PACHUTA — You really have to look for McKenna Ranch. It lies between Pachuta and Rose Hill about four miles northwest of I-59’s Exit 126.
The ranch’s owners, Steve and Betty McKenna, call it an “outfitter” and the customers primarily come from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois.
And Steve said that a majority of those customers will return next year. He’s sold out the last four years. Fee — $2,000 per hunter for the five-night stay.
There are 100 deer-hunting customers annually and they bring their own gear, with the McKennas providing comfortable sleeping facilities and “three home-cooked meals each day” (one customer highly recommends the Elkburgers). There are 10 square miles of pastoral Mississippi countryside available, and the hunters are transported to and from their stands by one of the ranch guides.
The McKennas also welcome about 25 adventurous year-round wild boar hunters and 25 seasonal turkey hunters annually.
Steve estimates that there are more than 2,000 deer on his ranch during the winter thanks to his “salad bar” planted along the nine miles of power and gas line rights-of-way. But there’s no guarantee of a successful “harvest” for the hunters.
“We take pride in being a fair chase operation,” McKenna said, meaning there are no fences, “but we’ll do our best to make the hunt as successful as possible. And we emphasize safety.”
Proof of the pudding: A 30-minute safety meeting is required before hunters can go to their stands on the first day.
Frank Farley Jr. is president of Meridian’s branch of Union Planters Bank and a life-long hunter. He’s good friends with the McKennas and recalled the last time he hunted at the ranch. Steve was his guide.
“Even though I’m 45 years old and been hunting for at least 30 of those years,” Farley said, “he took the time to make sure my gun was unloaded and to ask me a few questions to make sure I knew the rules of gun safety. Then he took me to my stand and didn’t leave until I was up in the stand. That just goes to show you he holds safety in very high regard.”
And safety doesn’t just involve guns either. All of McKenna Ranch’s brochures state very plainly, “This is a no-alcohol hunting facility.”
And he means it.
“Hey, if I smell alcohol on their breath, they don’t hunt,” Steve declared. “And there’s no refund. We get the best hunters in the world because they don’t come to party. They come to hunt, fish (in one of the ranch ponds) and have a good time and enjoy themselves.”
To show his belief in wildlife management, the only deer that are harvested on the ranch must have at least six points, whereas the state only requires four points.
“Mississippi was the first state to require four points and that tripled our deer herd (currently estimated at two million),” he said. “We’re known all over the country for having the most deer per acre.”
The bountifully gray-headed 62-year old McKenna, a native of Prichard, Ala., reminds you of a favorite uncle who regales you with stories about his adventurous careers. If you added up the years in each career, he’d be at least 125 years old.
At any rate, McKenna aged fast.
“I could walk into a bank at 25 years old and borrow money,” he chuckled.
And he is a man of many parts: he’s cleaned up oil fields world-wide, has been an electrical contractor, owned a formal wear shop, has dealt in Alaskan and Gulf Shores real estate and been to Europe on various forays at least 20 times. Yet he and Betty found time to raise eight children.
McKenna was the first to open self-service gas stations in Birmingham in 1969. He sold out in 1982 and retired —for six months. He struck another bonanza in the oil field reclamation business — which still prospers under Steve, Jr. — then in 1985 he began buying what turned out to be the McKenna Ranch. First there were 93 acres, then 2,000 acres, and by 1989, they had the 6,400 acres.
His attitude about the property is downright reverential: “This is the Lord’s property. We are custodians of this land, and it’s loaned to us while we’re here on earth.”
And animals aren’t the only harvest — there’s also cattle, timber and pumpkins.
They first allowed customers of the oil field reclamation business to hunt free, then started charging for deer and turkey hunting in 1990 and several years later added the wild hog hunting. And they host a bed-and-breakfast opportunity in the off-season ($125 nightly) that includes dinner and an evening “wildlife safari.”
His wife, Betty, is an integral part of the operation. She’s in charge of all the cooking, but her talents go well beyond the kitchen. Among the ranch brochures, there’s one describing her skills in oil painting, relief carving on mahogany doors and many other mediums. Some of her work is on prominent display throughout the ranch buildings.
The McKennas emphasize youth participation. “We’re the only outfitter I know of where kids (15 and under) are charged half-price for the hunt,” McKenna said. “That’s how much we believe in the promotion of hunting and fishing.”
Further evidence of the youth emphasis is a new 10,000-square-foot education building that will be complete this June. Courses lasting a week on hunting and fishing will be offered to 60 youngsters aged 10-18 ($850 for a week’s stay) — and it’s already half full. And there are a lot more plans for use of the building for conferences, meetings, etc.
And, interestingly, he predicts bow hunters will outnumber gun hunters in the near future.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.