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True TV

Outdoor programming relies on an abundance of skill, flexibility, and more than a little dumb luck

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My crew and I were thigh-deep in the frigid waters of British Columbia’s Thompson River when the driftboat came floating around an upstream bend. I told my cameraman to move his shot from the steelhead anglers we were filming to the approaching boat. I didn’t know what might happen, but I wanted it on tape.

As the big river pushed the boat closer, the attractive brunette in its bow stood up and turned toward us. “Hey Nick!” she bellowed across the water. Then she lifted her shirt, exposing a pair of magnificent breasts, and raised her hand, middle digit extended. “Fuuuuuck youuuuuu!” she yelled, then sat down and floated on down the river and, thankfully, out of my life.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Matt Young
  • Cameramen Nathan Petersen and Jake Hanson film on the Snake River for an episode of “Trout Unlimited.”

The five of us in the water—two steelhead freaks, a couple of cameramen and myself—went back to work. We had less than 24 hours to salvage the most bizarre shoot I’d ever been on, and we needed a fish to close out the episode. Considering the expenses we’d already incurred, we needed to return to Missoula with a show, come hell or high water. We’d already had plenty of both.

Outdoor television is a dichotomous beast, with one foot in the high-tech, high-pressure world of TV production and the other in the wilds and waters where sportsmen roam. Conventional TV productions typically boast large teams, rigidly controlled environments, tight scripts and even tighter logistics. Successful hunting and fishing excursions normally involve solo trekkers or small groups, highly variable environments and loosely laid plans.

Force the two together and the result can be utter chaos: sportsmen who can’t effectively pursue their quarry with a TV crew in tow; producers who can’t make otherwise intelligent people understand that if something doesn’t happen on camera, it might as well not have happened at all; and non-cooperative animals, weather and equipment alike.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Jake Hanson

But well over 50 million Americans hunt, fish and shoot, and enough of them like to see their lifestyle represented on the tube to support three full-time national hook-and-bullet cable and satellite channels, and a host of regional and part-time channels. That’s a lot of hours to fill with programming, and it’s been filled in every way imaginable, with hunting shows (rifle, bow, muzzleloader; big game, small game, bird, predator); fishing shows (fly, bait, gear; freshwater, saltwater, brackish water; big fish, small fish, exotic fish); and shooting shows (recreational, tactical, competitive, exhibition; large bore, medium bore, small bore). Back in 1989, when outdoor television was limited to part-time status on sports and regional networks and the occasional network special, a former tennis pro from Billings convinced ESPN to air a show about celebrities fly fishing in exotic global destinations. Using “Fly Fishing the World” as a cornerstone, John Barrett created a small empire built around outdoor TV production, with comparatively high production values as his calling card.

Barrett moved his operation to Missoula in 1997, and I was hired as a writer for Barrett Productions in 2003. We produced upwards of 120 half-hour episodes annually, and within a year I was writing and producing three different fly-fishing series. One of them, “Fly Fishing America,” had recently lost its host, and we decided to reinvent the show without one, documentary-style. That approach allowed me to go after the best stories I could find, be they angler-, river- or fish-centric.

I thought I was onto something special when I stumbled across the website of a brash female guide from Washington state. She had a chip on her shoulder about the lack of respect she felt she received in the male-dominated world of salmon and steelhead guiding, and offered numerous anecdotes suggesting her equality—if not superiority—to her male peers. Numerous self-portraits on the site additionally suggested that she harbored few qualms about using her sexuality to further her business prospects. The takeaway—I’m paraphrasing here—was why hire a male guide when you can get the same or better results with me? I’m hot!

That attitude set off alarms among my female colleagues, but after lengthy consideration I made the call and scheduled a shoot with the guide—let’s call her Athena. I figured we’d get a great story if Athena turned out to be all she said she was. And if she wasn’t, we’d still have a star who would fuel nearly every male angler’s (other) wet dream: a hot chick with a fly rod.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • John Aaseng
  • Jon Aaseng filming Magnum Hunt Club member John McKnight on a British Columbia mountain goat hunt.

