Surely; there can be no doubt about that well-earned status.
Successful writer and author? Why, a man could plop down in an easy chair and stay lost for days on end in tales of hunting and fishing from over half a century of traipsing up and down a pair of continents.
Raconteur and teller of tales? I’d put him up there with the best.
But if I dug deep for my favorite description of Charlie Elliott, two words come to mind. Mentor is the first. Friend is the favorite.
Georgians are fortunate to have the opportunity of taking a close-up look at part of the man’s legacy at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, near Mansfield, where his vast personal collection of photographs, wildlife art, outdoor library and other artifacts are on display. They are, in fact, housed in what I’m told is an exact replica, measured and documented down to the last pine knot, of Charlie’s den.
One of these days, I’ll get by there. But for now, knowing that it would be bittersweet at best, I’d rather remember that den as it was on Flat Rock Trail in Covington, where he and I swapped many a tale—each taller than the last. Speaking of getting around to things, I have only one lasting regret about our friendship: Charlie was never able—because of trial, error, circumstance and certainly no fault of his own—to fulfill his vow of making a turkey hunter out of me!
As that time of year arrives when gobblers send their challenges booming through the Georgia pines, my thoughts turn to that Ol’ Podner. In short notes and letters painstakingly typed—more on that later—decades ago, that was the appellation he used for me; I returned the favor.
If you hunt or fish in Georgia, and want to have an appreciation of one of the true pioneers who paved the way for you, by all means hike on down I-20 to Mansfield and check out the wildlife center. But, on a personal note, there’s a different perspective that you probably won’t find there simply because Charlie, born in 1906, had to leave us at the age of 94 some 15 years ago. It’s entirely likely that a generation of Georgians is only vaguely familiar with one of the giants of the outdoors, so please allow me to provide a few pertinent details, from the heart, that may help change that. After all, Charlie’s not a guy we need to forget. And the best place to start is at the beginning, with a brief introduction before our introduction…
I’m not much on “awesome,” which is very probably the most overused word in the English language. Pardon me, but being in awe of someone just doesn’t seem to have a spot in my makeup—with three exceptions readily recalled.
In four decades of covering people, places and events for various publications, there were two interviews that made my heart flop like a catfish on a tailgate in anticipation: Richard Petty and B.B. King. But at least I had advance time to prepare for those scheduled events. And then there was the night at an outdoor writers’ meeting in Dillard, when after a long day of driving from south Georgia up into the mountains I trudged—tired, hungry and totally unprepared—into a motel restaurant and caught the eye of… Charlie Elliott: Dean of southern outdoor writers. For over 40 years he was a field editor for Outdoor Life magazine. Author of “Prince of Game Birds: the Bobwhite Quail,” “Dogs, Geese and Grizzly Bears,” “Turkey Hunting With Charlie Elliott: The Old Professor Tells All About America’s Big-Game Bird” and many more.
Fished and hunted, from top to bottom and back, the South American and North American continents, including Cuba before Castro, Central America and several islands in-between.
He spent a lot of time in a boat and on a golf course with his third cousin (brother-and-sister grandparents), one Robert Tyre Jones Jr., better known as golfing immortal Bobby Jones. They fished Charlie’s favorite lake, Sinclair, near his home in Covington, a lot.
And then there was my favorite: he hunted Alaska. But it’s HOW he hunted Alaska that’s so impressive.
For starters, the first trip was in 1948, 10 years before the then-territory even became a state. Secondly, very few hunters and fishermen had ever heard of the place, and it was truly a game paradise. Charlie and his companions imported horses and guides from Wyoming, which you can do when you’re hunting with the son of the founder of Coca-Cola. They hunted for nearly a month, and Charlie said that as far as he knew, it was the first time a pack string had ever been used by hunters in Alaska…
Back at the Dillard restaurant, standing like a frozen pointer upon that initial sighting, I’m pretty sure I was gaping as the elderly gentleman, with a warm smile and matter-of-fact tone, called me by name.
Hopefully, that provides insight into the personal side of my Ol’ Podner.
Think about it: this is the guy that’s been there and done it. All of it. He’s what the rest of us writers aspire to be, and, to a man, look up to with profound admiration. And there’s no way he should know ME from Adam’s house cat. I had no idea he was to be there. Yet he DID just call out to me, and now he’s waving me over to the table…
Yeah, that was pretty awesome.
The next two hours over a meal and wondrous conversation with Charlie and his wife, Miss Polly—a real gem, as genteel as he was irascible, polished as he was plain—set the tone. One of the funniest stories he ever told me was of attending an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert with her—wearing the same earplugs he used when shooting skeet or using the chainsaw!
In short order, I learned that whatever else the rest of the world considered him, Charlie was simply Charlie. Forget the places he’d been, and the many companions whose names were instantly recognized all over the globe. I had learned much the same thing from Mr. Petty and Mr. King, who preferred Richard and BB.
But if you wanted to talk about a bear or a buck or an elk or a duck, Charlie was your guy; the same fella who turned down several African safaris because of the simple reason that, “I couldn’t walk home from there!”
Some time later, in that Covington den, he started in on me about turkey hunting. For 25 straight years, he had hunted with legendary Wyoming outfitter Max Wilde, and I wanted to hear about those fabulous elk, grizzlies, black bears, bighorn sheep, mountains and canyons… But the time was late February, and his thoughts turned to right here at home and strutting gobblers. Thus began my education at the feet of the salty Old Professor. The first hilarious lesson is vintage Charlie Elliott:
“What most hunters don’t understand is how truly smart an old tom is,” he opined with a twinkle in his eye. “They also don’t understand just why he’s as smart as he is. What is it that puts this, our only big-game bird, at the pinnacle of intelligence, even above an old whitetail buck?
