Fishing with Don Meissner

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in Fishing Video

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in Streamside

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

WPBS, the Public Television station that produced “Streamside” with Don Meissner, is celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. To mark the occasion they decided to air a mini-marathon of Streamside episodes spanning eighteen seasons. I selected three shows that followed a theme that I felt most captured the essence of what the series stood for. Each show was shot in region of the local broadcast area, and each brutally revealed my almost childish enthusiasm for the spontaneity and excitement that a day’s angling quest can bring.

Streamside” has effected my life in countless ways and a celebration of its longevity was a touching tribute to a major portion of my life. It all began over twenty years ago when I accidentally crossed paths with Bill Saiffe, the manager of the Watertown public television station. While I had never met him, he had been reading the articles I had been contributing to the New York Fishfinder Magazine. After a short introduction, he invited me to join him on his Rod and Reel program. I eagerly agreed, although I had much trepidation of being on camera.

As our acquaintance evolved into friendship, I became a frequent guest on his show. This was at a time when the Great Lakes fisheries was booming and trout and salmon were the new darling of the fishing world. Bill told me that he had decided to concentrate on the big water fishery and wondered if I felt up to the task of hosting my own series which would cater more to the small water enthusiast. Although I knew nothing about the world of television production, I felt certain that my passion for the outdoors would help me rise above my inexperience.

The rest is history! What a life it has been! While the intention had been for the program to be a local offering, it went national the second year and soon was broadcast by over 150 stations, reaching people in most of the United States and Canada. The thrill for me was in being able to share my love of fishing with so many people. The opportunities took me to the far reaches of our continent where I was to sample the world’s most famous watersheds.

But you know what I really discovered along this journey? Fishing is really only an excuse to partake in a much greater journey. I believe that so much of what we see on TV today emphasizes the wrong things. By now we have all seen gargantuan specimens of our favorite species, fish that set the standards so high that few of us will ever reach. We are left with the impression that if we don’t put fish in the boat that we have failed.

I can remember as a kid growing up along the banks of the GeneseeRiver in western New York having glorious expectations of catching an eight inch trout. The trophy reference was limited to my own experiences: “BIG” was anything greater than I had caught before. If the benchmark had been beyond what my little trout stream could offer, I might not have been swept away into the mystical pull of my magical river. I would spend my days in school staring out the window, barely able to endure the time until the old orange school bus deposited my back to where my real world awaited. Was there a hatch on?, should I use spinners or worms?, did the stocking truck replenish my treasures?  —- these and countless other thoughts raced through my mind as I hurriedly changed from school attire to old clothes saturated with the sensory evidence of yesterdays adventures.

How can I tell you what this world was like? Sometimes I think we embellish our memories to fortify our desires. However, I must admit to being just about the luckiest kid in the whole universe. Our home leaned out over the water where we could sit in our breakfast room and watch trout jumping below. (NO KIDDING!) My folks showed their love by allowing me incredible freedom to explore the beautiful world around me. When meals were ready, and if I was within distance, a loud piercing “Donnieeeeeee” would call me home. For such a little woman, my mom sure could yell!

Some days my mom would drive me five or six miles upstream to the Pennsylvania border, and then I would slowly fish my way home. As long as I was back by dark, my folks didn’t worry. Think of all of the ways I could have hurt myself or even worse. There’s drowning, falling into a crevice, being attacked by bears…..You get the point. And yet, that independence that they instilled within me allowed me to see the world in a very special way. The sound of the birds, the smells of the woods, the sight of the next bend in the river all made for a spectacular living backdrop. My pursuit of trout became almost my life force, and while so many years have now passed, the boy still sees through my eyes.

So after twenty years of hosting my own fishing show, of sampling the greatest waters in the land, of catching more than my share of trophies, how do I still find the desire and the excitement? The answer is that it never leaves because I think that I have always known that there is so much more to fishing than fishing. Trying to catch fish is the excuse we have to return to a simpler world where the natural becomes the magical, where our place in life is made more poignant and meaningful, where all the pressures of our modern world seem to slip away, and the full power of whom we are comes shining through. I have often said that in doing “Streamside” I have met the finest people. Maybe its because being on the water in this timeless dance of angling brings out the true joy of living.

In looking back at twenty years of producing fishing shows, it’s not the fish that come to mind. It is the experiences with all the unknowns that we encountered in pursuing our challenge. The lifelong friendships that were forged, the dangerous encounters survived, the joyous successes shared over evening campfires, the limitless wonders of nature, and the many times when all our efforts were foiled by the whimsical and often unpredictable nature of our foes. If we look on fishing as something to be judged, as something that we win or lose, then we will deprive ourselves of a greater pleasure that comes in just living the experience to the fullest. Remember, a day of our life spent fishing is about as good as it gets!

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