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Mountain Home Magazine

The Fishing Guide to the Presidents

Apr 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Linda Roller

What do you do when the President of the United States visits the national park where you (a Pennsylvania school teacher) are working (as a seasonal park ranger) and wants fresh trout for dinner? If you’re Don Daughenbaugh, you go fishing.

At his home in Oak Knolls, Lycoming County, Don tells the story of this encounter with President Richard Nixon, back when Don was working at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

“President Nixon and his daughters showed up in the park one August day. The visitation was slightly different because President Nixon was not an outdoorsman. I could tell that by his beautifully shined shoes. He just came to relax and enjoy the park.” But he did have a favor to ask.

“I recall it was 4 p.m. [Chief Ranger] Frank [Betts] had a special request,” Don remembers. “‘The President would like to have fresh trout for his dinner tonight. And there are six in his party. Could you get us twelve cutthroat trout each about a foot long?’ I knew that would not be a problem, but it was now 4:30 and dinner was set for 6:00, so I could not venture far. I lucked out, because it was August and prime time for the pale morning duns to appear on the Snake River. I knew that the cutthroats on the river would be looking up at the base of the famous Signal Mountain, [hungry for the duns]. It was a challenge, but when I arrived at one of my favorite spots the trout were indeed looking up, and I could fish dry flies. When I arrived at the Brinkerhoff Lodge at 6:00 with my Arctic creel and a dozen twelve-inch trout for Nixon’s dinner, I knew they would be happy campers.”

Every Crick in the Book

Don’s house is the home of a true outdoorsman. There are a few mounts: a bighorn sheep, and a mountain lion pelt preserved in the fashion of close to a century ago. More prominent are the National Park shield and the pictures of a life close to the land and the water. The focal point is the view through large windows overlooking the Pennsylvania countryside and the trees banking the Loyalsock. From here it is an easy trek to a renowned trout stream.

The flyer for his just-published book, Great People, Great Rivers, says: “At 94, you might expect Don to slow down a little.” But he’s ninety-five now, and the bright eyes and quick conversation don’t indicate a downshift.

Don has always been busy and has always preferred being busy outdoors. By the time he was nine years old, his family had moved to a small farm along the Cocolamus Creek, near the Juniata River in the central part of the state. Don tells stories of learning to skin eel, trap, and shoot.

“My father would tell me, ‘Take my Model 12 Winchester and this shell and go get us some meat for supper, and if you miss don’t come home because we will not have anything to eat.’ I was raised with a gun in one hand and a fishing rod in the other.”

Don and his brother Charles helped to keep the family fed, and, on the family farm, learned the value of hard work. It was the farm, and the contents of the corn crib, that gave Don the money for his first year in college. With the money from the corn, Don bought 500 day-old giant white rock chicks. By Thanksgiving, each of the birds weighed around fourteen pounds. The money from the sale of the birds launched his higher education.

World War II interrupted Don’s college years, but he returned to East Stroudsburg State Teachers College (now East Stroudsburg University) after the war. By 1949 he had graduated with degrees in biology, health, and physical education.

That, and the later master’s degrees from Penn State and Boston University, added the formal education to the lifelong lessons learned as a farmer and naturalist living off the land. Back in Pennsylvania, at his first teaching job in Thompsontown, he met a fellow teacher and a lover of nature and the outdoors—and the love of his life—Mary Jane Fairchild. They married in 1950.

The launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 changed Don and his family’s life. The federal government needed to upgrade science education in schools, and Don was one of the teachers awarded a scholarship, thanks to the Academic Year Institute. He was to spend a year and two summers in advanced studies at the University of Colorado. Suddenly, the Pennsylvania woodsman was transported close to some of the best fishing in the West, where this born naturalist learned the secrets of his new aquatic territory. By 1963, he was a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. He and his family ultimately spent twenty-five summers at Grand Teton, and an additional several summers at Big Bend.

It was here that all of Don’s talents shone. He was not only an experienced and dedicated teacher, but had that rare ability to explain and guide people, not just instruct them. His knowledge of the park’s streams and the ways of trout, combined with a friendly and open nature, made him just the man to work with the visitors to this national park jewel.

