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Chasing a Legend

Probably the most admired record amongst today’s bowhunters is Mel Johnson’s world-record typical whitetail which was killed over 50 years ago. On the evening of October 29, 1965, Mel was sitting along the edge of a soybean field in Peoria County, Illinois when a giant buck showed up. A well-placed arrow tipped with a Zwickey broadhead flew from Mel’s Howett recurve bow and ended the life of a buck that still stands as the biggest typical ever shot by a bowhunter. The 12-point giant grosses 211 6/8” and nets an incredible 204 4/8”.

Like many bowhunters, I often dreamed of killing a giant typical buck that would challenge Mel’s world record. For most, that dream will never come close to coming true as any buck scoring even 25” below Johnson’s buck is extremely rare. I was blessed to be that one-in-a-million bowhunter that would have an opportunity to chase a buck that would rival what many consider to be the greatest whitetail ever killed by a bowhunter.

The story of my buck actually starts back in 2017 when I was hunting another giant buck that I called Smokey. I video documented my chase for Smokey before actually killing him on October 15, 2017. On that hunt, I also got video footage of a really nice yearling buck with a perfect 10-point rack. I knew that this buck had the potential to be special if he could just live to maturity. Later that winter I was able to find one of the shed antlers from this yearling buck.

The next summer I started getting trail camera photos of a very nice 6×6 typical buck that I couldn’t place. I know the bucks in my hunting areas very well but I was scratching my head when I started getting photos of this “new” buck. After studying the photos of the 6×6 and comparing them to photos I had gotten from the same locations the year before, it became clear to me that this 6×6 typical was the 5×5 yearling from the season before! 

At this point, I started to really get excited. I knew this buck was only 2 ½ years old and yet his perfect 6×6 rack was probably pushing 160”. I went from thinking the buck had a chance to be “special” to thinking he had a chance to maybe one day threaten Mel Johnsons world record. This was the day that I named the buck “Mel” and started losing sleep thinking about what he might become.

That hunting season I saw Mel numerous times and even got several of those encounters on video. I had my fingers crossed hoping he would survive but also knew that most deer hunters aren’t going to pass an opportunity to shoot a 160-class buck. When the late season rolled around, Mel was a regular visitor to my Real World soybean food plots so I was able to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that he would likely stay close to this prime food source throughout the rest of the winter. The next spring I again found one side of Mel’s shed antlers.

It is impossible for me to explain how excited I was during the spring and early summer of 2019 as I waited to get my cameras out and see the first photos of Mel as a 3-year-old. In July when I got those first photos I was in for a shock. Mel had turned into a non-typical with forked tines on both G-2 and both G-3s along with some additional extra points on a 5×6 main frame. By the time the summer was over I knew his rack would easily score more than 200”.

I was faced with what would be a very difficult choice for most deer hunters. If given the opportunity, do I shoot this 200-class buck knowing he is only a 3 ½ year old, or do I roll the dice and hope he survives for another year? For me, it was a very easy call. I knew that if I shot Mel as a 3 ½-year-old, I would always wonder what he would have been if he lived another year or two. It was easy for me to decide that I would not shoot him if given the opportunity.

The 2019 Illinois archery season opened to some extremely hot temperatures. The first 2 days of the season I elected not to hunt as temperatures were around 90 degrees. Then on October 3rd, my good friend and co-host of the Chasing Giants podcast, Terry Peer came up from Kentucky to hunt with me. That evening on my very first hunt of the year, Terry and I watched as Mel walked out from a field of Real World switchgrass and started feeding in a Deadly Dozen plot just 30 yards away. For 20 minutes Terry and I watched and filmed as Mel fed as close as 20 yards. Eventually, Mel caught me moving and nervously walked back into the switchgrass.

I am sure that this was a hunt that Terry and I will never forget. Seeing that giant buck so close was definitely a rare event for any deer hunter but it isn’t every day that 2 bowhunters sit and watch a 200” buck within bow range without ever picking up their bows. This hunt also taught me something very important about Mel.

