By Lynn Burkhead
As Grayson County bowhunters begin to look towards archery hunting opportunities for local whitetails this upcoming fall, a number were saddened over the Memorial Day holiday weekend as news broke about the passing of whitetail bowhunting legend Mel Johnson.
Johnson, the longtime holder of the Pope and Young Club’s world record typical buck benchmark, passed away on Thursday, May 24, at the age of 84.
For those who might not recall, the lifelong Illinois resident was a humble and likable man who stood atop the P&Y record book rankings for more than 52 years after taking of one of history’s greatest whitetails.
Johnson’s world record whitetail, known affectionately to many as the Beanfield Buck, was taken near Peoria, Ill. as the bowhunter hunted the edge of a soybean field after work on the evening of Oct. 29, 1965.
Sitting in a makeshift blind on the ground, Johnson watched the massive deer appear on the other side of the field, cross to his side and begin moving in the archer’s direction only a few rows deep in the soybean field.
When the buck passed his position, Johnson drew his recurve bow back, steadied briefly, and then let the fiberglass arrow and hand sharpened broadhead combination fly. The arrow quickly found its mark and Johnson was soon recovering bowhunting’s most legendary typical whitetail.
With a net score of 204 4/8-inches, the Mel Johnson buck has stood atop the P&Y rankings for more than a half century now and remains fixed as the No. 4 all-time buck in the Boone and Crockett Club record book.
What’s more, the Mel Johnson buck is a member of an exclusive club that has seen only 14 bucks ever taken by hunters (with any type of weapon) that sport net typical scores of 200-inches or more.
A number of years ago during my time working for ESPNOutdoors.com, a potential challenger to Johnson and his world record buck gave me the chance to conduct a phone interview.
Johnson was patient and gracious during the interview, quietly answering my questions about his own world record buck and the potential world record challenger from Canada.
“It’s bound to happen,” said Johnson during our 2003 interview. “There are more and more deer being killed by more and more bowhunters every year. And Canada is a great place to kill a big deer.”
In his late 60s at the time of our interview, from what I understand, Johnson hunted most days during the Illinois season back then, at least until it got too cold for him to sit and wait. From what I’ve read, he continued to bowhunt as long as his declining health would allow, always enjoying the opportunity to climb into a treestand and chase the big autumn whitetails that lived near his Midwestern home.
As Johnson did so, it was with the knowledge that he — and all of the other bowhunters across North America — would be hard pressed to ever top the 1965 whitetail that remains to this day the only big game animal to ever be given the Boone and Crockett Club’s Sagamore Hill award and the Pope & Young Club’s Ishi award. For the record, those are the highest honors given out by each organization.
While final official scoring caused that 2003 challenger from Canada to fall short of the Beanfield Buck’s world record status, Johnson knew then that other big buck challengers would come.
“Records are only there to be broken,” said Johnson. “I’m surprised that mine has stood so long. But it could be like the four-minute mile. There’s always a chance that another buck of this caliber will be taken by another hunter.”
Believe it or not, I’ve always wondered if that might occur thanks to a local hunter. In fact, I’ve been asked a couple of times down through the years by local Grayson County archers about Johnson and the score of his world record buck.
At least one of those hunters, many years ago I might add, believed that he had spied a local buck that — he thought, at least — might perhaps threaten the Beanfield Buck’s world record status. While he watched the deer in a wheat field one winter’s day, there was never a photo of the buck and it never was taken by a hunter to my knowledge.
I’d also note that over the years that I’ve written in this space, I’ve seen evidence of one or two massive local bucks that certainly could take a bowhunter’s breath away. As a certified measurer, I believed that both bucks — which lived years and years ago and were never taken by a hunter to my knowledge — had the tine length, mass, inside spread and symmetry to potentially become the top typical archery buck ever taken in Texas.
But I never really thought that either one had the numbers to threaten Johnson and his longstanding Beanfield Buck.
In fact, I’m not sure that our local wild whitetail herd can grow antlers to such lofty status, even with restricted harvest, supplemental protein feed, and quality deer management practices.
While we’ve proven over the years that local bucks can exceed the 200-inch mark on the non-typical side of things, there has never been a typical whitetail officially measured to the north of the 180-inch mark, although a couple of rumor-mill reports have persisted. Even so, that’s a long, long, long ways from the 200-inch mark.
While it would certainly have been exciting to have a local buck topple the world record mark, I’m kind of glad it never happened.
For starters, our local whitetail herd is high in quality but small in size. As population growth and economic expansion threaten to reduce available wildlife habitat in Grayson County, our well-known whitetail herd will continue to be squeezed and challenged as rural landscapes disappears.
So with limited habitat available — let alone quality hunting ground — can you imagine what would happen if such a buck had been or ever is taken by a Grayson County bowhunter?
And in all honesty, I’m a bit nostalgic anyway and kind of hope that Mel Johnson and his legendary — almost mythical, really — Beanfield Buck remain in the same spot they were in last week when the veteran archer drew his final breath and slipped into eternity.
And that’s at the tip top of the whitetail bowhunting world with a huge number that future archers will be hard-pressed to ever top.
Even those from Grayson County.