Big Brown Excites TU TV Show

There's nothing Razorback about this fish story, other than the crew of the On the Rise television show hails from Montana and was interested to hear about the transition of Bobby Petrino -- another Montana native -- as Arkansas football coach. Or, you could say this is all about a big hawg.

The Great Guppy Hunter saved his reputation Wednesday on the White River.

Well, that's not exactly what Frank Smethurst's crew was calling him after several episodes this fall in production for On The Rise, Trout Unlimited's TV series on the Outdoor Channel. But Nathan Peterson, Jake Hanson and Matt Young (the talented men on the cameras) were talking behind his back because of all the 10, 12 and 14-inch trout featured on many of the shows before they got to Arkansas.

That turned around when Smethurst spent a few days in Arkansas trout water with famed Norfork guide John Wilson. Smethurst was bouncing up and down in pure joy after landing the big one pictured in this space. Wilson's ability for delivering trophy brown trout held up under the pressure of the On the Rise cameras.

The TV crew — with three cameras cranking — got it all on tape Wednesday. Wilson spotted it and Smethurst hooked it on one perfectly delivered cast. It may be the biggest trout ever put in a net for TV. It measured 35 inches and was estimated to weigh between 15 and 18 pounds. Of course, it was quickly released. The fight lastd just under five minutes -- a good thing since the lead camera had just over five minutes left on its loaded rig.

Trout Unlimited came up with the concept for On the Rise about 18 months ago and picked Smethurst, a world class caster and fly fisher, to be the man on camera. Smooth is the best description for his style on the river and in front of a camera as host.

There were 15 episodes of the show last year with plans for 15 shows this year — unless they end up with three or four episodes on their Arkansas stop. They had nine in the can before they got to Arkansas for 2009.

Dennis McCarty of Fayetteville, Trout Unlimited's state council chair, has been the coordinator for the Arkansas stop — along with Wilson — over the last few months. As things began to develop this week, he was talking with folks back in the production office for On the Rise in Montana.

They've told McCarty this may be their best stop for any of their episodes and the crew doesn't want to leave. And, that was before they begin on the Little Red. The footage they got on the White, Norfork and Little Red rivers was out of this world.

The two days on the Little Red might earn the reputation as a 20-20 -- over 20 fish measuring at least 20 inches. To put that in perspective, there had been zero fish 20 inches or better filmed and landed in the previous episodes of the show. Perhaps they can call the episode with the Litte Red video "20-20 vision."

The bad news is that we still are a few weeks away from seeing the finished product. There are already nine shows taped that will run before the Arkansas episodes and they begin in January. It could be March or April for we see their work here.

For me, it will be like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. There's nothing like seeing a big-time operation film your home waters. I'm also anxious to see the likes of Bill Thorne and Bruce Ritter miked-up and filmed while they land 25-inch browns. They were the guest anglers picked by TU to go with Wilson and Smethurst on the White and Norfork. Thorne is a past president of the Arkansas Chapter during his Fayetteville days.

Retired from Nabholz near the White, he's the current president of TU's new Mountain Home chapter. Ritter, retired from Procter & Gamble, is a past president of TU's Arkansas Chapter.

There is personal interest since I helped McCarty host the TV crew a couple of nights in his cabin on the White River at Red's Landing. As head cook and bottle washer, I did steaks (4 inches thick) one night and cranked up my "bullet" smoker the next. My specialty, cherry and peach cobbler, ended each night. I'm not sure the food topped the 35-inch brown, but I believe the crew went home with full bellies.

From my view, the highlight was a scouting trip McCarty and I made with Wilson last week on the White. It covered the state park to Cotter. I'm sworn to secrecy as to what Wilson spotted in our presence, but I can tell you that the 35-incher isn't nearly the big fish in the upper White right now.

Scouting for big fish with John may be the most interesting thing I've ever done on the river. I catch lots of trout, but I don't get into many over 20-22 inches. I knew there were bigger brown trout there, but it didn't take long with John to have proof.

