The Greatest Whitetail Deer Hunters of All Time
From the real-life Natty Bumppo to Larry Benoit and Bill Jordan, here are the most skilled and influential deer hunters ever hit the whitetail woods
There are deer all over the world that have been hunted since the very beginning, but you won’t find Ook or Grog here, nor Robin Hood killing the king’s deer. This is a list of the greatest American deer hunters. Even so, Boone and Crockett don’t make the cut, either, nor Pope or Young—because here we are talking about hunters best known for their skill at taking whitetail deer specifically and for their part in advancing the sport of deer hunting.
You definitely won’t see any young hotshot podcasters, Instagrammers, or YouTubers below. In fact, you won’t see anyone under 40. It’s not that we have anything against youngsters. It’s because it takes decades to build a body of work and often much longer to see the full view of any one deer hunter’s influence on the sport.
And so, with all of that out of the way, here are the greatest American whitetail deer hunters of all time—mostly old-school and a few new-school influencers who, yes, stacked up bucks, but, more important, shaped the way we hunt today and how we see ourselves as deer hunters.
1. Chief Massasoit, The Giver of Deer
Not long after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Bay, Puritan leader William Bradford invited 90 Wampoaug Indians to a harvest feast in October of 1621—now often referred to as the first Thanksgiving. Realizing upon arrival just how skimpy the meal would be, Chief Massasoit (1581-1661) dispatched his hunters, as the story goes, who quickly secured enough venison to feed 140 celebrants for three days. Native Americans were the original whitetail deer hunters, of coruse, using tactics many of us consider modern, including decoying and rattling. But Massasoit gets the nod for the symbolic significance of his gift of deer and deer hunting—to the colonists and ultimately to all of us.
2. Nat Foster, The Original Deerslayer
Boone and Crockett, both legendary hunters in their own right, shaped the mythos of the American backwoodsman. But it was the fictional Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales who cemented the American deer hunter, specifically, as a cultural hero—rugged, steady, trustworthy, upright. Historians advance several candidates as Bumppo’s real-life counterpart. As likely as not, and according to a 1937 report in The New York Times, renowned Adirondack deerslayer Nat Foster (1766-1840) gave Cooper his protagonist. Like Bumppo, Foster was a supremely skilled hunter and crack shot with a long rifle. Unlike Bumppo, he was no cardboard hero and none too friendly with the natives. He was suspected of killing many and was tried and acquitted for the murder of one. Nonetheless, as the inspiration for Bumppo, there may be no real-life hunter so influential in casting deer hunters in a golden light.
3. John James Audubon, The Hunter Naturalist
Although not widely celebrated as a deer hunter, Audubon (1785-1851) was an avid whitetail devotee, and, along with Foster, a strong candidate for Cooper’s real-life Natty Bumppo. Audubon’s influential 1831 essay “Deer Hunting,” widely read in his day and in print for well over a century, was (1) the first serious how-to manual detailing the popular deer hunting tactics of the time; (2) a romanticized case for deer hunting as noble recreation; and (3) an early argument for fair-chase hunting. Audubon is America’s original hunter-naturalist, who, as deer hunting historian Robert Wegner writes in his excellent Legendary Deerslayers, “studied deer to hunt them and hunted them to study them.”
4. Meshach Browning, The Buck Brawler
Meshach Browning (1781-1859) was not the first to chronicle hunting life on the early frontier, but his Forty-Four years of the Life of a Hunter focuses more squarely on deer than others. Although equally known as a bear hunter, Browning had a reputation as a deerslayer of legendary drive and toughness. His knife fight with a wounded 10-point buck in October 1819 became the subject of a the famous subject of a popular Currier and Ives lithograph made in 1861, and painted by the great A.F. Tait. Browning chronicled the hunt with charm and authenticity in what remains one of the most important records of pioneer deer hunting.
