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The Fishin' Hole's swan song

7/8/2008

On the verge of retiring as a television personality, Jerry McKinnis, the host of The Fishin' Hole on ESPN, recently took a moment to lean back from his desk, cross his legs and reflect on the past 40 years.

"I am not anything fancy or special," he said. "And I never tried to be."

The sheer longevity of The Fishin' Hole, though, suggests McKinnis was doing something special. The show traces its roots to a five-minute fishing report McKinnis offered on Little Rock local news in 1963.

That spot blossomed into the hour-long Arkansas Sportsman Show, which had been syndicated for 13 years when McKinnis brought The Fishin' Hole to ESPN in 1981. Today the network's only longer-running show is SportsCenter.

But the current 10-episode season (airing Saturdays at 5 and 7 a.m.) will be the show's last.

It will include retrospectives of some of McKinnis' favorite journeys and characters: fishing with Arkansas guide Forrest Wood in British Columbia; plying the Boundary Waters with Mary and Harry Lambirth; casting for carp in Ohio's Olentangy River and snaring sturgeon in Hell's Canyon.

Other episodes will feature some of The Fishin' Hole's more memorable guests: basketball coach Bobby Knight; angler Bobby Murray; baseball icon Ted Williams; and former Knight assistant and Utah State coach Kohn Smith.

Those characters drew viewers, but McKinnis said he'll most miss the people he encountered by chance in the course of his travels.

"I've got people who I feel are my close friends, and we only went fishing for three days in 1987," he said.

About 200 of his close friends toasted McKinnis' impending retirement at a roast in November. That night, McKinnis received the distinction of being needled by both Knight and then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the same sitting.

For a roast, though, it suffered from a lack of malice. Knight, Wood, angler Kevin VanDam, former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Hertzog — they all offered more warmth than heat. In the end, they said, McKinnis is just too damn decent.

"I've often said that if I had an older brother, I'd want it to be him," Knight told the crowd that evening. "He brings an honesty and an integrity to the business that he's in. You're not catching Kentucky Bass in the Potomac River when you're fishing with Jerry McKinnis."

If McKinnis has a legacy, anglers and his colleagues say, it may be for the very substance of his show.

The calm voiceovers and patiently framed style of The Fishin' Hole seem almost quaint beside flashier programs, and McKinnis, a throwback compared with other hosts.

He also prides himself on never having sacrificed the show's content to sponsors.

"One of the big problems is that it's so hard to sell this [programming], and there are a lot of people that sell their souls to be able to finance their product," said Bill Fitts, a producer who worked with McKinnis. "They have a lot of product placements or shortcuts in the production. He didn't shortchange his audience to make a buck. You won't find very many guys like that."

Said McKinnis: "I've tried to really be true to the viewers and not sell anything. That includes myself. I don't care if you have any idea what my real ability catching fish is."

In the early days of the program's run on ESPN, when it was a full hour, the fishing could appear secondary. Episodes included recipe segments and features on local curiosities — a cowboy museum, say, on a trip to Wyoming.

"My show belonged on National Geographic as much as it belonged on ESPN," McKinnis said.

As much as the show was about fishing, it was about location.

Larry Colombo, who appeared on several episodes of The Fishin' Hole, remembers well the first time he went fishing with McKinnis, 36 years ago.

Colombo led the host and his cameraman to a pair of frozen-over farm ponds in the strip-mined countryside of southwest Indiana. That day they pulled more than 150 bluegills from beneath 10 inches of ice, Colombo recalls.

"There's so many shows now where Joe Fisherman wants to show people how good a fisherman he is," Colombo said. McKinnis "was always focusing on his guest, and there was always a technique, something he wanted to show.

"Anybody who has ever paid any attention to the sport will remember McKinnis for the type of show that he's done. There have been a lot since and there will be a lot after, but he set the precedent for fishing shows."

McKinnis' packed slate has insulated him from wistfulness.

Now approaching 70, he still works in production and editing for the raft of outdoors content that his Little Rock, Ark.-based company, JM Associates, produces for ESPN (this web site included).

He'll continue as a presence with Bassmaster, among other programming. He just won't be in front of the camera, for the first time since man first walked on the moon.

"I think a lot of viewers don't know I'm there, but will miss me when I'm gone," McKinnis said. "They'll say, 'You know, we haven't seen that one show where the guy comes on with his dog and kind of hangs out with us.' "