I had been regularly getting trail camera photos of Mel on my farm but after watching him nervously walk back into the switchgrass that evening, I stopped getting photos of him. About three weeks later a good friend called me one morning all excited about a giant buck he had seen. On his way home from work at 2 am he saw 2 big bucks with a doe right along the road at a distance of just 20-30 yards. He described the bucks to me in detail, one of them having forked G-2s and G-3s on both sides as well as a few other extra points. I had never told this friend anything about Mel so as he described the buck he saw my heart sank. This sighting was 3 miles from where Terry and I had filmed him three weeks before. Had I bumped this buck from my property and now he was gone forever?

In early November I once again started getting photos of Mel on my cameras and was determined to stick by my decision to not shoot him if given the opportunity. I got photos of him during the course of the rut and even got video footage of him another time but I also had another scare. In late November after our first firearms season, I went out to check my cameras in the area to try and determine if Mel had survived the gun season. As I was scrolling through the photos from one camera that was a solid mile and a half from my farm, I got another scare. There was a photo of Mel at 8 am on the opening morning of firearms season. My heart sank as I knew that there was some gun hunting pressure in that area. If Mel was up walking around at 8 am on the opening morning of the gun season there was a very good chance he got shot. 

As I continued to check the cards from the various cameras I was down to my last card and did not have any photos of Mel after that one from the opening day of gun season. My heart was sinking as the reality that he had been killed started to sink in. Then towards the end of that last SD card, I had a photo of Mel taken right after dark on the last evening of the gun season. He had survived!

I continued to get photos of Mel for the rest of that season. He seemed to stick closer to home once the rut ended. I am sure the security and diverse food sources that I offer on my property played some role in that. In February I found both of Mel’s sheds and scored them at 216”. I never thought it would happen but I can honestly say that I have passed an opportunity to shoot a 200” buck and have video proof!

During the off-season, I learned that some other deer hunters also had photos of Mel some distance off of my farm in a totally different direction from where I had his photo during gun season and from where my friend had seen him along the road. Mel was definitely a wanderer and other hunters were targeting him as well. I had my work cut out for me if I was going to get him killed.

Anticipation was once again high during the spring and early summer of 2020. Mel was starting to grow his fourth rack and after having grown a 216” rack as a 3 ½-year-old, I had no idea what to expect. Would he become one of those giant non-typicals scoring 250” or more? It sure seemed like a possibility but there was also the chance that he could go backwards and score less than he did the year before.

When I got the first photos of Mel as a 4-year-old I was a little surprised. He had lost most of the non-typical points from the year before, having a single forked tine on each side of his rack, one appeared to only be two or three inches long. When he was done growing at the end of the summer he was a 7×7 typical main frame with only the 2 forks as additional non-typical points. I was certain that he was over 200” but honestly wasn’t sure he would top the 216” mark that he set with his previous rack.

Now I had a tough decision to make as I typically don’t shoot bucks on my place until they are 6 years old unless they are bucks that I want to cull from the herd. Would I shoot Mel as a 4-year-old knowing that he was over 200” and wandered over a lot of real estate? Or would I once again roll the dice and allow him to live another year knowing that he could very well get shot by another hunter?

I had been really wrestling with this decision for a few weeks and then one day I was on a 2-hour drive home from an outdoor radio show I was on and decided to pray about the decision. The previous two years Mel had broken several tines from his rack between the time he shed velvet and when he shed his antlers. By the time I pulled into my driveway from that trip my decision was made and I was totally at peace with it. If I got the opportunity to shoot Mel and his rack was not broken, I would go ahead and shoot him but if it was broken, I would let him walk. 

