A fascinating story for sure. A story which resonates with every person who has ever had a trophy mule deer buck in his sights… especially those who missed. But, to bag the buck with the biggest spread in the history of the world…my, oh my!
It’s been four decades in the making, but here’s the story.
During the deer season of 1968, Max Johnson took his son Keele, (17 years old at the time) and two of Keele’s friends (Ron Young, 18, and Marvin Linquist, an English teacher at Monticello High School) deer hunting on his property after school one evening.
Two miles south of the family home in Eastland (12 miles east of Monticello), the group saw two bucks. They were 400 yards away, and the group could not tell much about them. Max took a quick shot. His target dropped like a rock and the other buck quickly disappeared.
When the group got to the downed animal, they were incredulous. They had collectively never seen anything like what lay upside down, his back on the ground with the tines of his magnificent rack buried several inches in the soft earth. The rack was 42 inches wide and 15 inches around at the base.
Knowing they had a trophy, they carefully dressed it for a full shoulder mount. Max took the head and cape to a professional taxidermist on the Wasatch Front. The guy had one excuse after another for prolonging the mounting process and kept it for almost a year. Max enlisted the help of Sheriff Rigby Wright, who found where the guy was hiding Max’s trophy and brought it back to San Juan.
Max and Charlene displayed their trophy in their home for several years. When Keele became employed at the College of Eastern Utah in Blanding, Max let him take the trophy to the campus and hang it in the Science Center. It hung there until the science building was torn down 20 years later.
In the meantime, Keele became friends with a professional hunting guide who had a booth at the World Safari Club Convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City in 2008. He invited Keele to join him in Salt Lake.
Keele decided to take his dad’s trophy and hang it in his friend’s booth. Naturally it attracted a lot of attention. A certified big game official with the World Safari Club saw the Johnson trophy and asked Keele about it.
The official asked if he might measure and rate it. Keele told him that his father had it rated years earlier and told the official what that score was. The official said he thought mistakes must have been made because the Johnson rack looked bigger to him. He asked for permission to do another evaluation.
In order to be recognized in the big game world, any trophy animal must be evaluated by three certified personnel. In a detailed, written analysis they must all agree on the final score.
The official who requested permission to re-rate the trophy found two other certified officials in attendance at the 2008 Salt Palace convention. The two agreed to assist in the re-evaluation. When the dust settled, all three rated it 10 points higher than the reigning world champion.
I took my camera to the Johnson home in Eastland for the interview to write this story. Max was hunting elk, but his wife, Charlene, agreed to give me the details.
I was excited to see the famous rack. I asked if I could see it and Charlene replied, “It isn’t here!
“Where is it?” I asked incredulously,
“I have no idea,” Mrs. Johnson replied. She explained that as the reigning world champion, the trophy is leased and travels the world at the most prestigious gun shows and big game events on the planet.
“It must be worth a lot of money,” I said.
“Oh, it is,” she assured me.
“How much?” I asked. My mother taught me it was rude to ask a rancher how many cows he had, or a farmer how many acres he owned, but I dispensed with political correctness, and asked anyway.
“I have no idea,” she said. “But the owner of the Wyndham Hotels and Resorts in Phoenix told us he wouldn’t take $1.5 million for it if it were his.”
“Wow,” I said. “And you let that four-point pot of gold hang in Blanding, gathering dust for 20 years?”
“Well, nobody knew he was the world champ then.” She said. “Things tend to change when you become number one. Kinda like winning the Nobel Prize for hunting, only more lucrative.”
“For sure,” I muttered.
Charlene explained that what usually happens is the big companies in the sports world, such as Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops, and others, bid on the best trophies and their owners lease them to the highest bidder for a year at a time.
Winning bidders earn the right to duplicate the antlers and mount them on other heads and display them in their stores or wherever they want anywhere in the world.
I was a little chagrined to find out that all those magnificent beasts at Cabelas in Lehi are just duplicates of the real thing. Most of the originals are safely locked away in bank vaults.
Owners of championship game trophies receive remuneration for the trophy itself, and every duplicate that is made. Instead of receiving a large sum up front, they receive annual checks, which amounts to more in the long run, especially if their trophy stays number one for a long time.
Charlene said that it is unlikely their trophy will be dethroned anytime soon. The Johnson’s deer has been the champ for 42 years already, after all.
This writer has not been deer hunting for 18 years. My crusty old heart has softened with age, and I lost the desire to slay deer. But it may be time to dust off the old Winchester and go find himself a really ‘big-un’!
Trouble is, it appears they quite making the 42-inch models 42 years ago.
More info on San Juan's world record mule deer