At one time, elaborate hoaxes weren’t all that common in the deer world. But then, in late 1982, something happened: North American Whitetail magazine burst onto the scene with photos and stories of real racks bigger than most hunters ever had imagined, much less seen.
Guys ooohed and aaahed and even began to dream of what it would be like to see themselves in print with a huge deer. Suddenly, there was hope that an ordinary Joe might become famous for killing a buck. The fact that a few high-profile hunters were starting to get paid to endorse products only added to the fantasy of becoming a “hunting star.”
As this was going on, deer shows popped up all over the U.S. and Canada, bringing many giant racks out of the woodwork and further fanning the flames of trophy interest. Meanwhile, a small but growing number of antler collectors were scrambling for the best racks – some wanting to own them for their own enjoyment, a few others hoping to make a dollar. The word on the street was that big antlers were worth big money.
About the time this “irrational exuberance” over trophy deer became widespread, new taxidermy materials and methods started coming into use. On one hand, this was positive; real racks often needed to be repaired, and using synthetic materials to mass-produce rattling antlers helped to meet a growing demand for such products. The downside was that these same materials could fall into the hands of people who merely wanted to deceive.
As synthetic antler materials were coming into widespread use, interest in shed antlers and shed hunting was also growing. Along with that came new ways to display such antlers. Again, this could be good or bad. It was nice that a shed hunter could put matched sheds onto a plaque or even a shoulder mount and see how the rack would have looked on the deer. On the other hand, such methods also increased the risk of sheds being misrepresented as scorable racks.
When racks are officially measured, more often than not the bases are hidden by a cape or other material. Even if this is peeled back to allow for examination of the bases – and no record-keeping organization requires that this be done – it’s not always easy to tell if the antlers are naturally attached to a skull plate. From above, the rack looks intact. So, if someone wants to portray sheds as a scorable rack, he can hide the bottom of the skull plate and stand a fair chance of getting away with it.
A metal detector can be used to tell if screws, wire or other such materials have been used to “build” a rack or attach sheds. But such a device can’t reveal the presence of resins or other non-metallic materials. That’s why, if there’s reason to doubt the authenticity of a rack, it’s best to X-ray it. This procedure, generally done in the office of a dentist or doctor, will show if metal, bone or other extra material has been added.
X-raying actually has been used to check the validity of racks already in the record book. The most noteworthy instance was in 1996, and it involved a former world-record non-typical from Texas.
What was known about the buck was that Albert Friedrich had purchased the rack way back in the 1890s, and it had been part of the trophy collection in his San Antonio museum ever since. In 1955, soon after the modern scoring system came into use, B&C’s Grancel Fitz scored the 49-pointer at 286 0/8 net points, making it an easy world record. And while Grancel was at it, he scored another remarkably similar 47-pointer in the collection at 284 3/8 net.
Based on that scoring session, the two racks assumed the No. 1 and 2 positions, respectively, in the B&C record book. But eventually, someone realized that the racks were just too similar to have come from different deer. One had to be sheds. And so, the 286 0/8-inch rack was left in the B&C record book, while the 284 3/8-incher dropped out.
The world record stayed at 286 0/8 points until 1983, when B&C verified the 333 7/8-point “Missouri Monarch,” found dead in 1981, as the new mark to beat. The Texas deer fell to No. 2 in the B&C rankings and began to fade from the spotlight.
But he didn’t fade from the mind of official measurer John Stein, who lives there in San Antonio. You see, John had a feeling that the wrong rack might have been left in the record book. And in 1996, with the permission of the owner of the two racks, he brought in X-ray equipment to find out.
That X-raying session proved what John had suspected: that the wrong antlers had indeed been taken out of the book. That 286 0/8-inch rack was indeed a set of sheds; the 284 3/8-incher was on a skull plate.
Due to these revelations, B&C l
owered the score of Texas’ old No. 1 non-typical to 284 3/8, making that the deer’s official mark. Today, the only place you’ll find that old Texas buck’s larger set of antlers listed is in the record book of the North American Shed Hunters Club, where it stands at No. 2. Of course, subsequent to John’s detective work, a swap-out had to occur in those rankings as well.
