Montana Headwall » Head Lines & Features

True TV

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



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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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