There are innumerable challenges to making outdoor television, but the biggest impediment is almost always the budget, or lack thereof.

Ratings for outdoor networks aren’t usually robust enough to command the attention of national advertisers, and so the ad landscape of outdoor TV is dominated by niche products: guns, ammunition, bows, rods, lures, boots, knives and the like. The companies that make and market these products tend toward the shallow end of the national advertising pool and, as a result, production budgets for outdoor shows are a fraction of those for mainstream television.

The job of nurturing a series from conception to delivery falls on the producer, who finds storylines, determines locations, arranges travel and lodging for the host and crew, and works with editors to put the show together. Since the vast majority of outdoor shows are sponsored—production companies typically purchase airtime and then solicit sponsors to offset the cost—producers have to also be adept at managing relationships with sponsoring companies that may care more about product exposure than creative content.

Due to budget constraints and the logistical need to keep crew size to a minimum, producers are often unable to accompany their crews on shoots. When the producer stays home, responsibility for field production falls on the cameramen. A standard outdoor shoot requires one or two videographers and maybe a production assistant/audio tech on location. On multiple-camera shoots, one videographer, usually the most experienced, will take the lead. On one-camera shoots—typically remote or stealth hunts—the lone videographer is a one-man band, responsible for all video, audio and field direction. The entire responsibility for content-gathering falls on a single individual; if they don’t return with enough quality footage to make a show, there will be hell to pay.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Matt Young

To get that footage, shooters coordinate and direct the on-screen talent, be it host or guest. They record all pertinent action, from travel shots and set-ups to scouting missions and distant animals, kill shots to hook-ups, interviews to transition-easing B-roll.

In addition to finely tuned creative chops and discipline, field crews are also highly advanced in terms of general badassery. They pack upwards of 50 pounds of gear over every kind of terrain on the planet. A Barrett Productions crew once spent 10 days in the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan on an ibex hunt, getting shuttled by outdated Soviet helicopters and military vehicles and humping up 13,000-foot peaks. Field crews brave conditions that would cripple normal humans: musk ox hunts at 40 below zero in the Arctic Circle; September bow hunts in temperatures approaching 100; black bear hunts in the impenetrable tangles of the Yukon; African safaris dodging blast-furnace temperatures and angry man-eaters alike.

The job isn’t without its rewards, of course—getting paid to travel to some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet is a hell of a perk—but the faint of heart, leg or eye need not apply.

Time in the field working with crews and hosts in such conditions is the best way to understand the dynamics of television production, and I made a practice of traveling to as many regional shoots as my workload and budget would allow. That’s how I ended up staring at an angry woman’s breasts bobbing down the Thompson River.

The plan was to begin filming Athena as she guided clients for two days on her familiar home waters. Then we’d head up the Thompson River for a few days of steelheading, her favorite recreational pursuit. It was the first week of November and all but one of our staff cameramen were scattered on other shoots. I flew in an out-of-state freelance shooter we used on such occasions, and the three of us headed west.

A massive storm system was bearing down on the Pacific Northwest as we left Missoula. By the time we hit Snoqualmie Pass, all liquid hell—buckets of rain, sleet and snow—had broken loose. After a white-knuckle drive we arrived at Athena’s house in the late afternoon, shot a few short segments of Athena cooking dinner for her husband and kids (Hot Steelhead Guide Does Domestic!) and then drove through steady rain to the small town where we’d base our operation for the next few days.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Jake Hanson
  • “Nosler’s Magnum TV” host Rob Dunham, left, poses with cameraman Jon Aaseng and Mike Babcock in Kyrgyzstan.