Yes, an X-ray is a great way to check a rack’s authenticity, or lack thereof. But it’s not infallible. For instance, if a typical rack has one or more broken abnormal points, not even an X-ray can prove that they were intentionally shortened or removed to boost the net score. On an old rack, a fresh break is highly suspicious; however, if the rack is from a recently shot buck, proving the break occurred while he was alive – and thus, isn’t a factor in record-book entry – can be tough.
But a more common problem with using X-rays is getting the antlers into the path of the X-ray beam in the first place. The difficulty generally doesn’t lie with the equipment, but with the rack’s owner.
ALABAMA OR GEORGIA?
The first widely publicized case of this sort occurred in the 1980s, with a rack that, while huge, was of less than world-record size. The hunter in question, Owen Walton, said he’d shot the deer in his home state of Alabama on Jan. 28, 1986. There even were field photos of Owen with the buck to back up his claim.
Based on the fact that the buck was given an official B&C entry score of 187 6/8 net points – at the time, the highest ever for a typical from the Southeast – several magazines ran features on him. Indeed, one appeared in our Nov. 1986 issue.
To my knowledge, there still isn’t any hard evidence that Owen did anything wrong. However, after the stories started appearing in print, there came a stunning claim: that the rack worn by the new Alabama record was a set of sheds picked up 100 miles to the east, on Georgia’s Flint River!
Ed Vanderslice Jr. told North American Whitetail writer Duncan Dobie that Owen had “borrowed” the sheds from him in 1983 and later claimed they’d been stolen. Now, Ed claimed, they were sitting on the head of a deer Owen said he’d shot in Alabama. The Georgian said the rack could be identified by some scratch marks made by a harrow having run over the sheds as they lay in a field.
Dennis Campbell, who’d measured the rack for B&C, believed Ed’s story; in fact, he’d noticed those scratches while scoring the deer. Wanting to get to the bottom of things, he asked Owen to meet him at a local dentist’s office to X-ray the shoulder mount.
According to Dennis, Owen agreed to do so, but then didn’t show. The next day, when Dennis asked why, Owen said an “antler collector from Texas” had showed up at his home the night before the scheduled X-ray session and offered $1,500 cash for the rack. There were two stipulations: that the collector not be identified, and that Owen take the deal right then or forget it. Owen said he took the money and gave the guy the rack.
It’s interesting that no antler collector in Texas or elsewhere ever has admitted to being, or even knowing, Mr. Anonymous. Nor has anyone said they’ve seen this rack since then. It presumably was destroyed. In late 1987, B&C rejected Owen’s entry.
So ended one of the strangest tales in whitetail history. As for the buck, it seems no one ever got him. Thus, in a novel way, he became one of the few bucks ever to achieve fame without giving his life to do so.
The Walton case’s impact on the deer industry was significant. Reports were that several major companies (including optics and ATV manufacturers) with whom Owen had reached endorsement deals lost the thousands of dollars they’d already paid him. The companies chose not to pursue legal action; however, for years afterwards, many manufacturers of hunting products saw the “Walton incident” as reason enough to avoid signing endorsement deals with hunters that they didn’t know.
THE ROMPOLA MYSTERY
A decade later, we saw an eerily similar replay of that episode. This one involved a buck rumored to have been arrowed near Traverse City, Michigan, on Friday, Nov. 13, 1998.
Upon hearing the news I called Mitch immediately, hopeful of getting all the details and, of course, seeing the deer for myself. Neither happened. Mitch was vague in his description of the deer and the events surrounding the kill and wouldn’t let me view the rack. But I was able to get him to tell me that the buck was one he’d been after for several years. Mitch offered no “green” score or specific antler measurements but implied that his deer would beat Milo Hanson’s 213 5/8-inch Saskatchewan buck, the B&C world record. Mitch claimed his trophy was easily larger than the world record by bow, the 204 4/8-incher Mel Johnson had shot in Illinois in 1965.
