May 31, 2018
By Lynn Burkhead
With the news of Mel Johnson's passing at the age of 84, there's little doubt that the legacy of the late Illinois bowhunter and his legendary 204 4/8-inch Beanfield Buck lives on.
In the world of bowhunting, there have been many legendary figures over the years, archers who have cast large shadows over this remarkable pastime with the stick-and-string.
There is Ishi of course, the last known survivor of the Yahi tribe of Native Americans and the one who taught archery skills to Dr. Saxton Pope and Art Young, the two namesakes behind the Pope & Young Club.
Then there is arguably the sport's biggest historical figure, the iconic Fred Bear, who helped usher bowhunting into the modern era with his namesake archery tackle company as well as books and films that promoted bowhunting and its effectiveness as a big game hunting tool.
Don't forget traditional archery gurus Glenn St. Charles and G. Fred Asbell or modern equipment pioneers Ben Pearson, Tom Jennings, Pete Shepley; Earl Hoyt, Sr., Doug Easton and Matt McPherson among others. Then there is Bowhunter magazine founder and longtime editor M.R. James and his successor, Dwight Schuh, not to mention the Petersen's Bowhunting staff that has included Bob Robb, Bill Winke, and Jim Dougherty. Along the way, other memorable writers, columnists, and practitioners of the sport have included Chuck Adams, Myles Keller, Roger Rothhaar, Randy Ulmer and Larry D. Jones.
For all the names on that list — and there can certainly be more with the Realtree trio of Bill Jordan, David Blanton, and Michael Waddell along with Mossy Oak's Toxey Haas and Ronnie "Cuz" Strickland — another person that has cast a large shadow over the sport is Mel Johnson.
Johnson, the longtime holder of the Pope and Young Club's typical world record mark, passed away on Thursday, May 24, 2018 at the age of 84.
In some ways, Johnson and the 204 4/8-inch Beanfield Buck that he harvested on October 29, 1965 with a recurve, a fiberglass arrow, and a hand sharpened broadhead, cast the biggest shadow over modern bowhunting, thanks to the establishment of a benchmark figure that bowhunters have chased for 52-years and counting.
For a better understanding of Johnson's place in bowhunting lore and legend, I turned to two of our many Outdoor Sportsman Group bowhunting experts, Petersen's Bowhunting magazine editor Christian Berg and Bowhunter magazine editor Curt Wells.
Both men admitted surprise at the world record longevity that the late bowhunter and his Beanfield Buck have enjoyed at the top of P&Y's record book.
"I am surprised, particularly in light of the rapid rise of Quality Deer Management over the past two decades and the ever-increasing number of regular bowhunters who are working hard to enhance whitetail habitat in their area and voluntarily passing on younger bucks," said Berg, a Pennsylvania resident. "Anecdotal evidence — in magazines and on TV, websites and social media — would indicate that bowhunters are killing more bigger bucks than ever, and in some ways, I think this is sort of a 'golden age' of deer hunting that we are living in right now.
"But then you look back at the Beanfield Buck and think about how long that record has stood, and it just kind of reminds you that there's always been big bucks out there and despite all our modern wisdom and the management products available, contemporary bowhunters don't have a corner on the market when it comes to whopper whitetails."
Wells, a North Dakota resident, agrees.
"Over the past (52) years millions of bowhunters have hunted hard, managed their property, provided extra nutrition, and let bucks mature, yet no one has arrowed a buck with the same combination of length, width, mass, and symmetry as the Beanfield Buck," said Wells.
"It's unbelievable and I think it validates the Pope and Young scoring system big time," he added. "This buck is what a whitetail buck should look like and it has stood alone, on top, for (52) years. Incredible."
To back up that idea, Berg points to a current issue of Petersen's Bowhunting.
"(For) our July issue, we did a special "State of Bowhunting" report and analyzed Pope and Young typical whitetail entries from 1997-2007 and 2008-Present," said Berg. "I would have guessed that during the most recent decade, the average entry would have been significantly higher than the previous decade, again due to increasing management and selective harvest by bowhunters.
"But actually, the increase was fewer than TWO INCHES, from an average of 138 6/8 (inches) from 1997-2007 to 140 inches from 2008-Present. Kind of gives some perspective that seems appropriate in this context."
To be sure, there have been a few challengers to Mel Johnson's Pope & Young Club world record, whitetails from Canada and the Midwest that have on paper and in social media, at least, looked to threaten the longstanding benchmark.
But to date, for one reason or another, none of those whitetails has ever measured up to world record status.
"I interviewed Mel quite a few years back for an article in Bowhunter Magazine," said Wells. "At the time, another buck was considered to be a challenger and Mel had gotten a call from an outdoor writer who asked, 'How do you feel about your record being broken?'
"Mel told me he got a call like that almost every year and he said, 'I just tell them to call me back when the buck has been panel-scored and they never call back.' He wasn't bragging but he did wear a slight smile when he said it. He was proud of his buck."
As well he should have been. Nevertheless, Wells for one thinks that eventually, the Beanfield Buck will be toppled.
"Yes, it will eventually be broken but then, we've been saying that for over a half century," he said. "My guess is it will come from Iowa, or some unlikely location and be arrowed by a 14-year-old kid that didn't know it existed. But it will fall someday."
His OSG bowhunting counterpart agrees.
"Oh, I would say it will definitely be topped," noted Berg, before adding that in his mind, it's not a question of if but when.
"Clearly, given the 50+ years this record has stood, you wouldn't get rich betting on a new record in any given year," Berg added. "But, sooner or later, it's gonna happen. As to where, I'm just going to take an educated guess and say the new No. 1 will come out of Kentucky sometime in the next decade."
Until the Pope and Young typical benchmark does actually fall, what is Mel Johnson's legacy to the sport?
"I think most regarded Mel as the "bowhunter down the street" who put himself in the right place at the right time and executed the shot," said Wells. "Not much to be jealous about there and I, for one, appreciated his humbleness about the accomplishment."
Berg points out that the story of the late Mel Johnson and his world record whitetail should serve as inspiration for any and all bowhunters thinking about climbing into a whitetail treestand, ladder stand or ground blind this fall.
Even if the story of the Beanfield Buck is a dusty tale about a legendary whitetail that many of today's younger hunters know little about.
"Sadly, I fear that most young bowhunters today probably don't have any idea who Mel Johnson is, but hopefully his passing is an opportunity to get him and his story out there once again so a new generation of archers can become familiar with it," said Berg.
"To me, the coolest takeaway for young people is just to know that the world-record whitetail wasn't taken by some billionaire with a million acres of carefully-managed ground," he added. "It was taken by a regular, blue-collar bowhunter just like you and I, and if you love this sport and the challenge of chasing big whitetails, you have the chance of someday taking a giant too.
"That's the magic of bowhunting; on any given day, anything can happen. You just have to be in the right place at the right time, and you could find yourself a part of bowhunting history!"
And maybe a part of bowhunting history in a treasured story that will last for a lifetime or more.