“Well, here it is, and if you’re going to get into turkey hunting, this is what you need to realize: a turkey gobbler has a brain the size of a pea and is so stupid that he doesn’t know where he’s going or what direction he’s taking in the next five minutes. How can you be smart enough to get up two hours before daylight and slip in ahead of where he’s going to be when it gets light enough to shoot?”
Not knowing enough about the birds to even have an opinion, I only cackled along with him. But if anybody ever truly knew gobblers, it was Charlie. He killed his first one 94 years ago, in 1923—as only he could.
“We didn’t have any turkeys in Georgia to amount to anything back then,” he recalled. “I went up in the mountains, drove my old piece of car as far as I could, then stopped at an old man’s place to ask him where to hunt. He mentioned something about an old fallen-down house on up the dirt road a piece where a turkey or two had been seen over the years but told me I’d never see one because they’re so smart and scarce.
“I was young, hard-headed and didn’t have sense enough to know any better, so I went right on up there. When I walked into what used to be the old yard, a big gobbler flew up right out of the shrubbery by the front porch, and I shot him down. Ten minutes later, I was back at the old man’s place with the bird over my shoulder. You’ve never seen such a shocked fella in your life!”
But he was nearly 80 years of age when my lessons began, and he had begun to have problems with fading eyesight, though spry as a squirrel. I asked him once, considering that he had sold his first published story to a national magazine in 1926, what kept him going?
“I just have to stay busy,” he replied. “I told Polly the other day that the last thing I’ll ever do on this earth is crawl across the workroom floor on my hands and knees, reach up to the typewriter and hit the wrong key!”
I remember seeing him type, bent over mere inches from that old typewriter, picking out the keys through a magnifying glass, and so cherish the letters and handwritten notes that must have been torture during this time. Charlie thought, upon two occasions, that he had killed his last gobbler, and wrote magazine columns to that effect. But then came the near-miraculous cataract surgery on both eyes that restored much of his vision.
Somehow, there never seemed to be a time when we could get together during turkey season. Or maybe it was that I never simply got bitten by the turkey hunting bug. I do know that I should have made the time before it was too late, because we would have had one whale of an outing, turkey or no.
The man had seemingly a million tales, but if there was ever a favorite, the following was it. He said he wrote it several times and told it many more, but I’ll relate things just as I took them down a quarter-century ago. Even after all these years, Charlie still knows all the elements of a good story.
On that 1948 Alaska trip, one of the men who came along with the horses was a young wrangler named John Luster. As fate would have it, he never left, becoming a legend in his own right among Alaskan guides and outfitters. The next year, 1949, Luster and Elliott were introduced to the Alaskan brown bear.
“On this trip we were after sheep, moose, caribou and bear, and we had been maneuvering around a good bit. We had killed quite a bit of meat, and it was kind of warm, so the guides took it down to cold storage. They all left, and three of us stayed in camp. There was me, John Luster and one other hunter.
“That afternoon, I was out crawling around up on a hill above camp and spotted a bear a pretty good ways off. We went up, tied the horses, and the fellow with us went one way and Johnny and me the other. The bear was feeding on huckleberries about 150 yards away, and I stalked up, shot, and he went down.
“But he was right back up in a hurry and went on over a ridge there. We went out on a ridge parallel to him and saw the bear raise up about 200 yards down the other ridge. I shot at him, and he went down again, got up again, and I shot him the third time. When he came back up again, he grabbed a tree, hugging it, and Johnny said he was finished, that when they did that, it was all over.
“But Johnny also said that this wasn’t the first bear we shot at! So we went back to the first blood trail and got within 40 yards of the other one before he raised up. I shot, and he sort of flattened out. I looked at my gun and found that I had one shell left. I thought that if I could make him raise his head, I’d finish him, so Johnny said he’d get his head up. He picked up a handful of rocks and started throwing them at the bear, and it came after us, roaring like the dickens.
“I knew I only had that one bullet, so I was going to wait as long as possible, until I knew I could make a killing shot. Meanwhile, Johnny thought I had frozen at the controls, so he headed off up the mountain like he was shot out of a cannon! The bear saw him and turned away from me, but Johnny outran it and lost it in the rocks.”
At that point, the bear eventually gave up the chase—for the time being—and took a break. When it did, as Charlie continues, “I put the rifle on him and shot him right between the eyes, and you can still see the scar on the mount! Well, we let that one die good and dead and went back to the other one, which was already dead as a hammer, right? I handed my rifle to the third guy, who had come up by now, and he threw a couple of his shells in it and handed it to Johnny, who was going after the dead bear.”
Well, almost dead bear!
“When Johnny got to within 10 feet of that bear, it stood up on its hind legs, and he shot it in the chest. It lunged for him, and they were off to the races again, this time coming down the mountain with the bear swiping just behind Johnny’s shirttail. Somehow or other, while he was running, he managed to put the rifle backward over his shoulder and shoot that grizzly one last time, breaking its spine.
“But when I got up there to him 30 minutes or so later, Ol’ Luster was still sitting up on a pile of boulders—throwing rocks at a dead grizzly!”
So many stories… I wish he was here to chide me about this article the way he did with all my writing. I can just hear him say, “Ooooooh, those adjectives!” That would come just before I accused him of being so wordy, as in the title of a certain turkey hunting book he wrote…
He would retire to his Pout House in the backyard. There are lots more memories in that little one-room Flat Rock Trail structure; maybe we can share more of them, and the story of the Pout House itself, on down the road. But for now, I think maybe I’ll just screw in the turkey choke, back up to a lonesome pine and listen for the gentle spirit of Charles Newton Elliott. He’s with us still. Somewhere outdoors.