Trampled by Turtles’ Simonett finds new passion in things feathered

By Javier Serna
Assistant Editor

Dave Simonett, the frontman, guitarist, and a songwriter for Minnesota-based string band Trampled by Turtles, took an unlikely path to hunting and conservation. But he now has a genuine interest in wingshooting and prairies.

In recent years, Simonett and the band he leads have partnered with Minnesota-based Pheasants Forever in advocating for conservation on the prairie. That has pulled him into hunting and a side of conservation that takes the popular nationally touring band beyond several members’ longtime interest and advocacy for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Simonett recently sat down for an in-person interview regarding his path to hunting, conservation, and public-lands advocacy.

In the days since the interview, Simonett was named to the national board of the Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters.

His path to hunting

Simonett said his path to becoming a sportsmen started by listening to the “FAN Outdoors” radio show hosted by Bob St. Pierre, PF vice president of marketing and communications, and Billy Hildebrand.

“This must have been 2018, I think,” Simonett said of when he began tuning in on Saturday mornings, quickly becoming a fan of the show. “It became a regular thing.”

Simonett said he fished and camped as a kid, but despite growing up in Mankato, where many are raised on hunting, it wasn’t part of his family’s tradition.

“The usual path wasn’t there for me,” he said.

Simonett said he can’t quite remember when he learned that St. Pierre mentioned being a fan of Trampled by Turtles, which formed in Duluth in 2003, but that little nugget moved him to contact the PF official.

“I reached out to him and said, ‘I just want to let you know that I am a fan, too, of what you guys do,’” Simonett said. 

The two kept in touch, which led St. Pierre to asking Simonett if he’d be interested in going on a pheasant hunt.

Simonett went on his first hunt on the opening weekend of the 2018 pheasant-hunting season.

“(St. Pierre) and I have been friends ever since,” Simonett said. “I’ve really learned so much from seeing the inside of Pheasants Forever, an organization that I was not familiar with at all before that, and just seeing the passionate conservation work that these people do – how hard they have to fight to keep of what remains of this landscape there. It was really inspiring to me.”

From education to advocacy

Simonett admits there was a time when he didn’t fully understand the motives of groups such as PF or Ducks Unlimited.

“I knew they cared about keeping habitat available for hunting,” he said. “I thought that was kind of the scope. I’ve grown to know it is much wider than that. It’s more like keeping places wild is for the greater good with the benefit of being able to hunt there. It’s a lot wider than I thought. I’ve learned so much about how intertwined these landscapes are. If you get a healthy wetlands, that ripples out to everybody else.” 

Simonett used his platform as the lead guitarist and songwriter for his band to partner with PF, which has culminated with “Trampled by Pheasants” T-shirts, available as a promotion with annual PF membership dues.

“It was Bob’s idea, the shirt,” Simonett said. “This is our third one this year, and they have been doing great. So it’s a really fun partnership.”

Learning the ropes

Simonett says he was a little overwhelmed, even intimidated, about learning to hunt as adult. He took the task of learning how to shoot a shotgun seriously His only previous experience was shooting clay pigeons at a friend’s cabin a decade earlier.

“I started from scratch, all of the aspects of bird hunting,” he said.

Simonett said he loves “the walk” on a pheasant or grouse hunt.

“The actual act of shooting a bird I enjoy,” he said. “That is a rush. If you’re in the woods shooting grouse or on a prairie with pheasants. When that bird jumps up, I’ll admit, that’s a gas. But the whole experience, well, I’ve had plenty of hunts where nothing is happening except just a really beautiful walk in these places.”

Simonett said he completed the state’s online firearms safety education course while on the road with his band.

“I was doing it online, backstage before shows,” he recalls. “I did the whole course in the summertime leading up to that (2018) hunt, from on tour, which was interesting.”

A deeper understanding of public lands

Simonett’s dive into conservation led him to a greater understanding of public lands and his life-long appreciation for being outdoors.

“I’ve always loved fishing and camping, but I had never really thought about why I’m able to do those things here,” he said. “Why is this place, where I can go, available to me? I had taken it for granted and was just uneducated about it.”

That certainly feeds into his advocacy for the BWCAW. Other members of the band have long made public their love of America’s most popular federally-designated wilderness.

Dave Carroll, the band’s banjo player, has taken several trips there, and Erik Berry, at a show years ago, sat at a table set up for one of the BWCAW advocacy groups. Tim Saxhaug, the band’s bass player, grew up in Grand Rapids and is the son of former state Sen. Tom Saxhaug, who currently is a member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Hunting is a Saxhaug family tradition.

Simonett said he’s done some BWCAW trips with some members of the band, but not the entire sextet.

“Not everybody in the band is trudging around back there, but I’ve been going there since I was a kid,” he said, mentioning an annual trip he takes with friends. “Now my son, who is 9, started to come along. … I’ve been paddling in there since I was a middle-school kid, and living in Duluth for a little over 10 years (he currently resides in Minneapolis). 

“It was like, that is the place. It’s so close to wilderness. … It’s a place (when I was) growing up that felt like true wilderness to me. I love to walk a wildlife management area to hunt pheasants, but I can see farms on the edge of that, which is awesome, happy to have it, but you go into the Boundary Waters and that is a different feel altogether. You feel like you’re in the middle of somewhere.”

Simonett acknowledged the debate regarding the BWCAW on issues such as mining.

“I don’t have concern over it,” he said when asked if he was concerned about alienating any fans. “I acknowledge that it exists. But for me, advocating for wild places and conservation is very important. … 

“If we’re talking about mining next to the Boundary Waters, I live in Minneapolis. When I talk about that, I am conscious of the fact that I don’t live in Virginia, Minn. I don’t live in places that have been completely decimated by unemployment. I’d like to think I have empathy to that side of the argument as well. I want you guys to have jobs, too. I want everybody to have a good living. 

“Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters isn’t opposed to mining. It’s just saying let’s try to protect this thing. This island of wilderness, which is one of the last remaining pieces left in this country, on a continent that was completely covered by it just a couple hundred years ago. To me, I don’t think that is too much to ask,” he said.

Inspiration for writing

Simonett has long been acclaimed for his songwriting, and some of the band’s previous work seems to speak to the woods surrounding Duluth. But Simonett’s earlier work isn’t inspired by hunting or conservation.

Is that something he’d explore going forward?

“It’s already leaking in there,” Simonett said. “In song-writing, I usually just kind of write a bunch of stuff, make a song, and then and almost in hindsight, look back and see where the stuff came from or, ‘oh yeah, that line makes sense to me now.’ I’ve noticed a lot of outdoors metaphors, whatever, showing up in lyrics now and new stuff that I’m working on. It’s become a big part of my consciousness. I don’t think I could avoid it if I wanted to.”

Simonett suggests looking for such nods in the band’s upcoming album, “Alpenglow,” which is set for an Oct. 28 release.

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