The rain continued through the night, and when we woke up the next morning we had a decision to make. Every river in the area was bank-full and muddy, but Athena said she knew a river or two that would fish even in these conditions. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the motel café and game-planned an effort to find fish in the flood. It was then we got word that both roads leading out of town had been nearly overrun by the advancing flows, and that we risked an extended lockdown if we didn’t make tracks in a hurry. We heard relatively good news about the weather up in British Columbia, and decided to switch up our locations; maybe we could get some good footage on B.C.’s Thompson River and then shoot on the dropping Washington rivers on our way back. Improvisation is chronic on outdoor shoots, and I felt good about the change of plan. Little did I know that the literal storm we were enduring in Washington was just a gentle spring shower compared to the figurative storm we were chasing to B.C.

Steelhead fly fishermen operate on the lunatic fringe of angling. They routinely drive hundreds of miles to camp in crappy weather, eat crappy food and drink crappy beer in the name of a pursuit that can reward all that effort with days or even weeks without a single instance of steelheading’s treasured tug.

British Columbia’s Fraser River is one of the most revered watersheds in all of steelhead fishing, and its largest tributary, the Thompson River, is held in particular esteem by hardcore steelheaders. The fish of the Thompson are known for their massive size and immense power. They’re also scarce enough—in down years, the run is measured in the hundreds of fish on a river that averages over 20,000 cfs—that the Thompson suffers occasional season-long closures. That Athena had picked one of the toughest fields in fishing on which to show her stuff gave me enormous optimism about her skills.

That optimism proved mostly unfounded. Because we began fishing a day earlier than planned, Athena’s fishing buddy from Vancouver had not yet arrived, so we shot an entire day of footage with Athena and the “client” she had arranged for the first leg of the shoot—a guy we’ll call Steve, who had made the trip from Washington with us to help out. Steve seemed uncomfortable with a fly rod, which didn’t strike me as overly alarming because, hey, that’s why the guy needs a guide, right? But Athena wasn’t much better. Spey rods (long, stout rods designed for big fish in big water, operated with two hands) are graceful tools when properly handled, but there wasn’t much grace showing up in our camera’s lens.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Aaron Carothers
  • Jon Aaseng in his "mobile field office" downloading footage in Tanzania during a Cape buffalo hunt for “Nosler's Magnum TV.”

Then there was the odd and apparently growing tension between Athena and Steve, on-camera and off. My headphones were tapped into the wireless mics they were both wearing, and one thing most inexperienced “talent” forgets is that the audio remains live even when the cameras are off. By late afternoon I had heard enough “stupid fucker” and “idiot” outbursts from Athena to make me think that a) there was something more to her relationship with Steve than a simple guide-client dynamic, and b) whatever it was, it wasn’t a good thing. After we wrapped for the day I pulled Athena aside and told her that the portrait we ended up with was entirely up to her, but so far it was not a pretty one.

Still, despite a tug-less first day, I held out hope that Athena’s actual steelheader buddy would help right the ship on day two. “Mike”—all names have been changed to protect the guilty—was heavily involved in a major B.C. steelhead organization, and from what I could gather online, he seemed like the real deal.

Indeed he was. Mike handled the long rod like it was an extension of his arms, sending fly and line arcing through the air like gossamer silk. He spoke of the Thompson River as if it were a life partner, and he knew its runs and flows intimately.

I dedicated one camera to Mike and one to Athena. Though they fished the same runs, I began spending more and more time with Mike, gleaning information about the sport, the river and the culture, and he routinely supplied the kind of cleanly articulated thoughts that Athena could or would not.

By that point I had begun thinking we could build a show around Athena, Mike and the Thompson River, and bypass the follow-up Washington shoot altogether. But then things turned strange. Athena, perhaps sensing the shift in the show’s focus, became at once more brash about her own fishing acumen—while continuing to undermine that brashness with her actions—and even more intolerant of Steve. She ripped into him incessantly, even when he was trying to help. At one point, Athena was struggling with the anchor mechanism in the bottom of the boat; when Steve tried to tell her how to operate it, she went off like a rocket.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Mike Emery
  • A Barrett Productions film crew interviews Scottish actor Billy Connolly after a week of fishing in Belize.