5. Judge John Dean Caton, The Original Deer Doctor
It’s not unusual these days for prominent deer biologists to mingle hard science with popular hunting craft, but this isn’t new. Judge John Dean Caton (1812-1895), a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois, preceded today’s PhD hunters by more than a century. Although not a formally trained scientist, Caton studied deer with a rigorous, systematic approach. In 1858, he created the country’s second deer park, a 200-acre enclosure for observing deer. That said, the wilds were also his laboratory, and hunting a favorite scientific method. In 1877, he published The Antelope and Deer of America, the first scientific treatise on deer and deer hunting. Forest and Stream, precursor to Field & Stream, called it “the most important publication ever printed on the subject….”
6. Fred Bear, America’s Bowyer
A Detroit native, Bear won the Michigan State Archery Championships three times during the 1930s, and sensing the growing interest in bowhunting, began making bows. His Grizzly recurve is widely regarded as the first mass-produced bow in history. Today, the company that bears his name is a leading manufacturer of traditional and compound bows. Fred Bear traveled worldwide, filming bow hunts that hit local American theaters and primed a generation of bowhunters to follow in his footsteps. Although he hunted from Alaska to Africa, Bear’s favorite quarry remained the whitetail deer he pursued in Northern Michigan. One of the founders and original board members of the Pope and Young Club, he was one of the first inductees into the Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame.
7. Larry Koller, The Complete Hunter
Any one hunter might routinely outsmart deer. Another may shoot them expertly with gun or bow—even with a bow of his own making or a gun of his own smithing. A few are gifted taxidermists, other skilled butchers, or fine cooks when preparing venison. But Larry Koller (1912-1967) was all of these things. And he could write about all of it with great deft. Jack O’Connor called Koller’s Shots at Whitetails “the best book on deer hunting since Van Dyke’s The Still-Hunter.” A far more complete guide, the former has become the better-known classic. What little of Koller’s tome that is not still of practical use today is a window into a time when deer were not behind every bush and tagging a good one every year required uncommon skill. When “experts” actually had to prove themselves, Koller was the real deal.
8. Larry Benoit, The Buck Tracker
Growing up on a hardscrabble farm in the mountains of Vermont during the great depression, Larry Benoit (1924 to 2013) learned to follow the biggest deer track for one reason: it meant more food on the table. Soon he had an unparalleled record of bagging huge bucks in the big woods of northern New England. In 1970, he was named “The Best Deer Hunter in America” by Sports Afield magazine, and his 1975 book How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life turned generations of stump sitters into active hunters. He co-authored several more books with his sons Lanny, Shane, and Lane. But the boys take a backseat to their pops, who is widely considered the best deer tracker of all time. Larry Benoit’s legacy can still be seen today on late-season mornings across the Northwoods, when legions of hunters take to the snowy woods clad in the man’s signature green-checkered wool jacket and carrying his signature Remington pump rifle. They are looking for large, fresh tracks to follow, but they are also following in Benoit’s footsteps, using skills he passed on and a hunting style he popularized.
9. Bill Jordan, The Show Man
Bill Jordan has taken a pile of big bucks, and he (along with Jim Crumley of Trebark and Toxey Haas of Mossy Oak) led the “camouflage revolution” back in the mid-80s. But that’s not why he makes the list. It helps, but what sets Jordan apart is that early on, he harnessed the power of media and celebrity—tapping the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Foxworthy—to bring deer hunting into folk’s living rooms. Jordan introduced “Realtree Outdoors” to television audiences in 1992, on TNN. The video “Monster Bucks of North America” came a year later, and what followed was a big-buck video/dvd craze that continues to this day, including with the July 2021 release of Monster Bucks XXIX. Jordan’s productions were must-watch viewing for many hardcore whitetail nuts, and, for better or worse, propelled toward the (perhaps inevitable) big-buck obsession that so defines deer hunting today. Jordan, as much as anyone, spawned the modern deer-hunting entertainment business—and tagged untold numbers of monster bucks along the way.
