I like to go down to the river just before sunrise, just before the light clears the Arkansas hills, when the mist hangs thick as fleece on the cold, clear water. I like to wade in up to my knees and disappear into the fog. You can't see beyond your fishing boots, but you can hear the water riffling and murmuring and the morning birds singing as they greet the coming day. I like to stand there for a few minutes before making a cast, just taking it in, lost in the cloud, found in the moment.
I've been going to the Little Red River for 15 years or so, ever since my friend Paul Chandler told me about a place called Fat Possum Hollow just outside of Heber Springs.
"This place is incredible," he said. "The fishing is great — and wait till you meet Maurice."
- Justin Fox Burks
- Maurice Lipsey
I did meet Maurice Lipsey — a couple of weeks later — on my first trip to check out Fat Possum. I'd spent the day fishing with Paul, and that evening we left our river cabin and drove down a gravel road through a couple of hayfields to a large barn on the property. We walked in and Maurice was sitting behind an ornate wooden bar in a room that looked for all the world like a Memphis neighborhood tavern.
There was an ancient jukebox filled with classic Memphis tunes and a large television showing a baseball game above a massive stone fireplace. The walls were lined with Memphis Tigers sports posters, framed Commercial Appeal news clippings, photos of people holding trout, a life-sized rastaman statue, a shoe-shine chair, and a pool table. A few-dozen beer bottles lined a shelf high on the walls, and a large sign behind the bar read: "No Dancing on Tables With Spurs On!"
Well, I thought. This is different.
And it was. Maurice was a delight, full of stories and quick to pour a little more wine into your glass. Of course, it was our wine, since the bar was BYOB, but still, a more charming bartender/proprietor would be hard to find. After spending the weekend, I was sold and ended up getting a cabin for six weekends a year. I've been going to Fat Possum ever since.
I later learned that Maurice was following a dream that he'd had from the age of 15, when he took a scuba certification test at Greers Ferry Lake and fell in love with the area, especially the clear, deep Greers Ferry Lake and the Little Red River that flows from it.
The dream was deferred for decades, as Maurice built a successful business — Security Watch — in Memphis, but his heart was always 100 miles west, in the hills and hollows of central Arkansas. When security giant ADT came calling in the late 1990s and bought him out, Maurice made his move. He purchased 250 rolling, mostly wooded acres on the Little Red, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Memphis.
"Then I just had to figure out how to pay for it," Maurice once told me. "One night, over a bottle of wine (or two), I came up with my quarter-share idea, and I started building cabins on the river to make it happen." And it did happen. Maurice also built a house for himself on the land, and a rich, full life for his beautiful family.
Through the years, more and more Memphians discovered the place, and Maurice made them all feel welcome. Race, gender, sexual orientation — none of it mattered to Maurice. He was a friend to all. I've spent many happy days and nights at Fat Possum, building memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.
Then, last winter, Maurice stopped coming to the bar as often. On a couple trips, I didn't see him at all. I learned that he was sick, fighting cancer and doing it privately, on his own terms. Then Paul called me a few weeks back and said it didn't look good for our friend. And so, when I got another call from Paul last week, I feared the worst — and the worst had happened. Maurice was gone.
I'm going back to Fat Possum in November for my next weekend at the Little Red. I plan to go down to the water just before sunrise, just before the light clears the Arkansas hills. I want to disappear into the mist and let the river speak its music.
I think Maurice will be there.