The American Sportsman may live again

When I heard recently that the folks at ESPN were considering the return of The American Sportsman series to television, I started remembering how the old version began in the 1960s. Back then, a handful at ABC had nothing but an idea. There were no national outdoor shows at the time.

We were armed with nothing more than lightweight (16.5-pound) film cameras and new wave tape recorders and a conviction that people sitting in living rooms on winter Sunday afternoons would be interested in watching other people fish and hunt in beautiful places around the world.

Since we at ABC were used to covering sports events, we created our own competitions, and then set up at least six cameras at various angles and let the good times roll. They rolled for 22 seasons. Our players were movie stars or sports stars or the occasional politician. Early destinations were Patagonia in Argentina for huge brook trout, Cabo San Lucas in Mexico for sailfish and Kenya in Africa for elephant, Cape buffalo and lion.

Television was still young, and was hungry for programming that featured travel and adventure. Thus the show was an immediate hit. Millions of outdoorsmen tuned in to join the hook-and-bullet fun. Though the early shows were filled with editorial blips, the audience forgave us our ignorance and applauded the effort.

Early innovations

And we got better, steadily learning on the job and improvising when needed. Perhaps the single most important piece of equipment was the recently invented wireless microphone. Each participant was required to wear one under his shirt or jacket; it was connected by wire to a battery taped to his back. The new device allowed every word and breath to be recorded by a soundman stationed 50 yards away.

We discovered the power of sound when we hunted big game in East Africa. Using hand-held cameras equipped with recently developed zoom lenses and the wireless microphones, we took the hunting experience straight into living rooms across America. This, of course, was in the days before hunting became politically incorrect.

The impact was tremendous. Within a few years, the Sportsman, as we called it, had developed a following of millions. We often doubled the ratings of NBC and CBS. With our mounting success, it became easier to lure entertainment personalities to join our global expeditions. Actors, astronauts, writers and politicians signed up for exotic trips into the African bush or north woods. The bigger the game, the bigger the name, and the more the audience loved it. For 13 weeks between January and April we held the nation's outdoorsmen captive and, more often than not, we provided them with high adventure.

Big game, bigger names

We used the TV set as a dream machine. Through the American Sportsman, a man could get closer than ever to big game hunting's moments of truth. He heard every breath, every whisper. In one segment, high drama built as Jimmy Doolittle edged ever closer to a world-record rhino as big as a garage. The response was no less visceral when Clint Walker faced a charging brown bear with just a bow and arrow. Or when legendary outdoorsman Lee Wulff dropped a charging bull elephant less than 30 feet away.

Big game fishing was no less riveting. Three shows leap to mind.

One was of actor Van Heflin catching a 400-pound blue marlin in an area of the Bahamas called the Tongue of the Ocean. The drama of the aging Heflin pitted against the young, powerful billfish had all the elements of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. His shirt sweat-drenched, an exhausted Heflin asks the skipper if the marlin is tiring. "Not yet, Van," says the skipper. "He's still green." At that moment, the camera frames Heflin's weathered visage, and with eyes straining under the effort, he responds, "He's green and I'm old."

In the autumn waters of Conception Bay, New Brunswick, Wulff ever the innovator set out to catch a giant bluefin tuna on 50-pound line instead of the 130-pound line commonly used for such tackle-busters. He hooked up shortly after noon. The camera crew faithfully covered the battle, which featured an engine breakdown, until Lee landed the world-record 600-pound fish about midnight. Every level of Wulff's fatigue was caught on film. The film was an instant classic, and today it is played in fishing clubs around the world.

Perhaps the single most astonishing piece of big-game fishing footage was shot by a photographic genius named Bruce Buckley. Again, the master angler was Lee Wulff. The scene took place off the coast of Nicaragua. Wulff, fishing from a small red boat, hooked up to a world-record striped marlin (about 160 pounds) with a one-piece, six-foot flyrod he designed to catch 20-pound Atlantic salmon. Buckley, shooting from another boat, captured the marlin up close and personal, as it leaped like a hurdler, leaving the ocean nine times. What made the shot all the more remarkable was that Buckley filmed it in slow motion, at hundreds of frames per second, his Miliken camera powered by a dozen car batteries he had brought to sea just in case such an opportunity arose. When the film was exposed back in New York City, we saw one of the greatest pieces of outdoor footage: the marlin moved majestically across the sea in a perfectly ballet of power and grace that has yet to be equaled.

As unforgettable as the old American Sportsman was, I look forward to the reincarnated version. With new technology and a young director's vision of this ancient sport, the new version should be all the more exciting.

Tight lines, folks.

In January, February and March 2002 CITGO's In Search of Flywater will air Sundays at 8:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2, and reair Thursdays at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET. A new Curt Gowdy memory appears in this space every other week.