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Mallard madness in Arkansas

The rain was coming down hard when my alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. Friday.

Thankfully, it wasn’t cold enough for ice, but it wasn’t warm, either — about 39 degrees.

There are few things that will make me get up at that hour. A trip to hunt ducks with the legendary Wiley Meacham at the Piney Creek Duck Club on the Monroe County-Lee County line near Monroe is one of them.

I’ve written about Wiley on this blog before. He’s 80 now, still getting up in the middle of the night and making the drive from his home in Brinkley to his farm office under the pecan trees at Monroe, on the land where he was born and raised.

The date had been marked on my calendar for weeks. Steve “Wild Man” Wilson of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission had called to inform me that he would be filming his annual “Talkin’ Outdoors” Christmas show at Piney Creek. He invited me to be a part of the hunt.

If for some reason you feel the need for television background noise on Christmas morning, the show will air at 9 a.m. Sunday on KARZ-TV.

It will air again Christmas evening at 11:30 p.m. on KARK-TV, Channel 4.

You’ll be able to witness a group of grown men standing in cold water, wearing camouflage Santa caps (thanks, Wild Man) and singing Christmas songs.

“Why do grown men get up in the middle of the night and then act like that?” I’m sure my wife will ask.

Unless you’ve experienced the mallard madness in the flooded green timber of east Arkansas, you really can’t answer that question.

It’s an experience that goes far beyond shooting ducks.

Watching the sun rise. Listening to the owls and the geese. Exchanging stories. Giving friends a hard time after bad shots.

Listening to Steve Meacham and Don Thompson call the ducks.

Sharing a bench with Rex Johnson.

Back where we parked the boats, Joe Weiss was busy cooking Friday morning. Yes, cooking. These flooded woods have a kitchen.

In 1987, a grocery store owner named Lattimore Michael opened the first Back Yard Burgers restaurant in Cleveland, Miss. A year later, Weiss — a Clarksdale, Miss., native — became a franchisee and was instrumental in the expansion of the chain.

Joe now owns the Blue & White Restaurant, a roadside classic that has been in business alongside U.S. Highway 61 in Tunica, Miss., since 1937.

On this morning, though, Joe is playing chef in the flooded timber of the Arkansas Delta. He’s grilling slices of teal and sausages. He’s cutting cheese and putting out crackers and Mickle’s Pickles from Picayune, Miss. (truly some of the best pickles I’ve ever had).

After the hunt, standing there eating slices of teal on a cracker, I think about the great tradition of east Arkansas duck hunting.

Yesterday, after lunch at the Peabody Little Rock, I went by the lobby fountain to pay homage to the four mallard hens and one mallard drake that swim inside the hotel. Even the famous Peabody Hotel ducks have their genesis in an east Arkansas duck hunt.

In 1932, Frank Schutt, the general manager of the Peabody at Memphis, accompanied a friend named Chip Barwick on a duck hunting trip to east Arkansas.

The Peabody website tells what happened after that at the landmark Memphis hotel: “The men had a little too much Jack Daniel’s Tennessee sippin’ whiskey and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful Peabody fountain. Three small English call ducks were selected as ‘guinea pigs,’ and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Soon, five North American mallard ducks would replace the original ducks.

“In 1940, bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody duck march. Mr. Pembroke became the Peabody duckmaster, serving in that capacity for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.

“The original ducks have long since gone, but after 75 years, the marble fountain in the hotel lobby is still graced with ducks. The Peabody ducks march at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.”

It has long been a tradition in our family to have wild Arkansas ducks for dinner in the days leading up to Christmas. So it was that I brought two mallard drakes back with me, stopping at McSwain’s on U.S. Highway 165 in North Little Rock to have the ladies in the back room clean them for me.

With dozens of ducks in the back room, it was obvious that others had been hunting on that rainy Friday morning.  The ladies said they could clean my ducks while I waited, so I watched them work their magic.

Again, my thoughts turned to the colorful history of Arkansas duck hunting.

One of my favorite writers is Nash Buckingham, a Tennessean who died in 1971 at age 90. Buckingham wrote nine books and hundreds of articles for magazines such as Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field & Stream.