When hunting season finally opened, I had made arrangements to have good friend and talented videographer Steve Shields along to capture the hunt for Mel. Three of the first four evenings of the season we saw Mel emerge from the same switchgrass field that Terry Peer and I had seen him exactly a year before. He always exited from the same corner of the switchgrass field and would walk across a soybean food plot to hit a scrape on the other side of the plot. Steve captured some great video footage of this but Mel was only exiting the switchgrass to hit the scrape with the wind directly in his nose. I could have rolled the dice and tried to slip in and hang a stand near the scrape while using various scent control measures but I knew this was a real gamble. Especially given Mel’s reaction the year before when he saw me move in the blind while filming him. I knew the best approach was to be disciplined and patient and sooner or later I would get my chance.

I had a couple more sightings of Mel in mid-October and then towards the end of the month, I came down with covid. I really wasn’t that sick but was extremely tired and exhausted and my lungs were gone. I would get out of breath just walking from one room to another. I wasn’t about to let this stop me from chasing Mel however.

I always pay close attention to the weather during hunting season and we had a cold front hit our area on October 29 which was to be followed by a very warm front in early November. When temperatures became significantly above normal I knew that the deer movement would be severely curtailed, even though the rut would be drawing near. On October 30 I decided to do something that I rarely do; hunt on an October morning.

The morning was very cool for this time of year and my covid symptoms made the walk to my stand longer and more difficult than normal. In fact, I had to stop halfway up my ladder stand to catch my breath. I had barely settled into the stand when the sound of a deer approaching caught my attention. I could barely make out the form of a lone doe walking under my stand in the pre-dawn darkness. Then a couple of minutes later the sound of a buck raking his rack on the branches of a pine tree stirred me to life. I grabbed my Vortex optics and could barely make out a buck just 20 yards away in the darkness. It was Mel! There I sat in my stand with my target buck just 20 yards away but the shooting light was at least 20 minutes away. As expected, Mel was gone by the time it was light enough for me to shoot.

Shortly after sunrise, I started seeing bucks everywhere around me. They were rubbing saplings, grunting, sparring, and generally acting like it was the peak of the rut. I did get a couple of glimpses of Mel but he was always in very thick cover and well out of range. 

At one point I had a buck right under my stand and was filming him when I heard another deer approaching in the dried leaves. The buck that I was filming heard it also and abruptly turned in the direction the sound was coming from. I looked that way also and saw Mel walking towards the buck in an aggressive posture with his hair bristled up. I quickly grabbed my bow and continued to operate the video camera as Mel stopped just 7 yards from my stand and raised his head to lip curl. I quickly snapped my release onto the bowstring and came to full draw. I release a perfectly placed arrow which sent Mel on his death run.

The woods became silent as I sat down and savored the moment. I knew my buck was down but several things kept me in my seat; the beauty of the cool fall morning, covid, and wanting to share the recovery with my grandsons all weighed on my mind. I texted my daughter Andrea to get her headed my way with the boys as well as Steve Shields to get there to video the recovery.

The buck had only run 50-60 yards before piling up so I let the boys do the tracking and just followed behind them with my bow. As my good friend and mentor Alan Foster likes to say, it was a fine large day indeed.

A few months later good friends Tim Walmsley and Jim Barry officially scored Mel at 213” gross typical with an additional 8 1/8” of nontypical points and a net typical score of 197 3/8”. I honestly didn’t realize how high Mel would rank in the record books until a few days after the scoring was complete. Mel is now the all-time #2 archery typical in the state of Illinois, second only to Mel Johnson’s world record which was killed within hours of 55years earlier. My buck is also the 6th biggest typical ever killed by a bowhunter anywhere according to the Pope & Young website and is the biggest typical buck killed in 16 years.

Like a lot of whitetail bowhunters, I will probably still dream about killing a buck that tops Mel Johnson’s world record. The odds of that happening are about zero but I am fine with that. Like I often tell folks, dream big because God’s reality is so much bigger than we can even imagine. I am living proof of that!