbringing industrialized: death.

It turns out that facing death in its many guises is at the core of McCaulou’s memoir, and this stubborn fact of life is explored in some unexpected ways. Not so unexpectedly, the book culminates with a big game hunt, though the patience and detail with which it’s recounted will be appreciated by neophyte hunters wondering what this moment of truth might be like.


Rinella’s childhood, as revealed in Meat Eater, will be envied by many readers. One of three brothers, all close in age, he grew up in rural Michigan and had the run of a landscape that included woods, lakes, and semi-abandoned summer camps. There is a theme of resourcefulness throughout the book that, sadly, will strike many as anachronistic. Much of the pleasure in reading these hunting stories is contained in the process: the detailed descriptions of building a tree sit or breaking down an animal.

Rinella is an amiable narrator, with an easy-going voice and an eye for the telling detail. One of the things I like about his writing is what I call the moment of stunning weirdness—the image, turn of phrase, or even entire scene that takes you utterly by surprise. These moments are part of the enjoyment of reading. They grab you by the scruff of your neck and make you take notice. I’m thinking of a scene in Meat Eater when Rinella recollects his fondness—or maybe fascination is a better word—for muskrats. He describes their denning habits and then mentions that a bunch of them denned in an old float anchored in his family’s pond. One of Rinella’s tricks, he remembers, was to swim stealthily out to the float and ambush the muskrats, scattering them out into the open water. Then he’d “dive in after them and see how far I could chase them underwater before I had to come up for air.”

This is a detail that tells us exactly what sort of kid Rinella was. In a few sentences he captures the mood of a rural childhood, with both the nascent hunter emerging and also the innocent curiosity-bordering-on-cruelty of youth. It’s also the way he disarms the reader, so that past delinquencies that he owns up to (illegal trapping, fishing for spawning steelhead over their redds) can be written off as callow mistakes.

One of my favorite chapters is about fishing rather than hunting, and though I disagree with it’s inferred conclusion (that catch-and-release fishing is, in a word, stupid), the progression from steelheading in the  Great Lakes to fly-fishing for bonefish during a nomadic, dirtbag month down in the Yucatan is a tour de force of good angling writing (i.e., we’re treated to characters and their motivations rather than the mind-numbing repetition of “screaming reels”).

What both of these books show is that, no matter what the numbers say about the popularity of hunting in our increasingly indoors-oriented society, words still matter—and the hunting memoir remains a vital part of our literary bookshelf.

Hunting in the New Millennium

Taking up arms in order to take down dinner is no easy feat in our modern world of mixed messages and changing demographics, particularly for those of us who didn’t inherit the culture of hunting at birth. 

Tovar Cerulli and Georgia Pellegrini give us hunting rookies hope. Both came to the hunt later in life, not as a rite of passage but through an adult choice. One was a vegan starved for protein; the other, a former chef who wanted to live closer to the bones she made into stock. Their experiences, told in The Mindful Carnivore and Girl Hunter, are instructive for a new generation of would-be hunters.

Cerulli stopped eating meat after dispatching one too many brook trout as a young man. In a land of such plenty, it seemed somehow immoral to take a life. His vegetarianism led to veganism and finally, years later, to a trip to the doctor, who advised him to start reintroducing animal protein for health reasons. “I had more energy, felt more alive,” he writes of his change in diet. His philosophical qualms were not so easily assuaged, however, so he resolved to kill and butcher his own meat—humanely, and with deference to the environment. Fortunately for Cerulli, he had mentors to ease him on the path. Along the way he reminds us of the many ironies that attend contemporary discourse on hunting and meat-eating (for instance, deer are routinely killed to protect organic crops). Trying to live in harmony with our bodies and the natural world is harder than most people want to believe.

Pellegrini’s journey is one that will resonate with foodies determined to know where their sustenance is sourced—and how. Killing your own, after all, is the ultimate expression of this desire. She gives up a plum job in the wilds of Wall Street to go to cooking school, and one day finds herself faced with the sort of predatory act that is consistent with her new line of work: slaughtering turkeys. “The experience awakened a dormant, primal part of me,” she writes.

