E. Donnall “Don” Thomas, Jr. isn’t your average outdoor writer. If you’re a reader of Traditional Bowhunter Magazine or Gray’s Sporting Journal, then you’re already aware of his immense talent for telling stories. Yet, I believe what differentiates Don Thomas from other writers lies deeper than his ability to string words. I believe his true strength is found in an unwavering, principled approach to simplicity and a burning desire to share with us, his readers, inspiration for not taking ourselves too seriously.
The first time I met Don Thomas, I knew liked him before a word was ever spoke between us. It was sometime in 2004. I was a pharmaceutical salesman calling on Don’s medical practice in Lewistown, Montana, where he still makes his home with wife Lori. As comfortable in a business suit as a cat in water, I was in the wrong profession. Therefore, when Don came out of his office to meet me for the first time wearing grease stained jeans and a shirt that Goodwill might reject, I felt comfortable in knowing I had found one of my own.
Although Don currently writes for, or has written for, almost every major outdoor publication on the market today, and has published over 20 books, his name isn’t one regularly thrown around when discussions of outdoor writers arise. He’s in a sense the Waylon Jennings of outdoor writing. With no interest in attaching himself commercially to products or places with endorsement deals, Don remains the ever omniscient purist. You won’t find his smiling face gracing the package of a hunting product, but in his words you will find truth, at least in terms relative to him.
Don once told me that if the world-record whitetail were to step out a hundred yards away, and a rifle was within reach, he would not shoot the buck. He just doesn’t enjoy killing with a rifle. Has no problem with you or I doing so, he just doesn’t care to himself. Such strength in adherence to one’s personal beliefs is admirable, and unfortunately lacking in today’s business of outdoor communication. Don has avoided the popular trend, which is at the root of why he is so admired by those who follow his work and adhere to a similar style.
Butler: You’ve had a busy life as a family man, physician and adventurer. How did you come to be an outdoor writer as well?
Don Thomas Jr: I suppose it was an inevitable collision of two urges. My parents are avid outdoors people. I grew up with waterfowl, wing shooting 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 to of two basic instincts.
Butler: What came first the bow the gun or the fly rod, and how did your path as a sportsman unfold?
Don Thomas Jr: I didn’t become a serious big game bowhunter until later in life; I basically grew up with a fly rod and 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. My father was an early partner in Barker Ranch of Washington’s Columbia Basin. So waterfowl and fly fishing essentially came together, both long before bowhunting.
Butler: You’re hunting and fishing adventures have taken you around the world. Could you name a couple of premier destinations, and explain why they’re worthy of mention?
Don Thomas Jr: I’ve hunted waterfowl in a number of strange places, including South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, but most of those were an 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 4-6 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 duck blind and catch a redfish. And the Columbia Basin, because of growing up there and my father.
Butler: 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 more adventure.” Where are you going? Who’s going with you? And what are you chasing?
Don Thomas Jr: 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.
E. Donnall Thomas, Jr. is a living icon of authentic outdoor writing. 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 realizes, “There probably is some useful instructive information buried away in some of the things I write.” Yes, Don, there is. There is plenty. To purchase Don’s books, visit his website, www.donthomasbooks.com.