October 27, 2010
The Hunter’s Tradition: Gathering
By Steven Rinella
It’s been 389 years since the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Mass. While scholars are still arguing over details of what happened during the three-day feast, I can guarantee a couple of facts: The Pilgrims were not watching football during those three days, and they were eating venison.
As much as possible, my friends and I stay true to these original traditions by gathering for our annual Thanksgiving feast at my brother Matt’s house in Miles City, Mont. It’s a place surrounded by a tremendous variety of delicious wild game, and the Thanksgiving season happens to be a perfect time to gather it. We disperse in the early-morning darkness in groups of three or four. Some of us might head south with a load of goose decoys to set up in a winter-wheat field along the Tongue River; then, in the late morning, we swap our steel BB shot for lead and head toward the cattail- and willow-coated islands where heavily pressured pheasants tend to gather. Others might head east to the badlands above the Yellowstone River to glass for mule deer; once the sun is high, they’ll take .22s to look for cottontails that are sunning themselves outside of abandoned prairie-dog burrows.
We gather back at the house in the late afternoon. Half of us do prep work in the kitchen, and half of us go to the garage for skinning and plucking duties. Our kill of the day is rounded out by the offerings that everyone brought in from his corner of the country: smoked salmon from Alaska, dried morels from Washington, an elk loin from southwest Montana.
It’s difficult to argue that these are “traditional” Thanksgiving meals, especially since no two are ever the same. Yet, to me, the tradition runs deeper than just a matter of ingredients. Each meal is a celebration of the land, the animals, and the skills that allow us to thrive here. These are things for which every outdoorsman should be thankful. —Steven Rinella