Mitch did say he’d dragged the 261-pound (field-dressed) deer out of the swamp alone. He said he’d taken a photo of himself with the deer and video footage of the deer’s recovery as well. I couldn’t get any of those materials from Mitch, but he did give them to some in-state media outlets, which immediately ran the story.
When the news broke, bedlam ensued; hunters everywhere wanted to know more. But after the initial flurry of “information,” details were even harder to come by. In fact, less than a week after the reported kill, Mitch got an unlisted phone number and dropped out of sight.
Representatives of several companies with whom he’d developed business relationships weren’t as hard to find. In fact, at a press conference at the archery industry’s trade show in early 1999, I listened as several of them noted their plans to work with Mitch in marketing products that had played key roles in his hunt for a “new world record.”
The rack never was entered into any record book, though in early 1999 three measurers scored it at 216 5/8 net points on behalf of Commemorative Bucks of Michigan. What made the lack of an entry into CBM curious was that Mitch once had served as the club’s scoring chairman.
Some who doubt the deer’s legitimacy focus more on Mitch than on the animal. Among other things, they note that he has a criminal record, which they say proves he isn’t credible. They say the fact that he never entered the rack into B&C means it must be a fake. (He couldn’t enter it into P&Y if he wanted to, as his bow exceeded the maximum 65 percent let-off allowable by P&Y.) They say that even before Nov. 13, 1998 he had a detailed plan to profit from killing a No. 1 buck, meaning this likely was all just an elaborate scam.
I’m not sure how much of
the above is relevant. A lot of other people also have criminal records, but that doesn’t make them liars. Not everyone elects to enter deer into record books. That’s a personal decision. And even if Mitch had planned out a strategy for cashing in on killing a potential No. 1 deer he was hunting, that’s not unthinkable. Many other hunters might have done so too.
So, for the moment, let’s leave Mitch out of this. Let’s deal just with the deer – starting with the claim that he’s bogus because he couldn’t have lived in Grand Traverse County.
I won’t go that far. Granted, this part of Lower Michigan doesn’t have what it takes to grow a lot of colossal deer – the glacial soils are infertile, hunting pressure is heavy, and there’s little high-protein agriculture – but one giant can turn up anywhere.
Think about it. How many counties in North America have grown more than one known buck grossing over 220 typical? I can’t think of any. For that matter, how many ever have grown more than one grossing over 300 non-typical? Same answer. Yes, big deer are much more common in some areas than others, but the true giants are freaks of nature that seem to appear out of nowhere.
As for the notion that the rarity of even 150-inch bucks in Mitch’s area means a deer grossing over 220 is impossible, let’s back up a minute. What about James Stovall’s massive No. 1 Florida buck, which is far and away the biggest buck ever to come from that state? No one doubts that the Florida buck is real or that he came from where James says – but if we were operating strictly on the basis of history, we might.
So, am I claiming the Rompola buck is real? No. And why not? I have three reasons: (1) the rack doesn’t look real to me; (2) Mitch has steadfastly refused to prove it’s real, even though doing so would benefit him and others directly; and (3) I’ve seen photos you haven’t. Let’s examine these concerns one by one:
To me, the antlers simply look like what you’d come up with if trying to fool somebody with a rack fabricated from synthetic materials, sheds and/or an assortment of “spare parts.” My view is based on experience, which isn’t proof; however, in the absence of documentation that the rack is real, what but experience can any of us draw on?
I’ve closely examined all of the world’s biggest whitetail racks that have been confirmed as real, and I’ve never seen another one with nearly so wide a gap between the burrs. Nor has anyone else I know. While this is by no means proof that the Rompola rack is a fake, it makes me highly suspicious.
Does that mean we’re looking at a pair of sheds, a huge intact rack with the skull plate widened to increase the score or even one that was drastically modified or built from scratch? I don’t know, but I’d argue that one of those scenarios is the case.
