February 15, 2022
By Gordon Whittington
We live in a media age focused on anything that can be spun as “breaking news.” And that applies to the world of trophy whitetails as much as to politics or college sports. Whenever a new No. 1 buck is crowned, it’s the stuff of bold headlines ending with exclamation points. We antler junkies dream of such deer and eagerly devour their stories, for we know just how special they are.
But curiously, at times even being an official world record hasn’t been enough to earn fame. That’s especially been the case with some bow-taken bucks. If we look back over history, we see that a handful of former No. 1s remain unknown even to this day.
Many Missing Pieces
I learned early in my career at North American Whitetail that trophy buck history is riddled with holes. That fact really hit home when I decided to profile every one that had ever been declared a world record by the copyrighted Boone & Crockett scoring system. That effort culminated in a thick book on the subject: World Record Whitetails: A Complete History of the No. 1 Bucks of All Time. (Safari Press published it in 1998, and occasional copies are available via online resellers.)
My goal with this ambitious book was to include every official world record certified not only by B&C, but also the Pope & Young Club and the Longhunter Society. P&Y of course is the primary bowhunting organization authorized to use B&C’s scoring system, while the Longhunter Society includes only muzzleloader-taken game scored in the same way.
Even figuring out which deer had ever been No. 1 in a category turned out to be a more involved project than I’d imagined. Today there’s a move toward making trophy databases accessible online, but at the time I was researching my book, that wasn’t the case. The clubs back then were just starting to ponder the idea of websites; even email was a new development. All that made researching the early years of the record books a tedious job.
At the time, Mel Johnson’s 204 4/8-inch typical from Peoria County, Illinois, and Del Austin’s 279 7/8-inch non-typical from Hall County, Nebraska, had already been entrenched as P&Y’s title holders for over three decades. (The former deer still is P&Y’s top typical.)
The club itself had been founded in 1960, only a few years before these giants had come along.
So how many other No. 1 bucks could there have been in either category? As it turned out, way more than I’d thought.
While we don’t have as much detail on some of these deer as we’d like, I was able to string together enough facts and images to devote a short book chapter to each. With yet another bow season now on the horizon, let’s look back at these under-the-radar trophies. We’ll start with the first non-typical ever crowned king of P&Y.
Making History in Minnesota
As P&Y was coming into existence, the few bowhunters chasing whitetails were in the last days of archery’s traditional-only era. Prior to H.W. Allen’s patent of the compound bow in 1966, the last major shift in bow design arguably had been a Mongolian’s development of the recurve around 1,000 years earlier. But in the mid-20th century, whether an archer was employing a recurve or a longbow, success rates on whitetails were under half what they are today. Filling a bow tag with any legal buck was a big deal.
Don Vraspir was among those who decided to ignore the obstacles and try anyway. He lived in northwest Minnesota’s Otter Tail County, only a few miles east of the North Dakota border. His bow was a 50-pound Mamba recurve, and he enjoyed hitting the woods with it as often as he could.
A 160-acre woods 20 miles northeast of Fergus Falls was one of Don’s favorite bowhunting areas. And it was there that on the afternoon of Oct. 27, 1959, he and his buddy Russ Shol began still-hunting their way through the cover.
Their approach had all the makings of a beautifully planned deer drive. Except there hadn’t been any planning to it. Russ had said he couldn’t get free that day, so Don had gone hunting without him. Only later had Russ found out he could get free after all. Lacking any way to update Don on his plan — this was, after all, several decades prior to the cell phone — he’d headed to the property and had begun his own still-hunt.
In those days before commercial tree stands or pop-up blinds, the friends liked to ease along parallel paths, each hoping to push a deer to the other. On this afternoon, with Russ not able to hunt, Don had decided to try it solo. What he didn’t know was that his friend was entering the cover some distance away at almost exactly the same time.
Don was only 100 yards or so into his creeping hunt when he heard a crash. Within moments, he realized the source of the noise was the biggest buck he’d ever seen. What’s more, the beast was running almost directly at him!
The stunned archer somehow had the presence of mind to quickly draw his recurve, aim and release his cedar arrow as the buck sped past at the heart-pounding range of just 11 yards. At the moment the Ace broadhead impacted the deer, Don realized the hit was higher and farther back than he’d have liked. But hopefully the blades had severed something vital within the animal, which had instantly vanished.
As Don began to assess the blood sign, Russ appeared on the scene. He had indeed bumped the buck, and as hoped, that encounter had resulted in a shot for his partner — not an advisable one, perhaps, but a shot, nonetheless. And now there was a big deer to find.
The men waited a bit before starting out on what would prove a challenging trail. They marked blood specks with tissue paper before running out of daylight. Returning with a lantern and more manpower, they kept on the trail until finally reaching the dead buck. Don’s broadhead had in fact done major artery damage, but the high entry point had minimized blood on the ground and vegetation.
The massive deer dressed out at 230 pounds, and he had equally impressive headgear. Don hoped he’d be recognized as the biggest arrowed in Minnesota that year, and he was. But that honor was just a taste of what was to come. The following year, the 21-point rack was accepted at 186 2/8 net inches by the first-ever P&Y judges panel, becoming the recognized world record in the category. An “accidental” deer drive had made bowhunting history.
As special as it was to visit with Don about his exciting hunt, what I recall most vividly about interviewing him is his perspective on archery trends. You see, even in those early days of “modern” archery, there was debate about how much advancement in gear was too much.
“Back when some guys were starting to put sights on their recurves and longbows, before anyone was even shooting compounds, there was quite a bit of controversy about whether or not using sights was really even bowhunting,” Don told me. “Everyone had been shooting instinctively up to that point, and a lot of guys argued that if you were going to put a sight on your bow, then you might as well just use a rifle!”
So, archery’s great gear debate hardly began with fixed-blade vs. mechanical broadheads or crossbows vs. vertical bows. For all we know, the arguing might well have started with that first Mongolian recurve a millennium ago.
Right Deer...but Wrong Timing
Don’s success in Minnesota came at just the right time to earn him the P&Y world record. But for a number of other successful whitetail bowhunters of that era, the timing was all wrong.
We of course have no way of even guessing how many great bucks were shot by native bowhunters in the centuries before P&Y was founded. We do know that in 1947, bowhunter Elwood Snell took a 152 3/8-inch non-typical on public land in Michigan. As far as has been documented, this was the world’s biggest-ever archery buck at the time taken. Of course, there was yet no book in which he could be entered as a bow record. Same for the 153 7/8-inch non-typical Claude Butler arrowed in Wisconsin in 1954.
Through no fault of either man, these historic kills proved to be mere footnotes to history. Likewise, so did a pair of great non-typicals arrowed in 1961. The 188 1/8-incher William Cruff shot in North Dakota and Ivan Mascher’s 198 5/8-incher from Nebraska were in the same awards period as Del Austin’s 279 7/8-inch blow-away world record, which was shot in Nebraska a year later. That mammoth of a buck naturally got all the glory.
The bowhunting public’s lack of knowledge of the new club also factored in. For all we know, perhaps a lack of trophy owner interest did, too. For as great as Don Vraspir’s 1959 non-typical was, at least three others from Minnesota alone could have kept him from ever becoming P&Y’s world record.
In 1955, Lawrence Sowieja had shot a 203 4/8-incher. A year later, Delbert Peck had arrowed a buck netting 191 6/8. And that same year, Reinhold Lind had downed one that went 189 6/8. While all three of these potential P&Y records eventually ended up in P&Y, none was entered in time to be panel-scored at the end of the club’s first awards period. So, Don Vraspir’s 186 2/8 became P&Y’s first official world record in the category.