Land of ducks

In a previous post, I wrote about how Ernest Hemingway decided to head south from Piggott, where he was visiting his in-laws, in order to hunt ducks along the lower White River in southeast Arkansas in late 1932.

Hemingway was accompanied by Max Perkins, the legendary book editor known for discovering and nurturing authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

I had the pleasure of quail hunting in Clay County earlier this year with Perkins’ granddaughter, and she gave me a copy of a letter her grandfather wrote on Christmas Day in 1932.

Perkins wrote: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.”

I quoted from this letter in the previous post. My favorite part by far was Perkins’ description of the men who lived along the lower White and Arkansas rivers, making their living hunting, fishing, gathering mussel shells and trapping: “We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.”

A few such men can still be found living on houseboats on the rivers of east Arkansas — the Arkansas, White, Cache and Black — but much of what you will now find during duck season are well-heeled people from across the country who come to this mecca of mallards.

East Arkansas long has attracted the rich and famous during duck season. Vice presidents, former presidents, ambassadors, movie stars, well-known musicians, professional athletes and titans of industry descend on our state in search of ducks.

They say that if you were to stake out the Stuttgart airport during the 60-day duck season, you would be shocked by the number of faces you recognize.

Given that rich tradition, I shouldn’t have been surprised last month when I found myself at a duck club near DeWitt as dinner was being prepared by Dickie Brennan from the Brennan family of New Orleans, one of the best-known restaurant families in the world. Brennan is an avid duck hunter and was spending several days at a duck club known as Little Siberia before heading east for another hunt in Mississippi.

Brennan drove to the Arkansas Delta from the Crescent City and brought food with him — lots of food.

We started with cobia (also known as lemon fish) from the Gulf of Mexico, which was sliced paper thin as sashimi. That was followed by grilled wild boar sausages, turtle soup, fried oysters, a crab dip on French bread, a salad and prime rib. I didn’t bother to ask if there was dessert.

Brennan was born in 1960 in New Orleans and lived a block away from the historic Garden District restaurant Commander’s Palace, where his father Dick Sr., his uncle John and his aunts Adelaide, Ella and Dottie ran the show. He began working in the kitchen there as a teenager under the tutelage of chef Paul Prudhomme.

After helping his family open Mr. B’s in the French Quarter in 1979, Brennan worked under chefs in Mexico City, New York and France. He became the general manager of the family’s Brennan’s of Houston in 1986 before moving back to New Orleans in 1990 to open the Palace Café in the old Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street.

Dickie Brennan has since opened three additional restaurants in the French Quarter — Dickie Brennan’s Steak House, Bourbon House and Tableau.

It was a magical night at Little Siberia that combined many of my favorite things — the Delta, ducks, hunting clubs with a long history, good food, fascinating people and intelligent conversation. There also was a touch of melancholy since the men who built the current Little Siberia lodge in 1983 are selling the club this month to George Dunklin Jr. of Stuttgart, the immediate past president of Ducks Unlimited who founded the Five Oaks Duck Lodge near Stuttgart. Dunklin, who served for seven years on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, was in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame, which was inducted in December.

The Little Siberia lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir that covers almost 700 acres and is adjacent to Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44.

It was warm for late January, the kind of day when club members often pull large crappie from the reservoir. The door was left open so there could be a roaring fire in the lodge’s fireplace. Veteran club members told stories of the other duck clubs in this area of the state and the colorful characters who inhabit them each season.

On the bookshelf in the lodge was a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, the collection of waterfowling stories contains a piece about a Thanksgiving trip Russell made to Arkansas one year. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field his first morning in Arkansas. It was even slower the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain in the back of Buerkle Drug Store on Main Street in Stuttgart, he promised to take the visitor “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia. Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after Hancock’s death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west, which allowed us to watch a glorious winter sunset as Dickie Brennan prepared dinner.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak,” Max Perkins wrote back in 1932. “I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time.”

Another Arkansas duck season has ended, but the memories will linger for the thousands of people who found their way to the fields and flooded timber of east Arkansas.

From Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Carter to Dick Cheney to Dickie Brennan, famous Americans have been lured to Arkansas for decades by its duck hunting culture.

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