The Sportsman's Friend: Television's First Celebrity Fisherman


Bill Dance, Roland Martin, Babe Winkelman, and the slew of other T.V. fishermen owe a debt of gratitude to Harold Ensley. He was the creator and host of The Sportsman's Friend, the first fishing and hunting show on television.

Harold Ensley

Harold Ensley was born in 1912 and grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Kansas, where he often ducked out of work and cut class at school to fish the local streams. His parents and his teachers weren't happy about it, but Ensley was the valedictorian of his graduating class, so they couldn't complain too much. While working as a minister with his own radio show in Joplin, Missouri, a friend suggested he do a fishing show instead. The Sportsman's Friend was only 15 minutes long and aired only once a week, but although it might seem bizarre to modern audiences that anyone would tune in just to hear about some stranger's fishing trips, he developed a faithful following.

Jimmy Stewart in 1973. (CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons)

Reelin' 'Em In

In 1953, after moving his show to Kansas City, he also moved it to television, recognizing the opportunity to take fans along on his trips rather than just hearing about them later. The Sportsman's Friend got a big boost from its first sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, and within 20 years, it went into national syndication. Ensley was soon fishing from various locations around the globe with special guests like Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio. The Sportsman's Friend aired for a total of 48 consecutive years, making it the longest-running show of its kind.

"Winds Of Chance" by Herold Ensley. (Leathers Pub/Amazon)

Gone Fishin'

Ensley wasn't just a performer: He also wrote a weekly newspaper column and two books about fishing. He won the 1960 World Series of Freshwater Fishing, the first major fishing tournament that was sponsored by Sports Illustrated, and was inducted in both the Kansas and Missouri Sports Hall of Fames. He also designed fishing lures, taking a huge part in making them what they are today, and marketed his own line of fishing gear, which included poles, rods and reels, and even his own brand of fish fry batter. When he died on August 24, 2005 at the age of 92, it was presumably with a belly full of fish.