Trophy collection

Trophy collection

It was 1977, and as a young state wildlife officer, I had just been assigned to duty in Morrow County in north-central Ohio. Also living in the county, I soon learned, was Merrill Gilfillan, a long-retired wildlife biologist and outdoors writer who had worked for the Ohio DNR, Division of Wildlife — the same state agency I was working for.

Merrill Gilfillan holding a hunting rifle

Merrill Gilfillan, founder of the Buckeye Big Buck Club

Deer outdoors

I had heard of Gilfillan’s stellar professional reputation, so I decided to pay him a visit. I had no knowledge of his wry sense of humor when I knocked on his door. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet me and invited me into the living room of his home in Mount Gilead saying, “Sit anywhere you’d like.”

Yet as I started to sit down in a straight-backed wooden chair, he quickly stopped me. “No, don’t sit there!” he cautioned. “That’s the preacher’s chair.”

Thinking he must be deeply religious and was saving that particular chair for a certain man of the cloth, I sank into an overstuffed rocker across the room as Gilfillan explained his logic.

“That wooden chair’s the most uncomfortable chair in the whole house,” he said. “I only keep it around for the preacher to sit on when he comes to visit — don’t want him staying too long, ya know.”

Merrill Gilfillan was the founder of the Buckeye Big Buck Club (, an Ohio trophy deer management program begun in 1957 and since copied many times over by other state natural-resource agencies. Today, 63 years later, the BBBC is still going strong, and according to the organization’s current president, Jerry Weingart, the club maintains the same four goals it started with.

“We exist to encourage trophy hunting by Ohio deer hunters, establish and maintain a permanent record of Ohio’s trophy deer taken by fair chase, foster wise management of Ohio’s deer resource, and promote a positive relationship between deer hunters and landowners,” he says.

There are only two ways to become a BBBC member: Take a trophy whitetail buck with antlers measuring at least 140 total inches for a typical head or 160 total inches for a nontypical head. It’s much easier said than done. Of Ohio’s 400,000 yearly deer hunters, only about 500 to 700 are inducted into the BBBC annually, with a total of some 20,000 members on the roster since the club’s inception.

During the early 1900s, deer hunting was not permitted in Ohio, the last white-tailed deer having been extirpated from the Buckeye State due to unregulated hunting circa 1904. But the return of quality deer habitat, coupled with scientific wildlife management, allowed deer to return, and regulated hunting began during the 1940s.

Today, hunting generates more than $853 million annually for the state’s economy, most of that from the sport of deer hunting. Ohio has also become well known and respected nationally for its many large bucks of trophy antler size.

The public is welcome to attend the annual BBBC gathering and banquet, this year scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Ashland University Convocation Center in Ashland. The display of trophy white-tail deer mounts at the gathering is nothing short of spectacular. If you’re a deer hunter, you owe yourself a visit to a BBBC meeting at least once during your life, official member or not.

Despite the difference in our ages those many years ago, Merrill Gilfillan and I became fast friends. He died in 1996, but the continuing outdoor legacy he left Ohio deer hunters in the form of the Buckeye Big Buck Club is immense.

Thanks, Merrill … and I hope you weren’t assigned a “preacher’s chair” in heaven.

W.H. “Chip” Gross is a member of Consolidated Cooperative and Ohio Cooperative Living‘s outdoors editor.