The late David K. Melton could have never imagined on that cold winter morning in 1956 that he was about to provide the answer to a question that Alabama deer hunters would be asking more than 60 years later:
What is the biggest buck ever killed in Alabama?
The Alabama Beverage Control district manager from Montgomery was an avid hunter, but not really a serious deer hunter, his 70-year-old son, Gene, told AON via phone from his home in Mobile recently. Gene said his dad decided to join a group of five others on a hunting trip to Boligee in Greene County to hunt on some private land along the Tombigbee River.
That would begin a most incredible journey. It would start with a set of massive antlers that sat on the mantle of the family home for decades undiscovered by scorers and record book keepers. It would still be a source of fascination for Alabama hunters more than 60 years after it was taken and 30 years after David. K. Melton’s death. It was a journey that was full of twists and turns.
Melton’s son, who was just a youngster when his dad took the massive buck, loves to tell the story that he heard repeated many times during his dad’s lifetime. He explained to AON that it was a hunting trip that didn’t exactly give promise of great things to come.
His dad joined Montgomery policemen Earl Sellers and Red Griffin and headed to Boligee to hunt. They met up with Seller’s brother, who Gene Melton remembers was the Boligee police chief, but whose first name now escapes him. They also hunted with a man Melton only remembers as “Mr. McGraw,” who was called “Indian” by the other hunters.
No one in Melton’s group leaving Montgomery had a pickup truck, so his dad and the other two men piled into an old Lincoln with some tents and their guns for the trip to Greene County. David K. Melton’s weapon was a J.C. Higgins 16-gauge bolt action shotgun.
Once they arrived in Greene County, the five men and the dog belonging to the Boligee police chief climbed into an old wooden boat for a treacherous ride upriver to the location where they would conduct a drive with their one dog. It would be a hunt that ended literally before it began.
“They put my dad out first on this deer trail about 150 yards from the river,” Gene Melton explained. “The other guys hadn’t even reached where they were going to be hunting when my dad shot. They hadn’t even released the dog yet.”
David Melton was no doubt stunned minutes into the hunt when he saw the monstrous buck crossing the trail just 50 feet in front of him. His 16-gauge shotgun was loaded with buckshot, and he fired striking the deer and knocking it down. The buck was getting onto its feet again when Melton fired a second, fatal shot.
Melton couldn’t believe what lay before him. In addition to the massive set of antlers, the buck had a body almost as large as a small cow. The buck was never weighed, but after it produced more than 200 pounds of edible meat, many speculated that it weighed 300 pounds.
The other hunters were surprised to hear a couple of shots so quickly after the hunt began, Gene Melton said. Red Griffin caught up to Melton first and would later tell Alabama Whitetail Records founder Dennis Campbell that Melton was shaking so badly that he couldn’t even point in the direction the buck lay. The other hunters arrived soon thereafter.
The buck was soaking wet, making the hunters theorize that it had swam across the river from the Sumter County side of the river.
“When the other hunters saw my dad’s buck, that ended the hunt right there,” Melton’s son said with a laugh.
What followed was both scary and comical, he explained. The five men and the dog climbed into the old wooden boat along with the massive buck for the dangerous journey back to the launch. The old boat almost swamped in the cold waters on several occasions.
“They really had a problem getting back without sinking,” Melton’s son said.
Back on solid land, the five men loaded the buck into the trunk of the Lincoln for the trip back to Montgomery.
“It was late when they got back home, and I was already in bed, so I didn’t know anything about the buck until the next morning,” Gene Melton said. “I remember hearing my dad say that they took it by the cotton gin to get it weighed, but the cotton gin was already closed.”
There was no Internet in those days, and scoring deer was not really a real big thing or a source of fascination with hunters like it is today. The buck had at some point been shot in the face with birdshot, and its face was infected, so Melton decided against getting the buck shoulder mounted. He decided to leave the skull plate attached, and it was mounted on a piece of wood. He sat the antlers on his mantle. The David K. Melton unscored buck seemed destined to be just a good hunting story lost to the ages.
