Johnson buck remains archery record
Hunters have bagged millions of whitetail deer in North America since the 1960s.
Bowhunting techniques have evolved, new products have emerged and equipment has improved in the past 42 years.
Yet the Peoria County buck Mel Johnson shot in 1965 still ranks as one of the most impressive whitetails ever killed with bow and arrow. The Metamora hunter’s 13-pointer is an archery world record for deer with a typical rack — antlers that are basically symmetrical.
Johnson’s buck is not perfectly symmetrical. It is massive. Three tines are longer than 12 inches. The inside spread measures 23 5/8 inches and the right main beam is 27 5/8 inches. No wonder Johnson earned The Boone and Crockett Club’s Sagamore Hill Award (right) in 1965, a medallion bestowed by judges for trophies of “great distinction.”
In the years since, time and ailments have slowed Johnson. Over the last three years alone he underwent six operations on his heart, hands and knees. But he still plans to be in the stand for Monday’s Illinois archery deer season opener, hunting a small property in Knox County with his Martin compound bow.
“I go every day I can,” he said, though the hunts are not as frequent as they were in the 1960s.
Back then Johnson worked full-time at Caterpillar Inc. and hunted each night after work. Most fall weekends he left work on Friday and drove to Wisconsin with friends — often returning just in time to work Monday morning.
“We’d hunt all week in Illinois and maybe see a few deer, maybe not, and then go up to Wisconsin just to see deer,” Johnson said. Seeing whitetails recharged his hunting batteries, though that wasn’t really necessary in 1965.
That fall Johnson spotted a huge buck three times without getting close enough to shoot. Then came Oct. 29. That evening after work Johnson set up in brush along a picked bean field. The wind was in his face.
“We didn’t have that many tree stands around then,” Johnson said. “We were just starting to dabble with them and build them.”
From his vantage point, Johnson saw the buck again. This time the deer emerged from the timber 300 yards away. From there Johnson said the buck walked “smack dab in front of me, probably three or four rows of beans away.”
Close. Almost too close. Fortunately for Johnson the wind did not shift. Nor did he.
“(The buck) turned and looked right at me, took two or three steps and I shot him right through the lungs,” said Johnson, a left-hander who was using a 72-pound Howett recurve bow and a Zwickey broadhead on a fiberglass arrow.
From there, the buck ran into the field and disappeared over a rise. Johnson gave chase and found his arrow, which had passed through the buck. Then he saw the deer.
“I had a hold of him when he was still kicking on the ground,” Johnson said.
Antlers were not the only impressive features of the 4½- to 5½-year-old deer. The Beanfield Buck field dressed at 270 pounds, weighed an estimated 340 pounds on the hoof and had a thick, swollen neck.
Unlike today, there was little hoopla about antlers. The only prize Johnson won locally was for an archery contest at a Pekin store.
“People ask me what I got for killing that deer and I tell them I got a dozen arrows,” Johnson said. “They weren’t even good arrows.”
Over time, Johnson has become somewhat of an archery icon and has befriended or hunted with the industry’s most famed figures.
But he never got rich off his Beanfield Buck. In fact, Johnson does not have the actual mount, which belongs to Bass Pro Shops. Overlooking the recliner in his basement is a replica, mounted alongside a few plaques.
Nearby is a photo album that includes a scoresheet measuring Johnson’s buck at 194 4/8 inches. That was filled out by the lone Boone & Crockett scorer in Illinois at the time, a Chicago resident whose tally left Johnson deflated.
“I had a book put out by Minnesota that showed the world record and I knew it was bigger than that,” Johnson said.
Eventually he realized the scorer left off a 10-inch measurement. A panel of Boone and Crockett scorers later agreed the buck rated 204 4/8 inches. No bowhunter has bagged a better typical trophy since.
Someday Johnson expects the record will fall, but he’s not worried. While Johnson still enjoys the thrill of the hunt, the thrill of being a record-holder is less powerful.
“It was exciting for awhile but now it’s old shoe,” Johnson said. “There have been so many stories written about this buck.”
Now there is one more.