Was this buck for real?
For the past 19 years, there's been a lot of speculation but not a lot of answers on Mitch Rompola's alleged world-record whitetail. The 12-point, 216 5/8 whitetail has since become the thing of internet legend and is still the subject of heated debate in deer camps (especially in Michigan) to this day.
So was it a fake? Was it a farm-raised deer? Or, was it a legitimate animal? I for one, think there's a chance the buck was real. And for today's #WhitetailWednesday, I'm going to tell you why.
Just hear me out and then decide for yourself.
I think we all know the story already, so I don't really feel the need to hash it all out in great detail. Rompola, a Michigan hunter, claimed to have shot a buck in Grand Traverse County that shattered Milo Hanson's typical whitetail world record on Nov. 13, 1998. It's hard to believe November 2018 will mark the 20th anniversary.
But the buck was never entered into any book and Rompola effectively went into hiding, leaving the whole incident shrouded in mystery.
Four people other than Rompola inspected the deer and claimed it was the real deal.
"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that it's 100 percent authentic," Commemorative bucks of Michigan Scorer Gary Berger told reporters.
Two other scorers, Lee Holbrook and Al Brown were also involved in the scoring of the buck. Deer and Deer Hunting Editor Dan Schmidt recently noted a conservation officer named Bill Bailey also saw and handled the animal. He vouched for the legitimacy of the animal and scoffed at the notion of fake antlers being attached to the animal.
If it were just one person who handled the deer and made these claims, it would be easier to dismiss. But for me, it's hard to believe a phony would have passed the smell test of four different people.
Those ears and the antler discoloration
One of the first Google results you get for Mitch Rompola is a scathing article Legendary Whitetails collection owner Larry Huffman wrote in 1999 titled "Rompola Gate."
We've heard this one again and again. The claim is the droopy ears are proof Rompola cut off the buck's original antlers and somehow attached a set of fake ones.
However, a search for deer photos on the internet reveals a glut of photos of bucks with droopy ears after hunters harvest them. In researching this article, I happened to run across a post on the Iowa Whitetail forums in which a user actually attached the antlers of one buck to a totally different deer for field photos.
Even though it's a different set of antlers on the buck, there's no ear droop.
To take things a step further, let's look at an actual, confirmed deer hoax. Two years ago, a North Carolina man named Nick Davis attached a set of antlers to a young buck and claimed he'd shot a new state record. But, it was all a hoax, as it later revealed Davis had attached a set of sheds to a poached buck's head.
If you look at the photos of Davis and his hoax animal, you'll note there's no ear droop there either, even though he was tampering with this buck's skull.
I honestly don't know what caused the Rompola buck's ears to droop, but I don't think it's as nefarious as people have made it out to be. It just seems to happen with some deer after they die.
Huffman also claims the deer's antlers were re-colored at some point between the original photo and when it was scored. But to me, every photo and video of this buck is of such poor quality, it's hard to determine anything about the coloration of the antlers with any level of certainty.
Many people have said the Rompola's buck can't be real because bucks don't grow big in that part of the state.
While it is true that not a lot of high-scoring bucks come from Grand Traverse County, to say that a world-class buck couldn't come from there is just silly.
For instance, most people usually think the next world record will come out of Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri or somewhere in Canada. But, case in point, Stephen Tucker shocked the world by shooting a 312-inch non-typical in 2016 in Tennessee.
I think it's a bit naive to assume it can never happen somewhere just because it's never happened there before. All it takes is one buck with the right genetics in the right place and the right time.
One thing I should note, is that while I do believe the deer and antlers were real, I can't rule out the possibility of the buck being a farm-raised animal. This would solve the location problem for many. However, it seems like if this were the case, more people would've known about it prior to Rompola shooting it, making any hoax pretty tough to hide.
Attacks on Rompola
There are a whole slew of rumors people have used to discredit Rompola, including alleged arrests for fraud and sexual misconduct.
The claims are disturbing if true and there's no excuse for that, but I've also never seen any concrete evidence. It seems to mostly be internet chatter from people who have a real bone to pick with this deer.
The problem with using his alleged arrest record against him is that it's an ad hominem attack. The strategy here is to discredit Rompola as a person and thus make the claims of a hoax more plausible.
The photos didn't help much either. In the most famous photo we have of him with the deer, he has a scowl on his face that only a mother could love. I've seen more than one person on the internet decide the guy just "looks like a jerk."
The problem with these attacks is they have nothing to do with the deer.
Anyone can be a jerk/criminal and still shoot a big deer. I know plenty of people who are jerks with arrest records who have also shot big deer. If you think about it, you probably know at least one person like that too. The personal knocks against Rompola have no bearing on this story.
This is probably the most-used argument against the deer. There were numerous big money offers asking Rompola to prove the buck was real with an X-ray. He turned all of them down. It didn't take long for his critics to accept this as an admission of guilt.
At first, I do think he was willing to try and make a few extra dollars off his deer. I still remember seeing attractant scents with the buck's photo on them for sale in Michigan stores back in early 1999. He did sign a deal with at least one company.
Friends described Rompola as a recluse who didn't really need the money. Many accounts say he only worked half the year to begin with, which is why he had so much time to pursue trophy bucks.
So what happened? I think the attention he got from the story was more than Rompola bargained for.
"Mitch asked me not to speak to the press anymore," Rick Hatton, one of Rompola's friends told the Detroit Free Press in 1999. "I think he probably just needs a break from all the publicity. I'm just his friend, and my phone is ringing off the hook. Imagine what it must be like for him."
While money and fame are big motivating factors for most people, they aren't for everyone. Is it really so hard to believe he got a taste of whitetail fame and decided he didn't want the attention?
There were reports that he didn't want to get the animal measured by Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett in the first place. One could argue this was further proof he didn't want the attention .
He knows deer
Another reason I believe the deer could be real is Rompola seems to know his stuff. If you don't believe me, watch the video above to hear a rare interview with him three years before he shot the legendary buck.
The rumor for years afterwards was that he kept killing big bucks. Around 2008 or 2009, a mysterious website called rompolawhitetails.com showed up online with more recent photos of big bucks he shot.
Some of the bucks on the site even looked a lot like his 1998 buck. The website is now defunct, but the pictures persist on the internet today.
There are rumors with every world-class buck that's harvested. In many ways, Rompola was the first hunter to fall victim to vicious internet rumor and speculation.
I'll admit he helped create a perfect storm for it by not defending himself and instead fading away from the public view.
By all accounts, he's still alive and kicking and would be nearing 70 years old at this point. Until he or his family decide to clear things up, we'll never know the full story. I do hope he eventually decides to clear the air one day.
And if he does, I hope he pulls a dusty set of antlers with a 38-inch spread out of storage and says, "Here it is, they're real." But until that day, we're left only to speculate. But in the end, that's part of what makes the Rompola story so fun. After all, who doesn't love a good mystery?