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Rainy morning in Monroe

It was raining steadily as I pulled away from my home at 4 a.m. Sunday.

I had ignored Wiley’s advice. He had called the previous afternoon and said: “If it’s raining fairly hard when you get up tomorrow morning, I suggest you go back to bed.”

Indeed, the rain was coming down when the alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. But I was wide awake. I figured that even if we didn’t go duck hunting, I might as well have a big breakfast with the guys and swap some stories.

The rain never stopped as I made the drive east on Interstate 40. In fact, it got harder. As I pulled into the parking lot of Gene’s Barbeque in Brinkley shortly after 5 a.m., I could see the forlorn faces of the men standing out front, outfitted in camouflage. Some of them likely had driven a long way to hunt ducks in east Arkansas, and the weather was not cooperating.

Inside the restaurant, the cooks had not yet made an appearance. But there were more hunters, drinking coffee and trading tales of past hunting adventures.

Wiley introduced me to one hunter from Mississippi. He introduced me to another couple of people from Tennessee.

“How long have you been coming over here?” he asked one of the out-of-state visitors.

“Every year since 1972,” the man answered.

Early on a Sunday morning at Gene’s, it quickly becomes evident what duck hunting means to the Arkansas economy.

Steve Meacham, one of Wiley’s three sons, came into the restaurant and said of his father: “You know why he made you come down here in the rain, don’t you? To get you back for not mentioning his name until the very end of that column.”

I recently had written a column on duck hunting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It had become somewhat of a joke in these parts that I had failed to mention Wiley’s name until the final paragraph of the column. At age 78, Wiley is the patriarch of the Piney Creek Duck Club and one of a small fraternity of famous Arkansas duck hunting guides who have been practicing their craft for more than 50 years.

Finally, we decided to make the drive south to the small community of Monroe and the famous Piney Creek Duck Club, which recently was featured on the ESPN Outdoors website. The fellows who had spent the night there were doing the same thing the hunters had been doing back at Gene’s — drinking coffee and waiting for the rain to stop.

We decided to reverse the order on this Sunday morning. Rather than hunting first and then coming back for a huge breakfast, we would have that huge breakfast first and hunt later in the morning once the rain had stopped. My wife always gives me a hard time about our healthy fare. We had the usual — biscuits, gravy, hash browns, sausage and eggs. Someone opened a can of sliced pineapple so we could tell our wives we ate fruit.

As someone who has long been intrigued by Delta history, I was fascinated as I listened to Wiley talk about growing up on that farm. He talked about the thriving community that Monroe once had been, its stores and restaurants fueled by the thousands of sharecroppers who lived in the area. The same story could be told about countless other Delta communities that are now almost ghost towns in this age of agricultural mechanization.

He talked about the large sawmill at Monroe as the area was cleared of its bottomland hardwoods in the 1930s. He told me where the cotton gin had been. He pointed out where the farm’s pond had once been located and discussed how his father even tried to the raise sheep at one time.

He talked about accompanying his father as they took several bales of cotton on a truck to Memphis. They would join many other Delta farmers in driving up and down Front Street — “Cotton Row” — seeking the best prices for their products from the many cotton buyers along the street. Thousands of bales of cotton would be stacked on the sidewalks in those days.

By the time we had finished breakfast, the rain had stopped and the sun was working its way through the clouds.

It was time to put on our waders and head into the flooded green timber. No one hunts in the afternoon at Piney Creek. So for the first time in my memory, I rode the boat into the flooded woods when it wasn’t dark. By the time we reached the hole and took our places, all of the clouds were gone.

The hunting was slow. There were some ducks. There also were thousands of geese, a hawk and a majestic bald eagle circling these woods along the Monroe County-Lee County line.

As I sat there and breathed in the country air, I thought of a couple of things.

First, while duck hunters would consider this a slow morning, birdwatchers would pay good money to sit there and see what I was seeing. Those of us who get to do this on a regular basis should never take it for granted.

Second, I thought about how sad it is that so many of my fellow Arkansans never truly experience the Arkansas outdoors, whether it’s a cold January morning in the Delta or a hot June afternoon spent floating a stream in the Ozarks. For too many of us, even in a still-rural state like Arkansas, “outdoor activity” consists of walking through the parking lot at Wal-Mart.

With the duck season entering its final two weeks, I said farewell at 1 p.m., tuned the radio to the Cowboys-Vikings playoff game and headed back toward Little Rock.

I sure am glad I had not taken Wiley’s advice. I’m happy I had not gone back to bed at 3:30 a.m. Sleep can wait.

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