And so both Cerulli and Pellegrini embark on age-old transformations, learning what it means to be at the top of the food chain. Cerulli’s journey is mostly set in the Vermont woods of his home, where he patiently learns how to kill and eat the big game with the biggest payoff for a hunter trying to live in harmony with nature: white-tailed deer. Pellegrini’s journey is more episodic and includes far-flung hunting expeditions in pursuit of a variety of feathered and furred game and with a variety of mentors, a few of whom turn out to be less than savory. Both Cerulli and Pellegrini address head-on the popular image of the “redneck hunter,” but Pellegrini has personal run-ins with this species, and even in more upscale environs she confronts sexism and menace. Conscientious hunters will bridle at some of the situations she unwittingly falls into while trying to gain experience. She endures more than a couple canned hunts, and at one point gets bamboozled by a poacher. Implicit is the danger that faces a woman in an arena largely governed by men.

The ethics of hunting is a recurring motif in both books (and for those who want to delve deeply into this tricky realm, Cerulli recommends books by Ted Kerasote). What do we make of the fancy Texas “hunting” ranch, for instance, where the game is all exotic and hardly prepared for anything resembling the doctrine of “fair chase”? Or notions of the Great White Hunter in Africa (Pellegrini reminds us that trophy hunting pays for much needed conservation in poorer countries)? Or, closer to home for most hunters, the wounded animal that escapes only to suffer a long, drawn-out death? This latter conundrum is one of the events that weighed on my own mind after a hunt in Arkansas.

The point is, this hunting thing ain’t easy. About the moment of ultimate truth, Cerulli writes:

Holding the deer’s torn-in-two heart in my hand, I knew that oblivion had come swiftly. It was the shot I had hoped for: no more than a few seconds of shock, no time for pain to take hold. It was easier than most other ways a deer’s life was likely to end: in cold and starvation, across a car’s front end, at the teeth of four-footed predators. Yet that swiftness did nothing to alter the raw fact. I had killed this graceful creature.

Beginner and experienced hunters alike will find much to admire in these soul-searching accounts of learning how to kill for meat. Even though the authors are after somewhat different game—Cerulli wants to provide for his table while, as the title of her book implies, Pellegrini wants to take a seat at a table that was until recently not even available to her gender—the heart of the matter is how to live and eat honestly.

What’s up, Doc?

Some of you might be wondering what happened to all the hunting talk. After all, I took Washington State’s Hunter Education class and even went scouting and trap shooting with a friend of mine.

Since then I’ve also visited my brother-in-law in Arkansas to go squirrel hunting. I had high hopes of making this Squirrel Gumbo.

So what happened?

Well, for one thing, I got skunked. Seems those country squirrels aren’t quite as insouciant as their city cousins. I saw one all day and it made sure to keep plenty of brush between us before high-tailing out of sight.

More importantly, I must confess that I have not yet grown accustomed to walking the woods with a firearm. All my life I’ve been outfitted with binoculars or a compass or a mushroom knife—at most, a fishing rod. Bushwhacking around with a gun, truth be told, feels decidedly different. Suddenly I’m an interloper, an antagonist.

Yes, I realize this is all in my head, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve also made a conscious decision to embrace my love of mushroom hunting and see where that leads. No doubt you’ve noticed the uptick in fungal-related posts.

Maybe the hurry-up mode with which I first approached hunting, as if trying to make up for lost time, was a mistake. Some things are easier to learn as a kid. Foreign languages and skiing, for instance. Given a choice, I think I’d rather go a-wandering with shotgun in hand than try conjugating Spanish verbs. So this is not the end of my short-lived hunting career, just a speed bump.

In case you were wondering.

Target Practice

The clay pigeons of the world are mostly safe.

Last night I made my first trip to the shooting range. The range, located north of Seattle, looked as though it had been hanging on in this once-rural neighborhood for years only to have ticky-tacky suburban sprawl grow up around it like unchecked blackberry brambles. We parked in a gravel lot and piled into the clubhouse through an unmarked door carrying all our stuff. I would be borrowing John’s 12-gauge while he put his newer 20-gauge to the test.