His preferred types of hunting were for ducks and bobwhite quail, the two types of hunting my father most enjoyed. My dad always considered duck and quail hunting to be gentlemen’s sports.

Just like the legend of the Peabody ducks, east Arkansas figures prominently in a well-known incident involving Buckingham.

Here’s how a story on him began in the June/July 2010 issue of Garden & Gun: “On Dec. 1, 1948, two hunters emerged from the cool wetlands of Clarendon, Ark., and ambled along a country road. The men — Nash Buckingham and Clifford Green — had spent a long morning in a duck blind and were headed back to Green’s car, on their way home.

“Buckingham, then 68 years old, was at the time one of the most famous writers in America, a sort of Mark Twain for the hunting set. At Green’s car, they met a warden, who asked to see their hunting licenses. The warden quickly realized that he was in the presence of the celebrated writer. He asked Buckingham if he could see the most famous shotgun in America, Buckingham’s talisman, an inanimate object that the writer had referred to — in loving, animistic terms — in a great number of his stories. The nine-pound, nine-ounce gun was a side-by-side 12-gauge Super Fox custom made by the A.H. Fox Gun Co. in Philadelphia.

“The carbon steel plates on the frame were ornately engraved with a leafy scroll. The gun company’s signature fox, nose in the air, was engraved on the floorplate. The barrels had been bored by the renowned barrel maker Burt Becker and delivered 90 percent patterns of shot at 40 feet, an uncharacteristically tight load for a waterfowling shotgun. It was named Bo Whoop. A hunting buddy had designated it so, after the distinct deep, bellowing sound it made upon discharge.

“The warden chatted up Buckingham, handling and admiring the writer’s gun, like a kid talking to Babe Ruth while holding the slugger’s bat. At some point during the conversation, the warden laid the gun down on the car’s back fender. Buckingham and Green soon bid the warden farewell and drove off, forgetting about Bo Whoop until many miles into their trip home. In a panic, they turned around and retraced their route, painstakingly eyeing every inch of the road, to no avail.”

Buckingham spent the next several years searching for Bo Whoop.

“He lamented the loss of Bo Whoop in print, likening it to the death of a treasured hunting dog,” the article states. “He took out ads in local newspapers, offering rewards. He befriended local wardens and police, appealing to them to be on the lookout. He would never find it. But in the process of its loss and failed recovery, its legend grew in stature. Bo Whoop became a metaphor for other things gone and never to be retrieved, like one’s youth or the American wildnerness.”

 Like Elvis sightings in later years, there were regular Bo Whoop sightings. All were false.

In 1950, two friends gave Buckingham a Fox gun named Bo Whoop II.

During the 1950s, a sawmill foreman in Savannah, Ga., bought a used Fox shotgun with a broken stock for $50. The foreman’s son inherited the shotgun upon his father’s death and stuck it in a closet.

In 2005, the son brought the gun to a noted South Carolina gunsmith named Jim Kelly for repair.

Kelly, a student of hunting history, saw “Made for Nash Buckingham” and “By Burt Becker Phila. PA” inscribed on the gun.

He had found Bo Whoop.

After having the stock repaired, the man passed the gun down to his son, who in turn decided to sell it in order to pay the medical expenses for his sick father. It would be auctioned by the James Julia Auction Co. in Maine.

In March 2010, an 84-year–old man named Hal Howard Jr. learned of the impending auction. Howard, a former T. Rowe Price executive, was raised in Memphis. His father was Buckingham’s best friend and hunting partner. Hal Howard Jr. was Buckingham’s godson.

“We hunted in Arkansas together,” Howard said.

Howard paid $201,250 for Bo Whoop, the third-highest amount ever paid for an American shotgun.

A month later, it was announced that Howard was donating Bo Whoop to the Ducks Unlimited national headquarters at Memphis.

What has never been clear is how Bo Whoop got from the woods near Clarendon to Georgia. But the shotgun is almost home now, just across the Mississippi River from the duck woods of Arkansas.

What a fine tradition Arkansas duck hunting is.

We’ll see you on KARZ at 9 a.m. Christmas Day.

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