The bowhunting and whitetail hunting communities were saddened over the Memorial Day holiday weekend when word trickled out that Illinois bowhunting legend Mel Johnson, longtime holder of the Pope & Young Club's world record typical whitetail benchmark, died on Thursday, May 24, 2018. The Metamora, Ill. resident was 84.
Reaction was swift in the hunting world with numerous social media posts appearing expressing sadness along with offering thoughts and prayers for Johnson's family.
"Sad news to report: Mel Johnson has passed away," stated North American Whitetail editor Gordon Whittington on his Facebook fan page. "But his legendary world-record archery typical remains the king of its kind, even 52 years after he got that giant buck in an Illinois bean field. RIP, good sir."
"RIP, Mel Johnson! The legend of your World Record P&Y Whitetail lives on," added M.R. James, hall of fame bowhunter and the founder, longtime editor, and editor emeritus of Bowhunter magazine, in a post on his own Facebook page.
"RIP Mel!" stated current Bowhunter editor Curt Wells. "He once told me someone called every year and asked him how it felt to have his record broken. He said 'I tell them to call me back when it is panel-scored and they never call.' Great guy."
By nearly all accounts, Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran, was indeed just that, a great guy who was admired by many for his humble, down-to-earth approach to taking one of the world's greatest whitetails.
Born on March 21, 1934 in Peoria, Ill., Johnson became a virtual household name among bowhunters and whitetail enthusiasts when he turned a makeshift ground blind on the edge of a Midwestern soybean field into one of the world's most famous deer hunts.
When the Oct. 29, 1965 evening hunt was over, Johnson was standing over one of the most enormous bucks that the world has ever seen, the so-called Beanfield Buck, a monstrous whitetail that has a gross score of 211 6/8-inches and a net score of 204 4/8-inches.
A massive symmetrical buck with seven points on the right side and six points on the left side, the Johnson buck features main beam lengths of 27 5/8-inches (right) and 26 6/8-inches (left) along with an inside spread of 23 5/8-inches.
Coupled with long tine length measurements — including three over 12-inches and two more over 10-inches — and tremendous mass (all circumference measurements but one measure over 5-inches, including H1 measurements of 6 1/8-inches (right) and 6 2/8-inches (left), the Johnson buck has all of the ingredients necessary for a legendary whitetail.
When the 1975 first edition of the Pope & Young Club's Big Game Records of North America was printed, Johnson's buck was profiled in a first person account of his hunt just off of Illinois Route 88 (now known as Illinois Route 40).
Hunting the edge of a soybean field where he had observed several deer feeding in the evenings — including this particular giant buck — here is Johnson's account from the first edition of the P&Y record book:
"I had no blind in this area so I quickly cleared the oak leaves from a brushy spot, nocked an arrow and settled back. My camouflage clothing blended nicely with the background and the wind was in my face. Everything seemed right for the evening wait.
"I had just started relaxing when a deer appeared at the far corner of the field, walking in my direction. My breath caught in my throat at the sight of the large rack that swung gently with every step. I realized if he kept coming he would pass directly in front of my stand. My hand grasped the bow.
"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 causally turned his massive head and walked on.
"One step. Two steps. In one continuous motion I raised 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 beanfield and I lost sight of him as he bounded over it. I automatically nocked another arrow and when I looked up he was standing near the rise, looking back in my direction. Then he turned and disappeared again.
"I got to my feet and started after him. Soon I saw my arrow on the ground and I placed it back in my quiver. A few more steps and I could see him lying just beyond the rise."
Taken with a 72-pound Howett recurve bow coupled with a hand-sharpened Zwickey broadhead and a fiberglass arrow, Johnson's buck was initially scored some 10-inches under its actual score. But when Pope & Young Club panel scorers took a look at the buck, it became the Club's longstanding archery benchmark.
To further put the accomplishment into perspective, consider that Johnson's huge Illinois whitetail is the only big animal to ever be given the Boone and Crockett Club's Sagamore Hill award and the Pope & Young Club's Ishi award, the highest honors given by each organization.
As one of only 14 typical bucks (taken with any weapon) to ever net score over 200-inches, the Johnson buck ranks fourth in the Boone and Crockett Club listings, falling behind three famous gun kill whitetails including Milo Hanson's B&C world record (a 1993 Saskatchewan whitetail scoring 213 5/8-inches), James Jordan's No. 2 B&C buck (a 1914 Wisconsin whitetail and former B&C world record scoring 206 1/8-inches), and Larry Gibson's No. 3 B&C buck (a 1971 Missouri whitetail scoring 205 0/8-inches).
While Johnson — who was a senior member in the P&Y Club as well as the Compton Bowhunters — never lived to see his world record mark fall, it wasn't because he wasn't expecting it to be toppled. In fact, in an interview I did with him back in 2001 when the Wayne Zaft buck appeared to be a challenger to the throne, Johnson said otherwise.
"It's bound to happen," said the retired Caterpillar Tractor Company employee. "There are more and more deer being killed by more and more bowhunters every year. And Canada (where the Zaft buck was tagged) is a great place to kill a big deer."
Johnson wasn't surprised at the various challengers that made a run — in media reports and social media rumors, at least — at his benchmark buck.
"There are so many bowhunters out there these days," he told me in our long ago interview. "When I started, there were only a handful of bowhunters in this area and now we've got a pile of bowhunters in Illinois. There are a lot of bowhunters out there today and they are shooting good equipment."
That included Johnson, who despite making the switch to a compound bow, hunted whitetails for as long as his body would allow for it, despite several surgeries including some for his heart.
But even as he did so, Johnson acknowledged that his standards weren't as lofty as another world record whitetail. In fact, at the time of our interview, the famous bowhunter seemed to feel surprised at the ongoing record book supremacy of his Beanfield Buck.
"Records are only there to be broken," he said at the time. "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."
But for 52 years now and counting, that hasn't been the case because Mel Johnson and his legendary Beanfield Buck remains the bowhunting world's king of the hill.
Johnson is survived by Pauline, his wife of 51-years, son Tadd M. Johnson, daughter Elizabeth D. Vancil, and four grandchildren. He will be laid to rest on Wednesday evening, May 30, 2018 at the Mason Funeral Home Metamora Chapel.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be given to the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund) Illinois Chapter, One North LaSalle Street, Suite 1200, Chicago, IL 60602.
Online condolences may be made at www.masonfuneralhomes.com.