The place had a smell I recognized right away: coffee, stale cigarette smoke, oil, linoleum. The smell of men doing manly stuff. Twenty or so of these men, mostly older, milled around, many of them wearing their eye protection, ear muffs around their necks. A single woman with fashionably yellow-tinted glasses and long black hair held her own in this company. I would learn soon enough she was a pretty good shot, too.

It felt weird walking around indoors with this big shotgun but everyone had guns, of course. Guns stood in the rack, guns accompanied their owners, guns were in varying states of being put together or taken apart around the clubhouse. In one corner a guy cleaned his gun while several old-timers looked on. Must have been a nice gun. In fact, there were lots of nice guns. Competition trap-shooting guns and the like. Guns that fetched a few thousand dollars apiece.

On the wall were a few reminders of where we were: The text from Article 2 of the Bill of Rights, for instance, and something about the NRA making this all possible. A full kitchen occupied one corner and it looked as though a birthday party had just finished up, with leftover plates of cake for whoever wanted some.

We went into the next room where a man in his sixties with a white mustache worked the counter. For $13 he set me up with a box of shells and a slot in the next group of five. The call to arms came sooner than expected. “Next five, 16 yards, range one.” Yikes, we were still putting together the guns—or at least John was. I haven’t learned that part yet. We paraded out, guns in hand, and at that moment I couldn’t be sure I even knew how to load the thing. We didn’t do this sort of stuff during Hunters Ed class!

We took our positions and I fumbled with my first shell, nearly putting it in the chamber backward in my haste. A kid in an orange vest tapped my shoulder: “No loading before your turn.” Miraculously I was able to pop the shell back out. Then it was my turn. “Pull,” I said, trying not to sound too tentative. Click. The trigger didn’t budge. I watched an orange Frisbee fly out to freedom. Ugh, my safety. One more time: “Pull.” This pigeon escaped too. On my third try I winged one. It didn’t explode into smithereens, but clearly a few pieces of the pigeon splintered off and it dropped to the ground. I ejected my smoking shell triumphantly in my best impression of Dirty Harry. I could definitely get used to this.

That first round would be my best. Eight for 25. My next round I shot seven for 25, and I won’t even tell you how round three went. “You might have been over-thinking it,” John said later. My question: How does one improve at something that requires a concentrated effort to not think about it? Anyway, the fake pigeons and the real grouse are surely safe. For now.

Hunters Ed

I’ve been schlepping up to Bothell on the north shore of Lake Washington all week to attend my first Hunters Education class. The day of the first session I called ahead to make sure the minimum 10 students had signed up and the class was a go. Toni, one of the instructors, gave a little chuckle and said yes, we were a go. Well, fifty other students of different ages, ethnicities, and gender joined me that first evening and the three evenings after that.

As has been widely reported in recent months (see this article from the New York Times) more than a few of the students were like me: would-be hunters of a certain age from the city. In fact, several of us were not legally obligated to take the class at all (the cut-off is January 1, 1972), but coming from urban environments and without family traditions of hunting, we felt it essential to absorb as much hands-on information as possible before marching off into the woods with our weapons.

A few takeaways:

There’s a difference between and an accident and an incident; most deaths and injuries while hunting fall into the latter category. In other words, they’re preventable.

Carelessness and ignorance account for the vast majority of hunting incidents.

The Golden Trifecta of Hunter Safety:

  • Always point your muzzle in a safe direction.
  • Keep your gun unloaded until ready to use.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.

The first night we went over basic safety with a variety of talks and films. The second night we discussed ethics, with some wildlife identification thrown in. Night three was more hands-on. We practiced getting a rifle out of a pickup, carrying it up and down a hill, and placing it back in the truck. (Hint: When picking up a gun, after making sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, always check the action to make sure it’s open and not loaded.) Next, partnered up, we practiced getting in and out of a boat and crossing a fence. Good stuff. The third class concluded with a talk on first aid and outdoor survival. The fourth night we shot air rifles in the basement and took the test. I passed.

