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One covid casualty was the annual Purple Hull Society duck hunt hosted by Jess "The Undertaker" Essex at Mill Bayou near DeWitt.

The Purple Hull Society is a group of 16-gauge shotgun enthusiasts that gather for at least one duck hunt per year. The core of the group includes Essex, Glen Chase of Greenbrier, Connie Meskimen of Hot Springs and Jim Rowe of DeWitt. There are members at large who have hunted with us once, and there are honorary members who do not participate in the Mill Bayou hunts, but prefer 16-gauges elsewhere. These include Judge Billy Roy Wilson, former state representative Monty Davenport of Yellville, attorney Greg Graham of Little Rock and attorney Brad Hendricks of Little Rock. Membership and all of its privileges are permanent. If we have to cram 10 people in a blind, we'll figure out a way to do it.

That's the problem. Three people in a small blind is inappropriate at this time. This really irks The Undertaker, who worked like the devil to rehab what is best described as a serious "hitch in his giddyup." He took himself off injured reserve at the beginning of the season. He's the coach so he can do that, but the team recognized it as a symbolic gesture. To have held that hunt under covid conditions would have been irresponsible.

We usually hold a second hunt at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, but that's too arduous of a trek for a man with a hitch in his giddyup.

All of this has got The Undertaker in a froth. He is nursing serious hunting withdrawals, but the thought of interrupting tradition appalls him. An accomplished operatic tenor who sings while hunting, he insists that the show must go on. He texted me the other night asking whether the Society would entertain a specklebelly goose hunt.

Absolutely! Of course, killing specklebellies with a 16-gauge would be quite a challenge. We'd all have to buy those expensive Hevi-Shot shells that Meskimen uses, the ones that don't shoot frequently enough to warrant a duck blind gambling pool.

"Well, there AREN'T any large numbers right now, but they'll be back," The Undertaker replied.

The frustration in his tone was palpable. It reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch, in his role of Sherlock Holmes, driving himself to near madness for lack of a case to solve.

The Purple Hull Society might have to adjourn for this season, give covid a little more time to bug out and give The Undertaker more time to get himself back into playing shape.

So, what is it with you guys and your 16-gauges? In a word, it's cool.

Customarily given last rites every 15 years or so, the 16-gauge is still alive, well and quite popular with a certain subset of individualist wingshooters. I won't bore you with technical justifications about the symmetrical perfection of the 1-ounce 16-gauge payload or the light, svelte qualities of a true 16-gauge bore mated to a true 16-gauge frame. None of that really matters when you consider that my Winchester 101 Select 12-gauge is lighter than any 16-gauge and as light as any 20-gauge. It truly is a gun that carries like a 20 and hits like a 12.

Sixteen-gauge is an attitude. It's in-your-face nonconformity. It's like the Wishbone offense in football. You don't run the Wishbone every now and then. You must commit to it, practice it, and embrace all of its quirks, nuances, and, yes, limitations.

There is an old saying among bird hunters that the 12-gauge is the tool of a butcher. A hunter who uses a 20-gauge is competent, and a hunter who uses a 28-gauge is a master. A hunter who uses a .410 bore is a gentleman. The .410 is an expert's gauge. You don't select it. You aspire to it.

All four have respective classifications in skeet competition. The 16-gauge is not recognized for skeet. It is an outsider. A misfit. An outcast, a rebel and a malcontent. Shotgunners regard the 16-gauge the way most sailors regard submariners. They're contrary and individualistic to a fault. Maybe that's why The Undertaker likes it so much. He was a submariner in the 1960s and 1970s. The rest of us are submariners at heart, even if my particular fondness is for battleships.

Ultimately, the kind of 16-gauge does matter, just as the quarterback matters a lot in a Wishbone offense, but it's easy to make the team. In the Purple Hull Society, every kid gets to play.

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