It was no small miracle that five Alabama men didn’t drown in the Tombigbee River back in 1956.
Since none of them are alive today to tell the story of what happened 52 years ago, it isn’t known whether their johnboat was aluminum or wood, although it must’ve been powered by an outboard motor. The river is simply too strong to navigate by paddle. Regardless of construction, it’s probably safe to say the boat wasn’t designed to ferry 1,400 pounds – the equivalent of three bales of cotton – across a glass-slick swimming pool, let alone the turbulent Tombigbee.
The vessel was considerably lighter when the men slid it into the river that morning, and the going was much easier because they were headed downstream. But the return trip, against a stout current, was made with an additional 300 pounds of dead weight – dead deer weight, to be precise.
Five grown men, each clenching shotguns, a steel gasoline tank, a dog and a buck were in the boat, water threatening to lap over the sides. That they even made it to the landing without cutting off the head and jettisoning the deer’s body was a miracle.
It probably wasn’t the first time this gang of deer hunters found themselves a scary boat ride away from their vehicles and the road to home. But never before had they made the trip with a deer so big as to wind up 180 pounds of boned-out meat.
That’s the only way the man who shot it, the late David Melton of Montgomery, had of judging its on-the-hoof weight. Had the local gin been open that night, they’d have weighed the buck on some cotton scales.
David’s four partners that day in 1956 were Red Griffin, Earl Sellers, Earl’s brother (who was the town of Boligee’s police chief), and a Mr. McGraw, known as “the Indian.” They had driven to the river in David’s 1954 Lincoln, piled into their boat with Chief Sellers’ small dog, and then gone downstream to stage a few deer drives.
Hunting deer with dogs and buckshot was commonplace in rural Alabama back then. If a man showed up at deer camp with some sort of treestand or an aversion to hounds, he might have been shown the door.
The guys had already held a couple of deer drives. It was during the day’s third when David took his place along a game trail about 150 yards from the riverbank.
Before things really even got started, a buck crossed the trail within a mere 50 feet of him, and David quickly shouldered his 16-gauge, bolt-action J.C. Higgins shotgun and shot it. The deer dropped on the spot.
As David ran toward it, however, the big whitetail tried to regain its footing. A second load of buckshot anchored it.
Red Griffin was the first to go to David. Thirty years later, he told Dennis Campbell, the first man to measure the incredible rack, that David was shaking so badly he couldn’t even point to the downed deer.
He also said the buck was soaking wet, apparently after having swam the river from neighboring Sumter County. It hadn’t been kicked up during their drive.
Judging the deer’s cape as unfit for taxidermy because someone, perhaps a squirrel or rabbit hunter, had apparently shot it in the face with birdshot, David settled for having the antlers mounted on a plaque. They hung that way above his brick fireplace for more than three decades.
Dennis Campbell, the Adamsville pharmacist behind Alabama’s privately owned record book, saw a photograph of the Melton Buck in an old magazine article about Alabama’s giant Black Belt whitetails and contacted David about scoring the unusual antlers. Dennis suspected it would be a new state record.
Dennis first measured the deer in the summer of 1988. Using the B&C system, he came up with a net score of more than 270 inches – enough to beat the existing state record of 241 2/8. It was later panel-scored by Dennis and three other Alabama measurers, who arrived at 276 7/8.
A south Alabama taxidermist, Charlie Barnett, happened to see the antlers while visiting Dennis at his pharmacy. So taken with the new state record, he immediately offered to mount the rack with a fresh cape.
While it was being mounted, David was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By the time he got to see his re-mounted trophy, he was within a couple of weeks of dying.
Knowing that her husband wanted to have his deer scored for the Boone and Crockett Club’s record book, David’s widow allowed Dennis to arrange for yet another scoring session. The deer got its date with an official B&C measurer in the summer of 1990, and his calculations put the tally at 287 6/8 inches – even higher than Dennis and his team had figured.
After reviewing all the measurements, Dennis agreed with the higher score, which was submitted to B&C.
I first became acquainted with the rack in 1992, when Dennis and I flew to Milwaukee so the Melton Buck could be panel-scored by B&C. When their team saw the buck, they almost deemed it as unscoreable because choosing a typical mainframe wasn’t an easy task.
When they reluctantly settled on the mainframe, a different one than all the other measurers had chosen, the resulting net score was almost 50 inches less than the original B&C score.
Dennis and I were outraged. And so was Mrs. Melton, who withdrew the head from the B&C record book. Convinced that the original B&C score was dead-on, Dennis honored it and listed the buck in “Alabama Whitetail Records” at 287 6/8.
Had Dennis not already resigned his position as an official B&C measurer well before the Melton Buck incident, he would’ve done so that day.
In fact, Dennis ultimately made a complete departure from the B&C measuring system in subsequent record books. Even though it meant re-tabulating hundreds of scoresheets, he decided to do away with deductions altogether and rank Alabama’s best bucks by gross score – similar to the BTR’s “composite” score.
I met Mrs. Melton back in 2003, when she attended the Buckmasters Expo in Montgomery. Because I knew of her reluctance to trust another record keeping organization, I was thrilled when she agreed for me to come to her home and score the Melton Buck for the BTR. But about the time my schedule opened up, I had to have some wisdom teeth cut out, and then I just never got around to rescheduling.
In the summer of 2008, Gene Melton, her youngest son, strolled up to the BTR booth at our Expo. As soon as he showed me a photograph of his father’s deer, I recognized it immediately. Before the week was out, I was cradling that magnificent rack – Alabama’s finest – in my hands.
It’s long overdue, considering David Melton shot this deer back when Elvis Presley’s first album went gold … when Norma Jean Mortenson changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. But the Melton Buck has now taken its rightful place among “Buckmasters Whitetail Trophy Records.”
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Hunter: David Melton
BTR Official Score: 275
BTR Composite Score: 289 1/8
Location: Greene County, Alabama