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True TV

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



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.

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