As many skeptics note, the drooping ears on the Rompola buck do nothing to squelch the rumor that the original rack was removed and a fake one inserted for photo purposes. The blood on the right ear only adds to that suspicion. But even if we somehow explain away the ear problem and the space between the bases, the antlers themselves are problematic.
I know of no other rack with an alleged gross typical score of over 220 (there are only a few in existence) that doesn’t have at least one abnormal point. There are apparently no broken points on the Rompola rack.
The symmetry is also unprecedented for a deer of this class, and I’m not just referring to tine length, beam length and mass; the two sides are virtual mirror images of each other, which isn’t the case with any other known rack of similar size. And, to top it off, the antler color looks artificial, similar to what’s often seen on known fake racks.
When we combine these questions with the fact that the measurers couldn’t see the underside of the skull plate – it was on a nearly finished shoulder mount at the time of scoring – I’m even more leery. I’ve talked to all three measurers and believe each is honest and knows how to score a rack; however, I have this nagging fear they weren’t given full opportunity to verify the rack’s authenticity. I fear the companies that initially hoped to market products on the basis of this buck’s being a “world record” were misled as well.
Had Mitch simply taken the rack to a local dentist or doctor’s office for X-raying, he could have come out well financially in the process of proving his case. Two of his most vocal critics in Michigan each had put up $10,000, which they said Mitch could collect if he’d just have the rack X-rayed and enter it into B&C. But not even that could spur the man into action.
I think these points are enough to make any reasonable person suspicious that the Rompola buck is a fake. And when I toss out a few more tidbits, my doubt only grows.
You might be shocked to learn that I actually learned of this deer a year or so before the public did – but I didn’t hear about him from Mitch. Rather, the report came from a hunting-products manufacturer. In a phone conversation, the man told me Mitch was using his products in his effort to arrow a certain buck he claimed had a “three-foot spread.”
I thought little more about that conversation in the year that followed; after all, I’d probably heard 100 stories about bucks with “a three-foot spread,” and I knew not to sit by the phone awaiting word that any of them had been shot. But the day I heard Mitch had killed a “new world record with a 30-inch spread,” I recalled that earlier conversation about the deer and thought how amazing it was that Mitch finally had caught up with him. Thus, instead of being overly skeptical, I began pursuing the Rompola story with far more reason than usual to think I was onto something factual.
When I saw the field photo of the deer, the view began to change. Again, it just didn’t look right. Plus, I no longer could contact Mitch. That in itself was a first for me, though again it proved utterly nothing.
But as much as anything else, I was quite suspicious of two “live” photos of the buck, both of which turned up after the first story broke.
Mitch allegedly snapped one of the shots with his 35mm camera a few days before he said he killed the deer. The blurry photo showed the buck from the rear, with the head stuck out from behind a tree. A scent-dripper also was visible in the photo.
Hmmmmm. I could understand the photo being blurry – if I ever snap a photo of a live 216-inch typical while I’m hunting, that shot will be pretty shaky
too – but I simply felt I wasn’t looking at a photo of a live deer. The shot had been taken from the only possible angle that would have allowed anyone to explain away the lack of a deer’s body in the photo. My impression was that someone had set up a shoulder mount on the far side of a tree in order to shoot a photo for a scent-dripper ad. But I was told the shot hadn’t being staged.
A year or so later I was at a hunting show, looking at a photo album in the booth of the manufacturer who’d originally told me about Mitch’s pursuit of the deer. As I flipped through the pages, I came to an 8×10 color print that showed the buck from the front – bedded in the snow – this time with much of his body visible!
I asked the guy when that photo had been shot. He said in December 1997: roughly 11 months before Mitch claimed to have shot the deer.
Now this was really getting interesting. If the photo was of a live deer, it couldn’t have been taken any later than early 1998 because of the snow. At the time of the reported kill (Nov. 13, 1998,) it hadn’t snowed in that area all fall. Problem was, it looked to me that the rack on the live deer was a carbon copy of the one on the buck Mitch posed with in late 1998.
