February 16, 2011
By Ryan Hatfield
For more than 50 years, mystery surrounded the biggest buck ever taken in Idaho and the identity of the hunter who killed it. The mystery has been solved.
By Ryan Hatfield
Still wearing his pinstriped work overalls, Herman Lunders admires his 1955 Idaho whitetail -- a 267-inch buck that would stand atop Idaho's record book for more than half a century. Photo courtesy of Ryan Hatfield.
When Herman Lunders fired the shot that downed an exceptional whitetail buck back in 1955, the last thing in his mind was that it might represent any sort of historical significance. To him, it was nothing more than a simple act necessary to feed his burgeoning family of 11 children. After all, he had actually wanted to shoot one of the does running with the buck and only shot the buck because he was told he should. A man of practicality, as most men of that era were dictated to be, he most likely would have been embarrassed to have been linked to such "greatness" as a state record, or perhaps even more perplexed as to why it would even matter.
Nearly as quickly as the deed was done, however, it faded into obscurity. Only a stroke of luck over five decades later would bring it back to the prominence it deserved. Just a few months ago, I was able to finally have Lunders' name eternally linked to one of the greatest whitetails of all time.
I heard a quote once that stated, "If you don't know history, you don't know anything. You're a leaf that doesn't know it's part of a tree." History has always intrigued me, particularly history of the West. Coupling that with a strong passion and background in hunting and writing, I embarked about 13 years ago on a mission to document and record Idaho's rich hunting history to an incomparable level.
The first product of my efforts was a book titled Idaho's Greatest Mule Deer, a 400-page accounting of most all of the biggest mule deer bucks ever taken in the Gem State. It was a tribute, a detailed collection of big bucks on display for the world to see, and a litany of great stories, but to me it had a bigger purpose -- the beginning of an ongoing historical record. The second book in the series, Idaho's Greatest Elk, followed nearly three years later, and the second piece of the puzzle was in place.
Idaho's Greatest Whitetails became my third project -- a project that didn't come easily. Now married with two little boys and a demanding job, time was scarce. However, thanks to many emails, phone calls, and personally delivered "When's the whitetail book coming out?" questions, I gave it all I had.
Over the course of tracking down as much history and as many big buck leads as possible, one glaring hole remained -- a hole that seemed to stare ominously back at me. It was the word "unknown." The biggest buck ever taken in Idaho was listed in B&C, but no one knew the identity of the hunter who killed it. How could I write the definitive book on Idaho's most outstanding whitetails with such a void?
I spent several months trying to track it down. Having formerly spent four years working at the Boone and Crockett Club as assistant director of Big Game Records, I was accustomed to seeing a trophy entry's hunter listed as "unknown." However, particularly with something as important as a state record, such entries can sometimes be circumspect. Credibility was lacking, and my hope was to either confirm it as the truth or expose it otherwise.
Following a lot of links in a chain and taking more than a few stabs in the dark, I kept trying. Finally, I was led to a woman named Betty Cloninger, the step-daughter of a man named Herman Lunders, who I'd heard might possibly have been the man who killed it. It was an interesting phone call for both of us, but when she said that, yes, her dad had killed a buck matching the description and that they actually had a photo of him with the buck from that day, my jaw nearly hit the floor.
For days I waited with anticipation, until finally I received the image over email (something Lunders wouldn't have thought possible in 1955). The photo was unbelievable, both from a classic, vintage photo perspective as well as a historical perspective. It gives everyone a chance to look Lunders in the eyes and "know" him; it's conclusive proof that he was in fact the hunter, and it helps to paint a picture that no one else could possibly paint. The classic old-style hat, simple overalls, and handsome man holding his big deer all help to make it a fantastic photo.
Finding this information in the nick of time to be included in the book was easily the most rewarding thing that happened during the process of piecing this important project together. It also is the perfect example of why gathering this type of history and preserving it is so important, not only for today's hunters, but for an infinite generation of hunters to come. It might never have happened otherwise.
I owe a special thanks to Lunders' family for helping to make it happen. I know they were as excited as I was. Here is the story of one of the biggest whitetails ever taken:
Herman Lunders was born in 1910, one of eight children raised near a bump in the road called Reubens, Idaho -- a very small community in the fertile Palouse country farm ground. He spent 42 years working for the Camas Prairie Railroad as a section foreman.
He and his wife, Frankie, had 11 children between them, nine from previous marriages and two more together. He was 59 when the last child was born.
Lunders was a competent outdoorsman who loved the mountains in which he lived and respected the precious gift of nature. He hunted and fished to feed his family and for enjoyment, but he was never a trophy hunter. Family camping trips were common up on the Clearwater River, and he hunted most of his life with the same group of guys. Just like Lunders, most all of them have all passed away now.
Lunders was 45 years old when he took his wild-antlered buck near Kamiah, right on the Clearwater River. Keith Lunders, a nephew, remembers what Herman told him about the buck. "Being a section foreman for the railroad, he was at work but had his rifle with him, which was not abnormal in that day and age. He and the crew were eating lunch on the tracks
when a big buck and a few does swam the river, headed north.
"The story goes that when they reached the other side, Herman was going to shoot the biggest doe for meat, but his workmates convinced him to shoot the big buck instead."
Lunders' gun of choice was a Remington .30-06 pump with a Leupold scope. He was very good with it. In fact, his son Butch said, "Knowing Dad, it would have been a neck shot so as to not waste any meat. Usually it would have been the head, but it was obvious with a scope he would have recognized it was special."
Butch went on to say, "Since Dad didn't have the money, nor would he have spent it on mounting the head, he gave it to the Kamiah Gun Club. They agreed to have it mounted and displayed at the club, giving him credit for killing it. They did, it was, and it later disappeared."
The history from there is a little bit clouded and convoluted, but the head went through many hands after that. Being sold several times over and ending up in Texas, it became very difficult to track transactions. Luckily, with some help, it happened.
If Lunders was to read this story, he'd be the first to question why we would make such a big deal about his deer. To that question, maybe I would answer this: There's an old saying that "familiarity breeds contempt." In other words, if someone you know did it, or it happened when you could have been the one to do it, it can't be that great. Still, there's no doubt that as more time passes, days gone by become more romantic and respected, and great feats are finally given their just due. Maybe it's simpler times of the past, along with the practicality and modesty of his generation, that makes this history so appealing.