Hunt With Captain Noell Produces Opening Day Gobbler For The Ages
The 39th straight opening day hunt with 80-year-old Vietnam veteran produces record-sized gobbler for Mark Wiggins.
For me, every turkey season opener since 1987 has begun with my friend, Captain John S. Noell. I met John in 1983 when his Athens law firm offered me a clerkship during my first year of law school. After graduation I was employed as an associate attorney and later as a partner. John and I became friends and shared a passion for hunting ducks, quail, dove and wild turkeys. In 1989, we partnered to purchase a 315-acre tract in Greene County. I could easily write volumes of humorous short stories detailing some of the hilarity of our bumbling hunts and inspirational stories of the magic of God’s nature. At the very least, it is accurate to say that this land has yielded dividends in fond memories far beyond the price paid.
The Georgia wild turkey season opener for 2022 was met with the same anticipation as the previous 39 openers. John and I were invited to hunt with a neighboring landowner, Steve Hill, of Gainesville. Steve, a professional architect, has built a fabulous lodge on his Ashley Pines Farm. John and I joined Steve and Dr. Hank Lewis for dinner and fellowship. We laughed and enjoyed each other’s company a bit further into the night than was prudent, retiring somewhat later than we had planned.
The next morning, I awoke to a busy camp. Steve was cooking breakfast and Dr. Lewis was searching for his shotgun shells. John was fast asleep and mumbling about the prospects of hunting after breakfast. I should tell you that John is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and for that my respect is immense. He is a spry 80-year-old gentleman. I think he has dedicated himself to enjoying life on his own terms and has found great success at this endeavor. Thus, if hunting after breakfast was his fancy, it would be far for me to convince him otherwise. Nevertheless, I implored him to rouse himself from slumber, and soon he was dressed and preparing to hunt.
After a biscuit and coffee, I was at my truck grabbing calls and looking for my eyeglasses, which were not located. I realized the sun was not waiting on me and I was feeling a little pressured to get to the west end of the property where we had planned to begin our hunt. John was sitting in his Polaris Ranger waiting on me. I could hear the engine idling when suddenly I heard a distinctive gobble from the south. I immediately forgot all about my glasses and turned my attention in the direction of that sound. A second bird sounded off, then a third from a greater distance. A few seconds later the original bird tree gobbled and I knew he was less than 350 yards and was huntable.
With the engine running, John could not hear the birds. It took me a while to convince him to turn off the Ranger and head away in a 90-degree angle from our original plan. John’s knees have both been replaced are not quite what they used to be, so we moved slowly and deliberately over some uneven ground. We descended a small decline for about 75 yards and crossed a wet area. Now the sun seemed to be speeding up, and the bird’s gobbles were louder and more intense, but he was still in a tree and had not flown down yet. We were now about 275 yards out and we needed to get to the top of the next hill to set up.
While attempting to ascend the hill, John slipped and fell. I helped him to his feet and stayed and supported him for about 15 minutes. The bird continued to gobble every minute or so. Soon John felt stable enough to continue the ascent at least until we found some level ground. In a short distance, we reached a slight plateau that offered a chance to rest on level ground. By now, the bird had fallen silent, and I was sure he had flown down and was likely with hens. I was accepting the fact that we were going to, in fact, hunt after breakfast, if at all. I would retrieve the Ranger and drive John back to the lodge for coffee, juice, sausage casserole and extra strength pain medication.
As John rested on a small chair we had carried in, I told him I was going to crest a slight hill about 40 yards up to see if by chance I could relocate the turkey. As I topped the hill, I found a small opening in the pines. Using a Head Trauma diaphragm mouth call, I clucked as softly as I could. The batwing design allows for “quiet calling”, and my call was immediately answered from about 150 yards away. But now the bird was on the other side of a county road. I slipped back out to try to encourage John to join me, but he apparently could not see me. Knowing the bird could show up momentarily, I crawled back to my position and sat down beside a skinny young pine in tall sedge grass and heavy briars, hoping I had avoided any ant beds.
