Under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, New York Harbor, New York — I got a little cocky after catching the second fish, an 18-inch fluke.
Four feet from me stood professional angler Cyril Chauquet, star of international TV series Fishing Adventurer, and after 40 minutes of fishing for striped bass, bluefish and fluke under the Verrazano Bridge, Chauquet had nothing to show the cameras.
“Do you want to hold my fish?” I asked Cyril, looking to give him a backup shot in case we ended up catching nothing else that day in July.
“That’s OK,” Chauquet shot back, politely declining the offer of help from a rookie angler. Even though it was his first time fishing in New York, over the next eight hours Chauquet would prove that one doesn’t need to know the local waters in order to score the biggest fish.
In the seven months preceding our two days of fishing in New York, 30-year-old Chauquet and his two-man crew had traveled to Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, Morocco, Texas and Louisiana while shooting the first season of Fishing Adventurer, which is currently seen by about 1 million subscribers of French-language travel channel Canal Evasion in Quebec. There, the show is called Mordo de la pêche.
The English-language version of Fishing Adventurer is set to premiere on Discovery Channel in the United Kingdom in October, and it will also debut on Discovery in Italy and France this winter. Producers are pitching the program to U.S. networks as well.
Writing about TV was my job. Fishing was the hobby.
Here was a chance to combine the two, and catch a glimpse of what makes a documentary show tick. And get a sense of just how many ticks of the clock — how much planning and how many hours of recording — it would take to produce a single adventure for a typical, low-budget cable television show.
A SEPARATE VOYAGE
My involvement in the New York episode had nothing to do with covering the industry.
I’ve lived off and on on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for about six years. While I could always see the tops of barges passing by from my balcony on First Avenue, it wasn’t until August 2004, after an unsuccessful fishing trip to North Carolina, that I decided to check out the East River.
After catching a fat, healthy looking five-pound striped bass my first time fishing the river — a place I always assumed was too polluted to fish — I was hooked.
The strip of water near my apartment is a place called Hell Gate, where the East River and Harlem River meet the entrance of the Long Island Sound. To my surprise, it contained some of the strongest currents and best bottom-fishing in the New York area.
Waking early every weekend morning and taking the 10-minute walk past Gracie Mansion to the regular spot on the river became a ritual. Looking for bigger fish, my friends and I soon began trekking out to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn each weekend for stripers and blues.
Producers for Fishing Adventurer tracked me down after seeing a picture of me holding an East River striper on my friend Bob Hill’s Web site, NYCFishing.com. I help field e-mail questions that come in from would-be anglers looking for tips on fishing spots or the best bait and tackle to use when fishing the New York waters.
Last April, I got an e-mail message from Kathrine Ouimet, a researcher for Megafun Productions, producer of Fishing Adventurer.
Each episode of Fishing Adventurer features Chauquet, seemingly traveling alone, finding new places to fish around the world. To the viewer, he just happens to bump into each of the groups he ends up with. In reality, it takes months of preparation before Chauquet and his crew fly out of Montreal to their fishing destinations.
Ouimet was looking for a fishing guide for Cyril on the East River, and for someone to track down two boats that Cyril and his crew could use for fishing lower Manhattan — one for the crew, and a second for one of the cameramen.
I received no money for helping Cyril and his crew fish New York — all I got in return was a free day of fishing with one of the best charter captains in New York, and material for this story.
Chauquet says it costs $50,000 to $60,000 to produce each episode of Fishing Adventurer. Most of that expense goes to editing, voiceovers and post-production. That also covers a two-person crew and the host, Chauquet. But on-air guests, like myself, do not get paid.
Some of the expenses are covered by sponsors. Japanese tackle manufacturer Okuma supplies the rods and reels. Chauquet always travels with at least a half-dozen, just in case one or two break or are pulled overboard by a big fish.
The crew also reduces its expenses through product-placement deals, and sometimes scores free lodging by featuring shots of the hotels or their owners in the show.
Cyril and his two-man crew — 39-year-old director and cameraman Michael Wees, and Fabien Cote, 27, a second cameraman assigned to get distance shots and control the sound — arrived in Manhattan on June 30. The producers wanted to capture shots of “urban angling,” so our plan was to fish the East River for bluefish and stripers that afternoon.
The next morning, we would take two charter boats out of Brooklyn, to get scenic shots of the New York skyline. We also would have a better chance of catching fish by relying on sonar in the boats.
The Fishing Adventurer team arrived from Montauk, N.Y., where Cyril had been shooting part of the episode, at 4:30 p.m. That left us only two hours to fish the river before a heavy thunderstorm broke. The rain forced the crew to pack up its two $5,000 Sony HDTV cameras and head back to a hotel in downtown Manhattan.