And it was here that he met many government officials and celebrities, all looking for rest and relaxation (and often some great fishing) in the Tetons.

Fishing with Famous Folk

As one of the top guides at the park, Don guided many congressmen, senators, and other rich and influential people. But there were two who became friends for a lifetime: President Jimmy Carter and his family, and Vice President Dick Cheney and his family. When Don tells his fishing tales, it isn’t long before a trip with one of these people, who also love fishing and the rivers, flows into the conversation. Cheney was the congressman from Wyoming when he met Don as a fishing guide and ranger. Over the decades, they have fished and hunted throughout the West and in the limestone streams and rivers of Pennsylvania. Whether it was cutthroat in the Yellowstone River, the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho, or here at Pine Creek, Don reads the fish and the water. With that help, Cheney and friends like Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker improve their skills and take the big fish.

August is a great month for fishing in the mountains of the western United Sates. Don recalls one August when the Cheneys and friends met up with Don and his family to fish the Yellowstone, at the time flowing with trout so large that the first hookup broke Dick Cheney’s 5X tippet. Don noticed the caddis larva were plentiful, so he used caddis larva imitation flies.

“We knew we had the right imitation that day when we had three hookups at the same time,” he says. “Presentation of our larva [flies] was the key to our success that day.”

It was 1978 when President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn spent a whole day fishing at the 4 Lazy F Ranch on the Snake River. Don matched the mayfly duns on the stream surface with a fly, but the president wasn’t having any luck.

“Soon I could see why he wasn’t catching trout,” Don remembers. “He was not mending the leader and fly line to prevent the imitation fly from dragging across the water’s surface.” Both Carters got the help needed to make the casts and catch, but not without a few mishaps.

“I was slightly embarrassed when I turned back a moment later and the First Lady was sitting in the stream in water above her hip boots,” Don says. “Rosalynn Carter was a good sport, willing to laugh at herself. She fished the rest of the day soaking wet rather than interrupt our day.” On another day in this fishing trip, President Carter caught a dry fly in the face. Dr. William Lukash, the president’s physician, attempted unsuccessfully to remove it. But Don knew a better, easier way—one the guides use. He showed the doctor how to push down on the eye of the hook and then snap it out, so that the hook would come out the way it went in.

It’s a guide’s job to figure out why his people are not catching trout, and Don was a master at it. He notes that both of these good friends listened to him and used his skill.

“Good fishing guides like clients that listen,” he muses.

Although Don met these friends in western waters, he did what any real Pennsylvanian does: he brought them back to the Keystone State, to eastern waters like Spruce Creek, Pine Creek, and the Loyalsock. One June, Cheney called Don to see how the trout fishing was in northcentral Pennsylvania. “Come right now,” Don told him. There was good water at the Texas Blockhouse Club, where the Texas and Blockhouse creeks form the Little Pine.

“The first thing they needed to do for a great experience was to get down on their knees along the banks of the small trout pools,” Don says. He notes that it’s a different style of fishing from the streams out west, but the importance of blending in with the natural surroundings and mimicking what the trout are feeding on is the same.

When Don asked President Carter where he would like to fish in Pennsylvania, the answer was swift and certain: “Spruce Creek!” For Don, this was a trip back in time, as it was nearby that Don’s grandfather taught him and brother Charles how to fish limestone streams. But the first trip, sponsored by the Spruce Creek Rod and Gun Club, was shaping up to be a disappointment. Heavy rain had swollen the creek and filled it with yellow mud. Don drove into town to get some earthworms, as there would be no fly-fishing on the flood waters; “worm dunking” yielded an ice chest full of trout that day. In subsequent years, Wayne and Marjorie Harpster, who own the fly-fishing business at Evergreen Farms, made it possible for the Carters to enjoy casting over the green drake emergence cycles—no worms needed.

After many fishing trips, including some at Camp David, President Carter asked Don, “Is there anything I can do for you?” For Don, the answer was easy. He had a good bird dog, and he wanted to shoot quail in Plains, Georgia. “Three days of hunting and shooting wild quail over great pointers on the president’s peanut farm with Georgia friends made this a special place,” he remembers. Don even won over President Carter’s mother, Miss Lillian, by pulling a fat twenty-inch rainbow trout out of her pond. She ran down, scooped it up for the refrigerator, turned to Mary Jane and said, “I’m surely going to like that guy!”