11. Dr. Joe Hamilton, The Deer Manager
Deer management prior to the 1980’s was primarily a maintenance game; most states were simply happy to have a deer season at all, much less worry about the sex or age structure of the herd and its impact on the landscape and other species. In Texas, however, a new type of deer management was taking hold, the principals of which were published in the book, Producing Quality Whitetails, by Al Brothers and Murphey E. Ray, Jr. The landmark work kicked off the quality-deer-management movement, and Al Brothers is deservedly regarded as its founder. But it was his protege, Joe Hamilton, who formally launched the Quality Deer Management Association in 1988 and put the acronym “QDMA” on the lips of deer hunters all around the country. Hamilton, a highly respected biologist and researcher who enjoyed a 20-year career with the South Carolina DNR, brought the core principles of QDMA to not only state agencies but the ordinary deer hunter. The main tenets were still revolutionary at the time: maintain an adequate doe harvest to keep herd numbers in check and protect a portion of the yearling buck population. Now, they are gospel to untold numbers of serious deer hunters, which includes Hamilton himself.
11. Micheal Waddell, The Joker
For well over a decade, Michael Waddell was and may well still be the most widely recognized deer hunter in America. Anyone who can make that claim is going to have a big impact. Waddell, famously from Booger Bottom, Georgia, got his start by winning a Realtree turkey calling championship. Bill Jordan quickly saw his appeal and put him to work behind and eventually in front of the camera. “Realtree Roadtrips” debuted in the early 2000s, and Waddell’s infectiously fun personality propelled him to new heights of deer-hunter stardom. He traveled all over the country for the show, but being a proud Southern boy, Waddell was always at heart a turkey and whitetail hunter, and he hung a tag on plenty of great bucks while we watched. So what, besides prompting a generation of deer hunters to call bucks “That Joker” and “Mac Daddy,” has Waddell contributed to the sport? Prior to “Realtree Roadtrips,” deer hunting on TV and video focused on the pursuit, as something we do. Waddell presented it as who we are—deer hunting as a lifestyle. Everyday hunters saw themselves in him and liked it. He made deer hunters proud.
12. Mark Drury, The Pro
If ever there was a professional deer hunter—someone who is highly skilled at his craft and never misses a business opportunity—it’s Mark Drury. First off, he is a hell of a hunter. Drury initially gained notice as a competitive turkey caller—he’s won over 150 competitions, including six world titles—and when he and his brother Terry formed Drury Outdoors in 1989, their first VHS tape “King of Spring” was devoted to gobblers. But Drury, aways able to spot a trend and react quickly, saw that what people wanted to watch was big deer, and specifically, big deer taken with archery equipment. When he killed the largest whitetail ever recorded on tape in 1998, it was off to big-buck races for Drury. In the two-plus decades since tagging that Illinois giant, Drury has established himself as a leading expert on managing, patterning, calling, and killing mature deer, all while building a hunting-entertainment brand that is always on the cutting edge of TV, video, and social media. That has kept Mark Drury at the top of the deer-hunting heap for more than three decades. Two perfect examples: One of his latest offerings, the DeerCast hunting app—which features big buck stories and videos, hunting advice and news, and up-to-the minute forecasts on hunting conditions—is a hit with hunters. And he just arrowed another 200-plus-inch deer last month.
13. Tiffany Lakosky, The Role Model
If you want to add Lee Lakosky here, go ahead. He’s a first-rate whitetail hunter, he spearheaded the couple’s career in outdoor TV, and when you put them together, they are probably the only two deer hunters in history who are immediately recognized by their first names only. That said, we are giving Tiffany special credit on this list, and if you want to know why, you need only witness the swarms of young (and no-so-young) female hunters and would-be hunters who show up when she attends a hunting show.
Tiffany Proffant was a flight attendant when her sister introduced her to fanatic bowhunter, Lee Lakosky. She picked up a bow and proved to be a natural shot, and it wasn’t long after joining Lee in the woods of their native Minnesota, as well as in other Midwestern states, before she proved her skill at not only killing whitetails, but killing very big ones. When they started filming their hunts, the couple’s “it” factor was undeniable, and their shows “The Crush” and “Gettin’ Close” proved hugely popular. What sets Tiffany apart, however, is her impact on female hunters. She’s far from the first female deer hunter to have wide appeal and to influence other women. (Look up Paulina Brandreth, author of Trails of Enchantment, published 1930). But, in the entire history of deer hunting, can you think of anyone who has spurred more girls and women to take up whitetail deer hunting?