For those reasons and others, even ardent hunters often hang up their guns in their 70s. Fewer still are hunting in their 80s. And only a relative handful of hunters are in the field at age 90 and beyond.
Still, four 96-year-old Minnesotans purchased hunting licenses this fall: LeRoy Tilbury of Backus, Edward Schoenborn of Mahnomen, Alvin Holmberg of Willmar and Gunnar Erickson of Grand Marais.
A fifth deer hunter, John Trebnick, of Bovey won't be 96 until Dec. 26.
In all, 28 deer hunting licenses were issued in Minnesota this fall to hunters 90 years of age and older, according to DNR records. Included were two 93-year-old women, Myrtie Hunt of Bemidji and Gladys Prussia of Twin Valley.
Of these, Tilbury is the patriarch -- the oldest deer hunter in the state.
Born Feb. 23, 1908, during what he recalls today as "the winter of the blue snow," Tilbury, amazingly, does not wear glasses -- nor has he ever. "I can read the newspaper or shoot a rifle at a target 100 yards away without them," he said.
And, yes, Tilbury did shoot a buck this fall, felling the animal with his pump action Remington .270. The deer was not big, but has been a good eater, Tilbury said, and was an animal he skinned and butchered himself.
"Venison and moose are my favorites to eat," he said.
Tilbury lives alone outside of Backus in north-central Minnesota on a parcel just shy of 30 acres. His wife of 52 years has been dead about two decades. They had nine sons and two daughters, some of whom live nearby.
Tilbury, however, a former "logger and saw-miller" who has hunted a lot of game in many different places, relies largely on himself.
"I only own 27 acres now," he said. "But I used to own four 40s. I bought some of that land for $2 to $4 an acre. I'm sorry I ever sold any of it. If I hadn't, I'd be rich today."
Tilbury's parents were born in Iowa, and after moving north, his father supported his family by working in the woods.
Come autumn, as a boy, LeRoy accompanied his father to hunt deer. When he was "13 or 14," the younger Tilbury killed two deer in one season -- until recently one of the few years in his life, he said, that was legal.
"Having game to eat was important to our family when I was young," Tilbury said. "But even as a boy, we were lawful. We respected game laws."
Tilbury's work as a timberman took him west in 1938, to California, where -- regrettably to him -- he cut the giant redwoods.
"Those were beautiful trees and it was a shame to cut them," he said. "I was out there for about three years, maybe a little more. I also hunted that country for deer and elk."
Timber cutting later took Tilbury to Oregon and Montana, where he also hunted. He also has traveled to Florida, Mexico, Texas and Canada seeking game. Asked why he still hunts, Tilbury speaks first of his love of venison. But there's more.
"To be in the woods and feel free, that's it," he said. "That's what I love about deer hunting.
"When you're in the woods, you go by the rules of nature and the game laws. You have to have steady nerves. If you see a deer that isn't legal, you leave it. But if you see a legal deer, well, that's the point."
Tilbury is unsure why he has lived so long. Nothing about his personal habits or practices, he said, would suggest he might live to see 100 years of age or beyond.
"It's a gift of God, I guess," he said. "He's got control, I always figure. When He says you've lived long enough, that's it. You take two guys and they're both healthy, and one guy makes it to 100, but the other only lives to 25. Why that is, I don't know. I just think you're born and your days are numbered."
Possible as it is that Tilbury has another deer season in him, and perhaps another and another still, he'll never take a deer closer to home than he did this year.
"I shot my deer right out the back door," he said. "One of my sons was here at my house, and I looked out the window and I said, 'There's a deer.' I told my son, 'Come here and hold the door.' I got my gun, and that's how I shot my deer this year, with my son holding the door.
"Which is good, because I can't get around like I used to."
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