By Brandon Butler
E. Donnall (Don) Thomas Jr. isn't your average outdoor writer. If you're a reader of "Closing Time," Thomas's back-page column in Ducks Unlimited
magazine, you're already aware of his immense talent for storytelling. But perhaps what separates him most from other writers is the straightforward and honest way he writes about hunting and himself.
The first time I met Don, I knew I liked him before a word was ever spoken between us. It was sometime in 2004. I was a pharmaceutical salesman calling on Don's medical practice in Lewistown, Montana
, where he and his wife, Lori, still call home. As comfortable in a business suit as a cat is in water, I was in the wrong profession. So when Don came out of his office wearing grease-stained jeans and a shirt Goodwill might reject, I knew I had found one of my own.
While Don has written for almost every major outdoor magazine and published more than 20 books over the past two decades, he has scrupulously avoided becoming an "outdoor personality." He personally describes his breadth of work as "a collection of what's known in the trade as lyrical hunting stories." He's never enjoyed how-to writing much, but admits, "There probably is some useful, instructive information buried away in some of the things I write."
Don may not write about how to set a decoy rig
for diving ducks or the ideal load for dropping a high-flying Canada goose
, but his words do tell us how to enjoy, savor and embrace this passion for hunting
we all share. He graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer the following questions.
You've had a busy life as a family man, physician and adventurer. How did you come to be an outdoor writer as well?
I suppose it was an inevitable collision of two urges. My parents are avid outdoors people. I grew up with waterfowl, wingshooting and bird dogs. I actually have always loved to write and have a degree in English from the University of California
I earned before enrolling in medical school. I began to write about the outdoors professionally in the early '80s and found I enjoyed it. It gave me a fresh perspective on a lot of things I was doing in the outdoors, so it became a marriage of two basic instincts.
What came first, the bow, the gun or the fly rod, and how did your path as a sportsman unfold?
I didn't become a serious bowhunter until later in life; I basically grew up with either a fly rod or shotgun in my hand. My father is a great shot and an excellent teacher who believes in starting kids young. So, by the time I was 8 or 9 years old, I could hold my own with the men at the local skeet club. So waterfowling and fly-fishing essentially came together, both long before bowhunting.
Your hunting and fishing adventures have taken you around the world. Can you name a couple of premier waterfowl destinations and explain why they're worthy of mention?
I've hunted waterfowl in a number of strange places, including South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, but most of those were add-ons to something else, usually a bowhunt.
Aside from Montana, Alaska
, the Columbia Basin and Texas
Gulf Coast are regular destinations. I used to live in Alaska and I still get up their four to six times per year. I enjoy waterfowl hunting on the coast and in the interior.
Lori and I have very good friends from Texas who we usually visit every year to hunt the Gulf Coast. That's kind of a unique habitat
area, with the warm saltwater marshes. It's like Alaska tide flats, only it's about 60 degrees warmer and there is an interesting assortment of waterfowl. It's also the only place I've ever been where I can cast a fly rod out of a duck blind and catch a redfish. And the Columbia Basin, because of growing up there and hunting with my father.
Could you describe to me an ideal day of waterfowl hunting?
There are a whole lot of ways you can have an ideal day waterfowl hunting, but I like a lot of variety when I'm hunting ducks. Here in central Montana, this is a dry area. We don't have a lot of wetlands because we're right on the cusp between the Central and Pacific flyways
. Early-season duck hunting isn't much, but we have some really good late-season hunting over spring creeks. It's about 99 percent mallards though. A mallard
is a great bird and I know hunters who would be happy if they never shot anything but a drake mallard for as long as they live. I'm the exact opposite; I love variety. A great day of duck hunting for me is when I'm seeing teal
and wood ducks
and a diver or two. Of course, like a lot of us, I probably wouldn't walk across the street to shoot a limit of ducks if I didn't have one of my dogs with me. So one of the Labs has to be there.
Duck hunting is one of the few kinds of hunting that's a social affair. You get to talk to people in the blind, as opposed to bowhunting, which is extremely solitary. I really enjoy good company. Often it's Lori, but for years it was my father, who is still alive at age 91 but hasn't hunted the last few seasons due to health issues.
A variety of ducks, some good dog work and one of my favorite hunting partners with me—particularly my wife or my father—that's my ideal day of waterfowl hunting.
Explain to me the role of dogs in waterfowl hunting.
I absolutely hate losing game; I got that from my father. He grew up poor in rural Texas during the Depression and hunted because they needed the meat. Even when I was a kid my father would look for an hour for a downed bird if he had to. I grew up with the notion that it is very, very important to eat what you shoot.
So there is an important practical role the dog plays. Above and beyond that, I just love hunting with dogs
. Now that the kids are grown and gone, the dogs are kind of our family. My dogs laugh at my jokes and don't look at me funny when I miss. Labs are just such personable, companionable dogs. I do a lot of hunting on my own with only my dogs, and Labs just make great company. They never cease to amaze me with their enthusiasm and willingness to hunt. The best trait in any hunting companion is enthusiasm, and you just can't beat a Lab in a duck blind.
Being a traditionalist, I doubt you're shooting any new, fancy shotgun. Tell me about the shotgun you waterfowl hunt with.
I appreciate nice shotguns, but I'm not a gun guy; a shotgun
is a tool to me. When I graduated from medical school in 1972 my father gave me a Browning over-and-under as a graduation present. That's what he always hunted with and what I grew up hunting with. I basically hunt with that gun 98 percent of the time. It's an improved cylinder modified, which a lot of people would say is a little too open for ducks, but most of my hunting is done over decoys and it absolutely gets the job done.
Let's say the tables turn and your physician comes to you and says, "Don, the end is near. You've got the time and strength for one more adventure." Where are you going? Who's going with you? And what are you chasing?
If I could only go hunting one more time, it would be duck hunting in Alaska, because I love Alaska and the wilderness so much. I would fly out to the west side of Cook Inlet or over in the Bristol Bay area and set up on a brackish-water pothole with Lori and one of my dogs, and I'd shoot a limit of ducks. I'd be just as happy as a clam.
For more information about Don Thomas's latest book, The Language of Wings
, consisting of a collection of "Closing Time" columns from Ducks Unlimited magazine along selected with new material, go to donthomasbooks.com