I feel safe in claiming that the rack on no whitetail buck is exactly the same two years in a row. But standing there, looking at that shot of the bedded deer, I satisfied myself that his rack and the one in the “kill” shot were indistinguishable. How could that be, unless the same rack had been moved from deer body to deer body for photo purposes?
If I’m right – and trust me, I looked over that photo pretty hard – I submit that this is as compelling an argument as any against Mitch’s claims. Forget for a moment that it might be hard to slip up on a wild 216-inch typical in his bed and snap a photo of him. I’m told Mitch is a highly skilled woodsman, so for all I know, he was able to do just that. What I can’t reconcile is that “1997” rack looking just like the one the deer grew the next year.
If Mitch did on two occasions slip into camera range of the biggest typical in history – both times while bow season was open, but without being able to actually kill the deer – I’m betting he snapped the shutter more than once each time. If that’s the case, the photos I want to see are the ones that haven’t been made available: those portraying the deer in motion. While the static photos I’ve seen could have been faked with ease, that wouldn’t be true of even a blurry shot of the deer doing something.
Furthermore, it goes without saying that video footage of the live deer – which is actually far easier to get than a still photo, particularly in dim light – would have made Mitch’s case infinitely stronger. Were such footage produced tomorrow, I’d have little choice but to conclude that the rack is real; without it, I’m left to wonder why the only photographic evidence of the “live” deer is of the type that’s harder to get but easier to fake.
But suspicions are one thing, hard evidence something else. Lacking proof that the Rompola buck was bogus, I finally just moved on, as did many others in the outdoors media. It seemed there never would be any sort of closure to the story, because Mitch kept refusing to remove the clouds of doubt.
But in the end, he did make what I believe was a telling move. Milo Hanson’s business associate, John Butler, grew weary of the unsubstantiated claims about “Michigan’s new world record.” Those claims were making it hard for John to book the Hanson buck display into hunting shows, because many show producers still assumed the Rompola buck was real – and bigger than Milo’s certified record.
Finally, John gave Mitch’s camp an ultimatum: Prove your deer is real or tell everyone operating on your behalf to quit calling him the “world-record typical.” Faced with the threat of legal action, Mitch quickly signed a settlement in which he agreed not to enter his deer into B&C as long as Milo has the record. Nor, per the agreement, can Mitch refer to his rack as a “world record.” He can’t even publicly display it or a replica.
It’s worth noting that Mitch received no money in return for signing away his right to enter the rack into B&C. This proves nothing, but I think it bolsters the claim that he didn’t have a potential record to begin with.
Should all antlers, horns and skulls be X-rayed before being accepted into B&C, P&Y or any other record book, whether they’re potentially No. 1 or not? Should those already in the book be subjected to this level of scrutiny as well, to make sure they’re the real deal? If this were done, I’m sure we’d keep some shed/altered antlers out of the books, and we’d find that some have made it in already.
But there are tens of thousands of racks on one or more record lists, from B&C and P&Y on down to the state/provincial level. No way could we test – or even find – all of them. And even if we could, should we question the integrity of every hunter who signs off on his or her trophy as legitimate? Would polygraph testing be next? Although the honor system we now use doesn’t always weed out the dishonorable, mandating lie-detector tests would seem onerous and potentially devastating to hunting’s public image.
THE QUEST CONTINUES
As we’ve seen throughout this series, the whitetail world has seen plenty of hoaxes and suspected hoaxes over the years. I’d like to believe those days are gone, but I can’t. As long as there’s a belief that a No. 1 buck means fame and fortune, someone will keep trying to cash in without delivering the goods. To suggest otherwise is to ignore both history and human nature.
Regardless, you can be sure that those of us here at North American Whitetail will keep looking and listening for any sign of the next real world-beater. With each new rumor we feel a surge of adrenaline, because like you, we can’t help but wonder if this is the story that will pan out. What keeps us digging is the fact that every so often, o
ne actually does.