I waited in silence for what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably four or five. You may remember that I had been looking unsuccessfully for my glasses when this whole fiasco started. Well, I had not located them and I found myself staring intently for a minute at a stump that sure looked an awful lot like a gobbler. When that stump remained motionless, I deduced that I should look elsewhere. I then again softly clucked twice. The thunderous growl of a turkey answered at about 80 yards. I placed my gun in the “almost ready” position. Within a minute I could hear spitting and drumming, and then a purplish blue head appeared next to the imposter stump that had captured my attention just prior.
Now the bird was 40 yards away and was strutting and spitting and drumming. I’m 63 years old and I’ve participated in lying to well over 100 turkeys in the last 40 years. Still, I had to laugh at myself as my heart was racing like that of a schoolboy on prom night. I was glad that a turkey could still have that effect on me. And now the bird was 20 yards away and still I could not shoot ethically. Tall grass and briar brambles separated us. I needed the bird to move about 20 yards to my right for a clear shot. Moments were minutes and I was sure this old bird would discern my malicious intent at any second. Suddenly he broke into a strut and walked directly into the shooting lane. As he stretched his neck to look around for the object of his desires, the lights went out.
I feel a little sadness when I take the life of any animal. So I paused to pay my respects before heading back down to John, still sitting on his chair. He had never heard the gobbles and was surprised by the report of the gun. I told him the bird was indeed dispatched and he was large. I would pick John up with the UTV and then get the bird.
Back at the lodge, I hung the bird on a nail near the cabin and had breakfast. Steve and Dr. Lewis returned to share the “song feast” of the hunt. Then John and I left to head back to Athens. I was not sure what to do with the bird. I didn’t really have a place to put another piece of taxidermy, but I wanted to have something tangible to remember this great opening morning with John and Steve and Hank. I decided to call my friend and taxidermist, Andy Nimmons.
Andy was at his shooting range working on some hand loads for his 7mm Rem Mag when I arrived. He texted me and told me to just leave the bird at his shop. I did as instructed and then headed home. As I was driving I received a call from Andy, advising that I needed to pull over and read my messages. After stopping on the side of the road, I opened a message with a photograph of a scale reading 26.28 pounds. Under the picture was “1 3/8 inch spurs and 10 1/ inch beard.” Also, “You won’t kill a bigger bird in Georgia.” As I was contemplating this information, I decided to call Shawn Radford. Shawn makes Head Trauma Game Calls. His diaphragm, box and slate calls are as good as I’ve ever used and I should say I own a Neil Cost box call, so I know what a good call sounds like. Shawn was fired up to say the least. Shortly after we spoke, Shawn sent me a graphic indicating that, based on the scale measurements, the bird might well be the 9th heaviest gobbler on record in Georgia.
Reality then started to set in that I needed to let somebody know about this bird. But it was late on Saturday. I decided I’d just have to wait until Monday. I asked Andy to keep the bird in his freezer. On Monday I learned just how hard it is to get a game animal weighed on certified scales. The issue is finding a certified scale that is available. Grocery stores have them but hardly want their customers to see a fully feathered bird on the same scale that their steaks are going on. A call to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures division, will get you a voicemail. Some Feed and Seed stores are willing to assist but their certification dates may be several years old. I suspect the NWTF may have some scales available, but Monday was a work day and there was no time to drive to South Carolina.
As I write this, I have no idea if this bird will ever be given its due. I don’t really care either. I never started hunting for records in books. I have always hunted because it drew me closer to my Creator, to my friends, to my family and to my roots. This hunting trip with Captain Noell had its share of laughs and surprises and, most of all, cherished memories. I know that one day that piece of taxidermy art will hang in someone else’s cabin. Hopefully they will know a little of its story. Maybe they will hear the laughter of friends around a hearty supper, feel the morning coolness against their face, feel the pounding of a heart at the sight of a great bird, hear its reverberating challenge and witness the grace of its final courtship dance. But until that day, those memories are still mine and for that I know that I am blessed and highly favored.
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