May 2, 2022
Photo by Ryan Hagerty, USFWS.

Nonagenarian Deer Hunter

By Valerie Blaine

Come autumn in south-central Illinois, the deer are shaking in their hooves. It’s shotgun deer season, and Doris McKay is in her blind.

The nonagenarian has been hunting whitetails since 1958 and has never missed a season. I had the privilege of chatting with McKay recently and listened to her story unfold. Insisting that her experience isn’t anything special, she proceeded to tell me a very special story indeed.

A life-long Illinoisian, McKay grew up in Cumberland County. Her dad was an avid fisherman and hunted rabbit, quail and squirrel for meat on the table. She married a hunter, continuing the hunting tradition in her family.

A hunter in a blaze orange vest and hat kneels next to a successful harvest of an adult male white-tailed deer with antlers. In the background is the white siding of a house.
Photo courtesy of Doris McKay.

1957 was the first year that Illinois opened a deer season. Deer hunting was largely a male endeavor, but that didn’t stop McKay from getting a deer tag. On opening day that year, her husband went out to the blind, but she was preoccupied. The next day she gave birth to their first son.

In 1958, with a four-year-old and a one-year-old at home, she was determined to be in that deer blind. 

“There were few deer harvested that year,” she told me, “And there were only 500 permits for all of Pope County.”  Deer were hard to come by, and McKay was a novice. “It took three or four years before I got one,” she said. She kept at it. She loved the chance to be out in the woods, quiet and still, regardless of her success in harvesting a deer.

“My first [deer] was a small one, a button buck,” she recalled. She got that one in the Eddyville area of the Shawnee National Forest. She used to like to visit with the guys at the check station, listening to hunting stories and getting tips. In those days, McKay was one of the very few females in the crowd.

There have been good years and bad years in deer hunting, she reminisced. 1964 was a particularly successful year for hunters, but it had its downside. Pope County had been highlighted in a sporting magazine, and hunters came in droves. The sudden popularity of the county for deer hunting made the regulars a bit uneasy. She said the deer population took a big hit that year, and it took a while to bounce back.

An adult white-tailed deer male's head taxidermied and mounted to a wood paneled wall. The deer has a full set of antlers.
Photo courtesy of Doris McKay.

By 1979, McKay was hunting on her own land. Her goal was to harvest a deer close to home near Lake Mattoon. Her first success on her property was an 8-pointer. He proved a challenge, she chuckled. 

“I trailed him to the edge of the lake and then I had two options. I could wait till he ran into the lake, or I could shoot him, and then he would run into the lake.” She fired, and as expected, he took off into the water. “Had to get a boat and my husband, too, and lasso [the buck] and drag him in,” she laughed. “Got his head mounted,” she said, to remind her of her adventure.

Another memorable hunt was the year she got lost in the woods in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. Doris being Doris, though, she never let challenges like this keep her from heading out to hunt each fall.

When asked how she prepares venison to eat, she exclaimed, “There are so many ways!” and rattled off some venison dishes. Steaks smothered in mushroom soup or tomato sauce are a big hit in her family. She makes lots of summer sausage from the venison.

Over the years, Doris and her husband hunted together. Now, she hunts alone. There are advantages to hunting solo. 

“I don’t have to worry about anyone sneezing,” she explained. Without the distractions of another person in the blind, she can be still and quiet, attuned to the woods around her. 

“I go out at daybreak. Early morning and dusk are the best times,” McKay said. “I used to sit by a tree in the woods near a good crossing.” With the woods to herself, she treasured the solitude, the peace, and the chance to appreciate the world around her.

Although McKay has hunted from tree stands, she now uses a blind. She’s enthused about a new blind that she’s broken in. 

“It’s a 12-sided composite material blind with windows on most sides—with a swivel chair and a propane heater!”

Although she’s going on 91, she laughs at the question of age.

“You’re never too old!” she exclaimed. She still drives her truck out to the woods, parks, and walks back to her blind. Last year, after dropping a 9-point buck with a Remington 20-gauge shotgun, her son and daughter-in-law helped her load her quarry into her truck. Until recently, she field dressed her deer by herself. Now, she gets some help from her son or grandson.

A brown woodchuck pauses in a short mowed grassy area. The background is dappled with shade.
Photo by Vince lvino.

Doris is proud of her longevity—particularly her record of never missing a season. She wondered if there’s a way to search the records to see how many others have hunted dozens of consecutive seasons—particularly women. She’s seen the popularity of hunting go up and down over the years, and she has always stuck with it.

Already looking forward to next fall’s hunting season, she has no intention of giving up deer hunting.

“This is my time,” she said. “I get to see the creations of God’s world. I listen to the birds. I look at the trees. I may even see a groundhog.” 

Her annual deer hunt keeps her connected with the beauty and wonder of the forest. Nature is an inspiration for Doris McKay, and she is, in turn, an inspiration for young hunters who follow in her footsteps.

Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.