Man on a mission

Freddy Foote | VOLUME 28, ISSUE 1
Matt’s never let the lack of a boat stand in the way of a monster catch.
Whether manhandling marlin or struggling with sharks, TV identity Matt Watson has taken his fishing obsession from New Zealand to the world …

Oddly enough, Matt Watson’s wife, Kaylene has never been into fishing. That’s something I found quite surprising when chatting to a man who lives for the sport, bringing it into countless living rooms every week via his widely acclaimed TV series, The Ultimate Fishing Show.

“I think she has been on the boat twice,” says Watson.

“Whenever I return from a trip she asks me what the flight and the hotel were like, but never if the fishing was any good.”

Watson has quickly become a household name in not only his native New Zealand, but around the world. Described as part stuntman, part conservationist and a self-confessed mad fisherman, Watson captures the attention of his audience with a compelling mix of antics and angling. The end result is usually landing unbelievably big fish from ridiculously small boats. And his activities are not limited to boats – anything that floats is a worthy platform for his exploits, as evidenced when he caught a marlin from a surfboard.

“Yeah, I’d say I’m fanatical about fishing; I still get excited about the thought of heading out to catch a few snapper off the rocks, just like I do when setting out to chase big marlin,” he says.

EARLY START

But where did this passion and enthusiasm for fishing all start? Go back 30 years and on any given weekend a skinny, shaggy-haired kid could be seen dragging his dinghy laden with fish and fishing gear up the steep hill at the boat ramp at Weymouth, in the upper reaches of Auckland’s Manukau Harbour.

“The boat trolley had a dodgy wheel that would regularly fall off, making the one-mile trip from the boat ramp back home take more than an hour,” Watson recalls.

However, the long haul home didn’t deter the enthusiastic youngster. Typically, first light on the next available day would seem him retrace his tracks, towing his dinghy back down to the sea for another water-born adventure.

Roll the clock forward 30 years and Watson now has the world as his stage, featuring on shows such as The Late Show with David Letterman, The Today Show and 60 Minutes, plus the NBC News and BBC World networks, to name just a few media outlets.

“All I’ve ever wanted to be is a fisherman,” he says. “After graduating from high school, I had no desire to go to university and I planned to work full-time as a fisherman for my uncle.”

But a subsequent falling-out saw the young Watson explore other employment opportunities, launching a successful roofing business, although not at the expense of his fishing.

“Being self-employed afforded me the ability to work hard and then get away when the fishing was good,” he said.

It was his passion for fishing and wanting to share the excitement that inspired him to bring his fishing adventures to TV screens around the world. After some banter and lengthy discussions with a few like-minded mates, the enthusiastic anglers thought they had just what it took to make a TV fishing show, and they reckoned they could make a pretty good one, too.

But, as with most ideas, coming up with it was the easy part. The fact that no one had any experience in filming, producing, presenting or editing presented but a minor hurdle to Watson and his cohorts.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

When Watson and his mate, Kerren Packer, first set about filming, their biggest concerns were that they wouldn’t catch any fish, not to mention that they would not successfully capture all the action on film.

But as Watson explained, the team’s inexperience was its strength.

“I just dreamed up some ideas for filming both above and below the water and we weren’t constrained by the conventional process that trained television professionals tend to follow,” he said.

“I’d approach things as a fisherman and figure out how to attract the fish to our cameras, rather than trying to work out how to get the cameras to the fish. I invented all sorts of camera housings in my shed; I’d even tie live bait to myself or the camera and leap in the water with marlin and sharks – anything to get an amazing shot.”

From their early efforts, Watson and Packer soon learnt that making good TV was more involved than simply getting great footage. Just as important was generating advertising revenue, compiling funding models and convincing TV executives, who didn’t necessarily share their passion, that their concept was going to work.

Everyone who goes fishing understands the thrill of the chase; the anticipation of a bite and the heart-stopping excitement of the hook-up. But to engage non-fishers the story has to be compelling, the footage captivating and the action has to be almost impossibly good, because the thrill and immediacy of being there is diluted through a television screen. So the idea was to make a show that would reach more than just fishing enthusiasts, and Watson’s wife, Kaylene was the perfect test audience – if she would sit through a cut of a show, it had to be good, they reasoned.

After the pilot show got the tick from Mrs Watson, it also got a tick from a broadcaster, and the pair of self-taught TV producers was suddenly confronted with the need to go out and make an entire series. With no track record and no experience, they also had no sponsors, so funding came via a second mortgage on Watson’s home. But what Watson and Packer lacked in experience and funds, they made up for with access to some of the world’s best fishing, plus the enthusiasm and ingenuity to get it on film.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

“We had the perfect opportunity to get some incredible footage from the 90ft boat I was working on, The Ultimate Lady. I wanted to make a show that took viewers from the armchair and put them in the game chair, and our incredible adventures to the Wanganella Banks, near Norfolk Island, gave us plenty of material.”

