Thanksgiving Day Double

It is Thanksgiving Day 2004. My son, Luke, and I rise before dawn to spend the morning hunting whitetail deer. Hunting deer or elk on Thanksgiving morning has been a family tradition as long as I can remember. Luke is eager to join me even though he is a year away from being old enough to buy a license and carry a rifle. My son, Ben, is in his senior year of high school and wants to sleep in a bit.

So Luke and I head for the Dry Creek area north of Belgrade, Montana. The Dry Creek Road transitions from pavement to gravel where the Gallatin Valley floor gives way to the foothills at the base of the Bridger Mountains.

We turn off onto a side gravel road and drive past a grain field which sits below the butte we want to hunt.  I park my truck at the side of the road, and we close the doors quietly. Six years ago, my dad and I just missed getting off a shot at a big buck on the hill on the opposite side of the little creek we will need to cross. I tell Luke this story before we get out of the truck, urging him to be as quiet as possible. We cross a barbed-wire fence and prepare to sneak through the tall grass towards a plank that bridges the little creek.  Six steps after we cross the fence, Luke whispers, “Dad, there’s a buck!” Sure enough, a 4×4 whitetail peers at us from across the creek, about ninety yards away.

We are five minutes into legal shooting light, so I aim, fire, and drop the buck in its tracks. This is the easiest deer hunt I have ever had! Luke helps me field dress the buck, and then we drag it to the truck, the length of a football field away. It is now 7:55 a.m. We arrive home fifteen minutes later and hang the buck in our garage. I prefer to let a deer hang for a day before skinning it.

By the time we finish this, it is only 8:30 a.m. An idea begins to take shape. It is a rather warm day. Already, the temperature has risen past forty degrees. We have four or five hours to kill before we gather with some friends for Thanksgiving dinner.

So, why not spend it fly fishing!

Nice Buck, Fat Rainbow

Ben is up by this time, and he joins Luke and me in search for our waders, fly fishing vests, and fly rods. By 9:30 a.m., we reach the Warm Springs parking area on the Madison River where it exits the Bear Trap Canyon. Predictably, no one is parked here today. We enjoy the warmth of the sun as we walk in the trail. There is a bit of wind, but the conditions are pleasant. So is the fishing.

It would be an exaggeration to say that we slaughtered the trout on this day, but in the next two hours at our favorite spot, affectionately known as “Rainbow Run,” we each land three trout. One of mine is a seventeen-inch rainbow, which I catch on a San Juan worm. This is the easiest fly in the world to tie.

You simply tie the middle of a piece of red chenille to the shank of the hook Then, you burn off each end with a lighter or a match to make the ends bead. It may be simple to tie, but it is effective.

The wind picks up about 11:30 a.m., so we begin the twenty minute hike to the parking lot, then make the forty minute drive home.  By 12:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving day, I have accomplished something I have never done before. I’ve taken a nice whitetail buck and caught a seventeen-inch rainbow with my fly rod on the same morning.

It’s a Thanksgiving Day double! I don’t recall the Pilgrims doing anything like this on the morning before they sat down with members of the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth Plantation to eat the first Thanksgiving Day meal.

If you spend enough time fly fishing, you’ll have days that humble you and some that elate you. You’ll even have some that are crazy enough to provide a deep sense of satisfaction.

Three Lessons My Dad Taught Me about Fly Fishing

My dad taught me three of the most important lessons I ever learned about fly fishing.

The irony is that he never fly fished. These three lessons my dad taught me came during the handful of times he took me trout fishing with a spinning rod or during the dozens of times he took me hunting for pheasants, white-tail deer, or elk:

1. Be patient with youngsters.

There should be a Chinese proverb which says, “Teach a child to fish and try not to go crazy in the process.”

I remember the time we were camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I was nine, and my brother, Dave, was seven. We were trying to spin-fish in a little trout stream that came rushing down the mountainside over boulders. My dad took off his shoes, rolled up his pant legs, and spent the better part of the next two hours wading in ice-cold water, dislodging our Mepps #2 spinners from every rock and logjam in the creek.

I was excited when he told us that we were hooking into a lot of “bottom bass.”

It took me a couple of years to figure out what a “bottom bass” really was – a code word for a snag on a rock or whatever else lurked under the surface. It took me a few more years to appreciate the patience my dad had that afternoon. If he hadn’t been patient and helpful, my love for trout fishing might have been demolished or at least delayed.

I’ve tried to practice patience with my own children. My two adult sons love to fly fish, so I guess I didn’t ruin them with too many fits of impatience when they snagged a pine tree limb or my fly fishing vest with their back casts.

Of the three lessons my father taught me, practicing patience is the most obvious and the most difficult to do.

2. Invest in quality equipment.

When it came to firearms, my dad did his research.

He figured out that a .280 Remington (7mm Express) would be a great all-around caliber for both deer and elk. He worked up a hand-load with 150-grain bullets that had the flat-shooting of a .270 and the punch of a 30.06. Before Winchester and Remington produced a line of mountain rifles with synthetic stocks, he found a gunsmith in Belgrade, Montana who built a mountain rifle for him. He had learned about David Gentry from voraciously reading the major firearm magazines. Then, when I was in the market for a new hunting rifle, he encouraged me to consider a Ruger Model 77.

Also, my dad had no time for cheap scopes. He insisted that my brother, Dave, and I save our dollars for Leupold scopes so that our targets would be clear and illumined if we had a chance to shoot a few minutes after legal shooting light began or a few minutes before it ended.

I have followed this approach when purchasing fly fishing equipment. I’ve done my research and invested in rods made by Winston and Orvis, as well as in reels made by Orvis and Lamson. The right equipment can help with well-placed casts and with landing a big rainbow or brown trout.

3. Work together as a team.

When I hunted with my dad, there was usually another brother involved — either one of his or one of mine. We learned to make this work to our advantage. If we were hunting white-tails, we would often post somebody along a game trail, and then two of us would circle back and walk through the timber or coulee in hopes of pushing something along the game trail by the posted hunter. It worked on several occasions. If we were bow-hunting elk, we would put a caller (with an elk bugle or a cow call) about twenty yards behind the two guys in front who would get in position for a shot.

Our thinking was that an elk which came within 40 yards of the caller would get within 20 yards of one of the shooters. That strategy worked, too.

Of course, it works differently with fly fishing.

We’re obviously not trying to push trout to a waiting fly fisher! But when my fly fishing partner, Dave, and I are on a river, we find ways of working together. Sometimes, it is as simple as using different fly patterns to see which one works best. Occasionally, one of us will work the same holes or runs together — one fishing above the surface with a dry fly, and the other below the surface with a nymph or a streamer.

Most times we’re working together by alternating runs as we work up or down the river. Or one of us stops fishing to help take a photo or help with a tangle. We work together rather than compete against each other, though I like nothing more than to land the biggest fish of the day.

Yes, there’s something special about fly fishing with your dad or with your son or daughter. You can learn a lot and teach a lot in the process. These three lessons that my dad taught me are priceless.

Just pray for patience.