A Family Affair with Fish and Frogs

When heading to Camp David for the first time, President Carter told Don that they (meaning the Carter entourage) didn’t go anywhere without their wives. Don had a similar motto and was never alone on his outdoor adventures. In the Grand Teton Park, and later in Big Bend, at Camp David, and even in Plains, Don traveled with Mary Jane and their daughter Kim. Kim spent every summer in the national parks and in the wilderness from age five until she was a sophomore in college. As a child, the family stayed the summer in a cabin on Jenny Lake in Colter Bay, Wyoming.

“It was a cabin at the base of the mountain, and we did have plumbing and a pot-bellied stove with a tank that heated water for a shower,” says Kim. Many times, though, the bathing was done in a small tub put on the porch, and the toilet was in a small enclosure also on the back porch. “At night, if I had to go, I could look out and see the eyes of the animals.” The animals were always close, with buffalo walking by at she fished in the creek.

Kim went on her first three-day backpacking trip, complete with forty-pound backpack, with her dad when she was twelve. “My dad would climb all over the Rocky Mountains on his days off, mostly to fish,” she says.

But the animals weren’t just out west in the parks in the summer.

“Dad was a biology teacher [in South Williamsport], and he was always bringing wildlife in for the class to see, and dead animals to dissect,” Kim remembers. “One time, he brought frogs into the house for class, and they got loose all over. You never knew what he would bring home.” Kim also tells of the time her father put a boa constrictor on her arm, where it did what constrictors do—squeeze. Her mother came out and “told him to get it off me.”

“It was like living with Crocodile Dundee,” she says. Kim pursued a musical career, and says that “today, I don’t like hunting, but I fish.” She also likes to trap shoot, a sport in which Don won several awards.

It’s All about the Flies

Reading the water, matching the hatch. These are terms used by expert fly fishermen, the ones who can tie flies to create imitations of the insects that hatch on the water, flies that look so delicious to trout. Don, who tied his first in 1949, has perfected this skill, and taught thousands of others how to tie flies in uncountable workshops. This skill has taken him around the world.

An English lady, Jill Spells, from Botswana spent a month with Don, learning how to tie flies so she could take the knowledge back to twenty-one women there.

“The following fall, I found myself sitting in the lonely restaurant in Maun, Botswana. I was ready to check out Jill’s twenty-one flytiers.” Of course, Botswana’s tiger fish, notably one of the world's toughest game fish, attracted Don to the area as well.

Some time after that, Dr. Paul McQuay, who was involved with Cottage Industries, a program teaching skills to people in third world countries, called Don and asked him to spend a month in the Amazon basin, again teaching women how to tie flies.

“On the plane, we carried hundreds of beautifully dyed Pennsylvania whitetail deer tails,” Don says. With those, the women learned to make flies to catch large fish, notably the peacock bass.

So, what does a man do when he has to “slow down” in his nineties? For Don, it was write a book. As a scholar and a creator of many workshops, demonstrations, and seminars, he was not unfamiliar with writing. But a book is a different kettle of fish.

“I don’t know if I would have done it if I’d known how much work it was,” Don admits. The book took two years, and readers will recognize it as a labor of love. Don assembled a team to help with his “slow down” project. Barbara Cioffi was his editor, and Ron Wenning, fellow outdoorsman and head of Wennawoods Publishing, gave guidance and support. They found a publisher in Quebec City who could work with the book a chapter at a time. Don listened to the experts and used their advice to produce the results he wanted. The glossy, full color book is a tribute to a life in the wilds, filled with photos of some of the most beautiful places in the world, and filled with more than a few tips and tricks in the art of fly-fishing—yet one more seminar from a master of the craft.

The book is available through Flies International, P.O. Box 215, Carlisle, PA, 17015. $34.95 plus $5.95 media mail shipping. Payments may be made with check or money order to Flies International, or via PayPal at [email protected].

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