On these trips literally hundreds of marlin were captured on film, the size of The Ultimate Lady allowing multiple angles using a combination of fixed, roving and underwater cameras. The footage left even the most experienced game fishermen gob-smacked.

Hundreds of episodes later, those early days seem like yesterday for Watson, but he’s not at all surprised the show has been a success.

“I never thought the show would be as big as it is now, but in saying that I never believed that it couldn’t be. I just believed from early on that everyone would get the same buzz out of the footage as I did,” he says.

He was right – some spin-off shows will be heading our way via The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet shortly.

ACTION HERO

Watson’s whole approach to his television making is to engage the audience and to share his excitement with them. It’s all about passing on the intrigue and excitement of searching the world’s oceans for adventure to television screens.

“Conveying that heart-stopping moment when a lit-up marlin engulfs your bait or when a huge broadbill leaps in the moonlight just can’t be done on paper and trying to use metaphors and superlatives just seems to make it appear over-dramatised and exaggerated.

“We set out to capture all the action, not just a screaming reel, a few jumps then the fight. To do marlin fishing justice, we film marlin chasing and eating lures, live baits, and deadbaits. We have teased marlin to the boat and filmed the chaos, sometimes with up to eight marlin fighting over the baits we throw out. Try and say ‘game fishing is boring’ once you’ve seen this action!”

It was this approach and gung-ho attitude that brought Watson’s style of extreme fishing into people’s living rooms, and to the minds of people who weren’t interested in fishing at all, including his wife.

“Kaylene was just never interested in fishing to start with,” says Watson.

“One day I was going through some footage I’d recorded of marlin jumping behind a game boat from a recent trip. She happened to walk past and saw it. The footage really engaged her; she was like, “Wow! Is that what the fish do?” She showed real interest in what fishing can be all about. She found it entertaining and exciting, and that’s exactly how I wanted everyone else to view the show.”

CONSERVE AND PROTECT

However, it’s not just about entertainment. Watson is passionate about the ocean and the creatures in it, and if he can spread the word about conservation, he considers it a bonus. It is Watson’s passion for the ocean and its inhabitants that captivates viewers and draws them in to come along on the adventure.

“Marine life absolutely fascinates me. I find the physical build of a fish and the way it moves through the water really interesting, and I try wherever I can to educate people about these creatures and how everything interacts below the surface.”

However, the entertainment factor is still a key element to Watson’s onscreen success. Whether it’s catching a giant tuna from a 3m Stabicraft, catching a marlin from a Sea-Doo PWC, or hiring a wood chipper to create the ultimate burley trail behind the boat, the team tries to pull off ever more creative ways to entertain, and all on a shoestring budget.

“I have ideas buzzing around in my head all the time about what to do next,” says Watson. “Quite often I’ll be sitting around with some mates and someone will suggest, ‘What if …’ and I’ll go off and do it. The hardest part is to then think about how we’re going to top it!”

Juggling his busy schedule, Watson wishes he had more time for fishing.

“It looks like I do a lot of fishing, which I guess I do, but I always wish I had time for more. Between the adventures out on the water there is a lot of time spent in the office editing – the show doesn’t make itself. Then throw in various sponsors’ events and speaking engagement sand it all keeps me pretty busy.”

Watson says sponsor involvement is critical in making good, quality television.

“I’ve always been very careful when selecting sponsors and with many of my sponsors I had already been using their product or service before having any kind of commercial involvement with them,” he says.

SPONSOR SYNERGY

A perfect example of this is Watson’s partnership with Club Marine.

“I’ve been using Club Marine as my insurer for a while now, simply because I think it provides the best service for marine users like myself.”

Watson’s never been one to say things because he has to; he’s always very straight up when referring to his sponsors.

“When you believe in a product, it’s easy to support them,” he says.

“I see other sponsored shows out there and every season they are constantly changing sponsors and associates. I think you lose credibility when you do that. Integrity is vitally important for me. I’ve been with most of my partners since day one and I don’t have any reason to change. I’m with them because they have the best products on the market, because that’s what I prefer to use.

“What I like about Club Marine is that it’s unique. When you arrange Club Marine insurance for your boat, you aren’t just a number on a policy – you become a member of a club and you receive an individual card that entitles you to a whole range of exclusive services and benefits, like Club Marine Assist.

“It’s this service that made me choose Club Marine as my insurer when I first started out.”

So what does the future hold for Watson? More fish, of course.

“I guess I’m one of the lucky few, working in the job that I’d always dreamed of,” he says. “But I’m still searching for the perfect fishing trip, the perfect catch.”

They’re objectives I think Watson will be chasing for a long time to come.

The Ultimate Fishing Show can be viewed in Australia on Foxtel’s Turbo Max. Visit www.foxtel.com.au for more details. It also airs on community television via TVS (Sydney), and Channel 31 in Brisbane and Melbourne. The new series (and replays of previous series) airs on TV3 in New Zealand, while replays can be seen on SKY Sport during the summer.


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