"Look there, see that monster ... 20 pounds, 25 pounds ... and there are some little ones beside them that are 25 inches!" Wilson said as he pointed them out. Dennis and I would look at each other and admit that often we didn't see them. To Wilson, it's an easy task. It would be like the rest of us noticing that there is a new couch in the living room. He knows the river that well and where the monsters hang out.

Towards the end of the scouting run, John pulled into a shoal to put Dennis and I on some big browns as a reward for spending a cold day on the river. We fished for only about 30 minutes as dark approached, but still landed several nice fish. There was a 22-inch brown that I landed that John sadly explained "was nothing to brag about." Oh, well. He did take pictures, so it wasn't all bad. Supposedly, Dennis and I put a drift over a 20-pounder several times. John said it was there, although I never saw it.

Wilson didn't tell me he'd have me wiped off the face of the earth if I revealed any of these spots. But it was understood. I can't tell you where he fished, or what we saw last week. Let's just say my memory just isn't real good from what I've seen and heard the last few days.

It's kinda like when the crew and other dinner guests Sunday night were inquiring about my cherry cobbler recipe. I said, "I can tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." I'd like to fish with John again, so some of his secrets will just have to stay that way.

I did learn secrets that I'll share since I've already learned that Ritter and Thorne are spilling the beans. Wilson "cooks" his leader and tippet before going fishing. That's how you land big trout on such tiny test line. Try putting your leaders and tippet in a plastic can, filling it with bottled water and then zapping it in a microwave for 10 minutes. The process might reduce the overall test strength of the line, but the breaking strength increases. You can take those cooked leaders and tippet and stretch them like a rubber band. What you've got is a shock absorber between your fly and the fly line. (Sorry, John!)

John was terrific to everyone. I asked him if he felt any stress with the TV cameras all around. "No, what I do every day is take someone after a big brown trout," Wilson said. "This is no different than every trip I take. The thing is these guys have not been catching 25-inch fish and I'm pretty sure we can at least get those pretty easily. I just hope we can go a little bigger."

There was stress for the guest fishermen, Ritter and Thorne. Ritter said, "I've made a lot of big presentations at P&G, but I never felt anything like having those cameras right over my shoulder. I was scared all I'd catch were dinks, or I'd break off every good fish. I did break off a couple, then John coached me a little and I was alright."

Things turned out great on the Little Red, too. There are monsters there, too, but Frank had to settle for just a bunch of 25 and 26-inch browns. Mark Hollan, who put an early bug in the ear with On The Rise folks to come to Arkansas, hosted the crew each night at his house near Cow Shoals.

Hollan owns the Little Red Fly Shop, a wonderful resource in Heber Springs that's only a few steps from some nice shoals. I was invited to stay with Mark for this part of the filming, but there was work back home.

The shows are going to be special. There are segments with the settlement from the lawsuit against Overlook Estates on the Norfork. Interviews with McCarty and Jeff Williams, state trout biologist with Arkansas Game and Fish, are included. The story of the creation of the TU chapter on the Little Red, a kinda merger of two river action groups, spearheaded by Hollan will also be front and center.

I sat in on McCarty's interview. I loved when Smethurst asked McCarty what he would want for the Arkansas trout waters if anything was possible.

"I'd want to be the River Czar," McCarty said.

"I'd only allow those to fish who absolutely loved and cared for the rivers and I'd want them to hide behind trees while they fished."

Those guys from On the Rise would qualify. You should have seen the way they looked at the White, Norfork and Little Red. They knew they were fishing national treasures. They got some great video with snow, icy trees and soaring bald eagles.

"All my life I've heard about the White, Norfork and Little Red," Smethurst said Sunday night just minutes after unpacking gear. "Oh, this is going to be quite a week. You just can't understand how excited we are to be here and to fish your rivers."

Those were sweet words to the River Czar and the rest of us. Tune in this spring.

Guide John Wilson and On the Rise host Frank Smethurst landed this 35-inch White River brown this week. Photo submitted

The On the Rise crew has a unique travel trailer painted like different trout. Here's what it looked like when it rolled into the Little Red Fly Shop at Heber Springs.

Frank Smethurst takes a brief break from fishing in front of his crew. Guide John Wilson is behind the boat.

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