“It was just luck. That’s what it amounts to. I guess the whole thing is being able to hold your composure when you get such an opportunity. That’s the difference between getting a big deer and not getting one,” said an aging Mel Johnson, forty-four years after taking the undisputed typical bow record, in an interview with Prairie State Outdoors.
That was six years ago, and Mel was 76 years old. This October 29th, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of his hunt and one of the most famous whitetail silhouettes of all time.
On that Friday, 1965, Johnson bowhunted a soybean field just 20 minutes outside of downtown Peoria, Illinois. He had seen the buck on previous nights, but no shot was offered. With the wind in his face, Johnson abandoned his treestands and brushed in a ground blind. It wasn’t long before the buck appeared, nearly 300 yards out.
Johnson recalls, “The buck cautiously made his way along the field’s edge, stopping to check for danger from time to time. The wind was still in my favor as he moved nearer. After what seemed to be an entire deer season, the big whitetail was directly in front of me, and my heart almost stopped as he turned and stared right through me. But a moment later, he casually turned his massive head and walked on.”
“One step. Two steps. In one continuous motion I rose slightly, came to full draw, and released my arrow. It sliced through his middle and he jumped forward, running toward the center of the field. There was a slight rise in the bean field, and I lost sight of him as he bounded over it. I automatically nocked another arrow. When I looked up he was standing near the rise, looking back in my direction. Then he turned and disappeared again.”
Johnson recovered his arrow, covered in blood. Just a few minutes later he was near the rise, this time staring at a record book whitetail dead in the field. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mel Johnson’s Illinois buck took control of the top spot of archery typicals a short time later but not without error. The first official scoring, done by the curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, omitted a circumference measurement. This cost the Johnson buck nearly seven inches. Unsatisfied with the score and believing a mistake had been made, Johnson had the buck’s rack scored again; this time by a panel of judges from Boone and Crockett Club. The final outcome of that score would catapult his buck to near greatest of all time.
With a gross score of over 211 inches, netting 204 4/8 inches, Johnson’s deer edged out then typical world record John Breen and his buck by more than two inches. Three of the tines from the Johnson buck score more than twelve inches. Both main beam lengths score higher than 26 inches and are separated by a 23 inch inside spread. Seldom spoken of is the body size of the legendary deer. Witnesses, Johnson himself, and others close to the story, say the deer weighed close to 340 pounds on the hoof. Field dressing at 270 pounds.
With so many advances in food supplements and minerals, modern equipment, and the science of aging deer on the hoof, it’s amazing that this record has not fallen in half a century.
This October 29th, 2015, falls on a Thursday, two days before Halloween and the start of the whitetail breeding season across much of the country. After 50 years, will one bowhunter’s fateful step into the woods finally challenge this Illinois legend? Only time will tell. Until that time, the Johnson buck remains at the pinnacle of archery hunting.