I still have a sense of vertigo about this hunting thing, like I’ve pitched off a ledge and am falling headlong into the unknown, but I figure a few trips to the shooting range will help. I still don’t feel comfortable around guns. Maybe that’s good. Maybe one should never feel too comfortable. And as for the actual hunting—or should I say killing—well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?

Next Steps

I called the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife the other day. Squirrels, I said to the guy, I want me some squirrels.

Seattle is overrun by thuggish non-native Eastern gray squirrels that strut about as if they own the place—and they’re making life tough on the threatened Western gray squirrel. At a party before Christmas I talked to a friend who knew a bit about blowguns of all things. The gears started turning. My boy is crazy for poison dart frogs, which we check out at the zoo whenever we’re there. I would get some poison dart frogs (from where I hadn’t yet figured out) and…and make an extract from said amphibians! Then tag a few of our oh-so-cocky grays. But after a while that idea somehow lost steam and I was onto the notion of a slingshot. Yeah, knock ’em right off our fence as they prance about.

So I called WDFW. The game warden was understanding. He’d like to see a few of those fat Eastern grays in a nice gumbo too. But city laws trump anything WDFW has to say, and virtually every city of any size in Puget Sound—which is where the Eastern grays gangbang—has ordinances that prohibit projectiles of any sort. “You can’t even throw a rock at them according to the law,” he said to me sadly.

What’s a squirrel gumbo fancier to do?

After that I started looking at Hav-a-Hart traps. But squirrels are notoriously hard to kill and the thought of trying to drown one—the humane option as sanctioned by WDFW—seemed like too much of an ordeal. The upshot is I plan to hunt squirrels the old-fashioned way—with guns—when I visit my brother-in-law in Arkansas.

In the meantime I’ve hooked up with the bass player of The Tallboys, a local old-timey music outfit, who’s a couple years ahead of me on the hunting learning curve. For small game John uses a Savage Model 24, a combo .22 rifle and 20-gauge shotgun that collapses into a packable size. The other day we got an early start (see the sunrise over Lake Washington above) to scout some possible rabbitat near North Bend. The rabbits weren’t a-hoppin’, though we did flush a couple ruffed grouse and noted those locations for fall when the bird season opens. In a few weeks I take a Hunter Education class, four evenings of instruction capped by a visit to a shooting range.

The odyssey has begun.


Now I’ve gone and done it. So, where to begin?

First will be hunter safety class. Then I suppose a visit to a shooting range to fire an actual gun. (Bow-and-arrow can wait, don’t you agree?) Maybe I’ll even purchase my own firearm at some point.

But before you get all excited and twitchy about my misadventures in this new land of weapons, killing, and bloodshed—oh, and mouth-watering recipes for wild game—keep in mind that my leap from forager to hunter will not be an overnight transformation. The learning curve is steep enough that this first year, I suspect, will yield mostly preliminaries, plus I’ve got a bunch more traditional foraging to attend to, and, well, I just don’t want to make any predictions, okay? In short, I don’t see an elk hunt in my near future.

One of the commenters on my Resolution post mentioned hunting with firepower isn’t really the same as foraging. While not one to slice the semantical salami too thin, I’ll admit that this feels like a pretty major shift to me, which is why I’ll be starting small. I was pleased to see a recipe recently in the New York Times of all places for Squirrel Gumbo. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of Nawlins-style cookery, and though I haven’t had the distinct pleasure of tasting our bushy-tailed tree rats yet, I’m pretty sure I can make one palatable in a spicy gumbo.

But this is a ways off. My first shot at a squirrel will probably be in the spring when I visit relatives in Arkansas. My plan is to bone up on all the safety issues first and read some history and lore on the ancient bloodsport. Then, maybe, I’ll do my Elmer Fudd routine. I’m both looking forward to and dreading this chapter. Somehow, though, it feels necessary.

(Photo by RunnerJenny)