The crew already had to replace three cameras that year, and Wees didn’t want to take any chances busting a fourth. The crew lost two cameras while fishing for tarpon and jacks in Cuba, after waves crashed over the side of the boat. Luckily for them, high-definition equipment is a lot cheaper these days. Five years ago, losing an HD camera would be the same as watching $100,000 wash away.
We didn’t catch a single fish that afternoon. But Wees and Chauquet didn’t seem concerned. When the fishing is slow, that means there’s time to shoot B-roll — secondary shots of the surroundings for the program. Time is, quite literally, money and the goal is to waste none.
That afternoon, the B-roll consisted of shots of traffic on the FDR Drive, a six-lane highway that runs parallel to the East River. Chauquet later convinced a teenager cruising by on a skateboard on a nearby path to lend him the board. Wees and Cote captured shots of him landing skateboard tricks with the river in the background.
The next day, which ended up turning into the centerpiece of the episode, had an ominous start. I was supposed to meet Cyril and the crew at Marine Basin Marina in Brooklyn at 1 p.m. to get together with Capt. Don Lundt, a charter captain who used to work in the Army Corps of Engineers, and a second boat Lundt lined up for Cote and his camera.
At 2 p.m., after they were an hour late, I called Wees on his cell phone. “We’re on our way — we were pulled over on the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said.
The Fishing Adventurer crew had decided to shoot some B-roll of Cyril driving over the Brooklyn Bridge. A passing motorist, spotting two cameras in the truck shooting images of the bridge, forced the crew over. Were they terrorists in planning?
The driver flagged down a New York police officer. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, police have banned shooting pictures or video of major New York bridges and tunnels. But after taking a look at all the fishing gear Cyril and his crew had in the back of the truck, they were allowed to drive on to the marina without receiving a ticket.
No footage of Cyril and the crew getting pulled over by the NYPD made it into the final cut of the episode.
GEARING UP FOR BATTLE
Striped bass pulled out of New York’s waterways can run more than 40 pounds. Bluefish can weigh 15 pounds. Pretty soon, you’re buying bigger gear, not willing to lose another fish from a broken line or reel.
While I showed up at the boat that day with 40-pound line and a rod and reel strong enough to battle tuna, Cyril arrived with several light Okuma spinning rods and reels sensitive enough to pull freshwater bass out of a pond.
After I caught two fluke— pan-shaped fish that hunt their prey from the sand — in the middle of Lower New York Bay, Cyril asked Captain Don to pull the boat closer to the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge. The foot of the bridge contains large rocks — structure that Cyril (again, on his first fishing trip in New York) thought might attract striped bass and bluefish.
While it’s now illegal for boaters to stop within 500 feet of either end of the bridge, Cyril convinced Captain Don to pull his 27-foot boat within 60 feet of the rocks. He then began casting a two-ounce bucktail jig — a metal lure with deer hair attached to its tail — attempting to land the jig as close to the rocks as possible.
Within 10 minutes, Cyril had his first bluefish. It was only a five-pound bluefish, but on his light spinning rod, the fish made the line scream and rod bend as if it were a much larger fish — perfect for TV.
A few minutes later, Cyril landed a 30-inch keeper striped bass, again on his light rod.
“Thank God,” Captain Don muttered, knowing if we didn’t catch a single fish the rest of the afternoon, he had already helped Cyril land a fish worthy of TV.
Shooting a fishing show in both English and French is no easy task. Each fish that Cyril caught required him to hold the fish up to the camera and celebrate in both languages. At the end of the show we were forced to shoot four takes of Cyril and I toasting with beer — twice in English and twice in French.
After Cyril continued to catch bluefish, I took one of his light fishing rods with a bucktail, and began to nail bluefish near the rocks. At one point, we were both standing side-by-side, fishing rods bent down, lines screaming from bluefish – a shot I was sure would make it into the final cut of the show.
All told, Chauquet and his crew recorded more than 30 hours of video for the final one-hour New York episode. He had fished for stripers and blue sharks off of Montauk, pike in New Jersey’s Passaic River, and stripers and bluefish during our trip near Manhattan.
In the end, only three fish from New York City made it into the final one-hour version of the show — a blue and a striper from Cyril, and one of my bluefish.
“We have too many fish for one episode,” Cyril said at around 8 p.m. that evening, as the boats circled the Statue of Liberty and Wees and Cote shot more B-roll. “That’s a good problem to have.”
Now, we’ll see if the same is to be said, someday, about the number of viewers.