I finally got comfortable enough with Mike, whom Athena had personally tagged to be her fishing buddy for this portion of the show, to ask him about Athena’s dubious skills. He surprised me by saying that he’d only fished with her once or twice, and that he’d agreed to the shoot because it sounded like a cool experience and might provide him a platform to advance the cause of his favorite river. He agreed that Athena was completely overmatched on the Thompson.

As we floated our final stretch of river after fishing the last run of the day—catching no fish, though Mike had a tug— Athena’s malice toward Steve, which had thus far seemed merely irrational, flamed into white-hot hatred. She verbally beat him like a rented mule the entire way. It was a surreal scene, and the crew, Mike and I sat in stunned silence as the sparks flew. By the time we got to the takeout my own fuse blew. I told her we were taking the show in another direction and would no longer be requiring her services.

Later that evening, in the riverside bed-and-breakfast where I’d arranged lodging, she went after Steve with a poker from the fireplace. Steve avoided injury, and neither he nor the proprietor elected to press charges. Athena was kicked out and we thought we’d never see her again. We were wrong.

In outdoor television production, as in fishing or hunting, dumb luck can sometimes make the difference between success and failure. My luck on the Thompson River changed dramatically after we parted ways with Athena.

Mike took me to a lowbagger boarding house for steelheaders to meet its owners, who lived in an upstairs apartment and charged from $5 to $20 per night for lodging, depending on whether you wanted to sleep on a bed, a couch or the floor. After receiving their blessing, the crew and I mingled with the occupants—perhaps 15 at the time, including a famous Japanese spey-rod designer and his posse of five—in hopes of finding someone to build a show around.

We ended up shooting four anglers, including Mike, over the course of three days of fishing on the Thompson. They were young, in their twenties and early thirties, tattooed, pierced and rocking flat-brimmed baseball caps. They were passionate about the sport, engaged in the protection of the fishery and immensely articulate. They handled their spey rods with ease and grace, and fished hard even when no tugs were forthcoming. For my purposes, they were pure gold.

I had extended the shoot by two days to accommodate our new direction, but both cameramen had commitments that disallowed further extension. On the morning of our departure day, we had tons of great footage of the river, of casting, of interviews, of boarding-house camaraderie. We just didn’t have a fish.

We discussed our Hail Mary options and headed out for a final run. After three hours of hard fishing we still had no fish. I delayed our departure by a half-hour, figuring we could speed on the trip home, and hoping the boss would cover the ticket if it came to that.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Grant Herzog
  • A crew films an episode of the Sportsman Channel’s “Moment of Impact" at Mountain King Ranch in Wyoming.

The half-hour came and went, and out of sheer desperation I announced a last-ditch five-minute extension. Three minutes later, the line came tight in one of the anglers’ hands, and minutes after that we had a beautiful 14-pound hen in the shallows, and on tape. After six days of stormy weather, a stormy woman, and dozens of hours of fish-free footage, we finally had our show. The crew and I rode a wave of euphoria all the way to Seattle, where we just barely got our freelancer on his flight back home.

The future of outdoor television is anybody’s guess. A quick perusal of online video sites reveals that the recent explosion of high-end, low-cost production equipment has found its way to hunting, fishing and shooting enthusiasts. Perhaps the democratization that these tools portend will result in a reinvention of the genre and an increased profile among national advertisers, in turn fueling higher budgets and better-quality shows.

But no matter how polished outdoor TV becomes, video documentation of the outdoor lifestyle will always remain beholden to the wild environments in which it unfolds.

Every sportsman and sportswoman worth their salt knows that anything can happen out there, and that success is measured not just by results, but also by experience, determination, and the occasional lightning strike of dumb luck. Like the time a disgruntled exhibitionist led me to the best fishing story I ever hope to tell. In the midst of the storm we unwittingly rode into during our search for a compelling episode, my crew and I were beneficiaries of such a strike. The TV story we told turned out to be my favorite episode of my producing career. And the behind-the-scenes story, punctuated by a mid-river breast flashing, remains the one I tell people when they ask just how crazy it can get out there.

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