Melton’s buck sat on the family mantle for more than 25 years, seen by very few until 1982 when freelance writer Marvin Tye, who had never seen the buck and had only heard about it, mentioned it in a magazine article. He would eventually go to Melton’s home to photograph the antlers.
Upon seeing a photo of the antlers, Alabama Whitetail Records founder Dennis Campbell was stunned. He had recently scored a buck with similar gnarly antlers, and it had scored more than 200 points non-typical. Campbell would explain in a story before his death in 2018 that he could tell the Melton buck had tines that were much longer and more numerous.
Campbell finally arranged to meet Melton and to see the buck in person in August of 1988, the year before he published the first edition of Alabama Whitetail Records, The Alabama Record Book for Whitetail Deer.
Campbell would later explain to others that his rough score and conservative estimate put the buck at more than 270 non-typical inches, easily good enough to surpass the 250 3/8 non-typical John O’Hanlon Greene County buck that was credited as being the No. 1 buck in the state at the time.
The David Melton Buck would undergo a transformation. Baldwin County taxidermist Charlie Barnett dropped by Campbell’s Adamsville shop one day in 1988. Campbell had not yet returned the buck to Melton, and Campbell told Barnett that he wanted to show him the new state record. Impressed, Barnett said he would donate a cape and mount the buck. Campbell contacted Melton, who said that he would love to see the buck mounted. He gave Campbell permission to display it in his Adamsville shop for a while. Campbell delivered the rack to the taxidermist in January of 1989.
That spring, Melton’s nephew, William Hayes, visited Campbell’s shop and informed him that his uncle had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He wanted to know if there was any way the taxidermist could finish the mount sooner than planned so his uncle could see it before he died. Campbell phoned the taxidermist and explained the situation.
In early May, Campbell explained in the Alabama Whitetails Records book, Melton’s nephew dropped by the shop to inform him that Melton only had weeks to live. The nephew drove to Baldwin County and retrieved the mounted buck that was being completed and took it to his uncle. The nephew said his uncle was extremely pleased to see the buck mounted. Sadly, Melton would die on June 3, 1989.
The buck was displayed temporarily at Campbell’s shop along with other top deer in Alabama history. In 1990, the annual World Deer Expo rolled around at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, and Campbell saw it as an excellent opportunity to have the Melton buck officially measured by a panel of top scorers familiar with the Alabama Whitetail Records scoring system.
Measuring the buck was a nightmare. After three hours of measuring at that show, the group of five scorers agreed on a finally tally of 310 inches non-typical, up from Campbell’s 287 6/8 rough score. Incredibly, that score would have been even higher had the buck not broken off several substantial points. One of those broken points on the right side appears to have been a match to a 14 5/8-inch tine on the left side. A broken tine on the left side appears to be a match to an 8 4/8-inch tine on the right side.
The buck was returned to Melton’s widow after it was measured, and it still hangs proudly in her Montgomery home. The public would only get one more look at the greatest Alabama buck of all time.
“Some years ago, I wrapped the buck up in bubble wrap and took it to the Birmingham show,” Gene Melton explained. “I did it for my dad’s memory. I wanted to show people what kind of deer Alabama is capable of having, and you don’t need high fences.”
Even though it has been more 60 years since his dad took the greatest Alabama buck of all-time, it still brings inquiries and that makes his mom proud, he said.
“A museum called about four weeks ago wanting to put the deer on display, but we said no,” he said. “It still means a lot to my mom, and there’s no way we’ll put it in someone else’s hands. It reminds her of my dad. My dad was in the Marines, and she went to California with him. They were married a long time.”
The family has given the Alabama Whitetail Records Museum in Thomaston permission to visit the mount with 3-D measuring equipment. Museum co-owner Mike Smith said a replica of the Melton buck will be made, and it will forever be on display in the museum.