|By Gavin Power
For nearly a quarter of a century, Scuttlebutt Lodge really was the Tall Tale Capital of the World.
"I once knew a woman who climaxed every time she sneezed," 85-year-old Red Fisher says as he gazes out onto Lake St. Clair, near Chatham, Ontario. "Do you know what she did about it?"
"She started snorting pepper!"
Red chuckles and then says seriously, "Ahh, that’s just a load of Scuttlebutt."
Red Fisher was, of course, the host of Our Great Outdoors, The Red Fisher Show and Outdoor Adventures, but he was also a salesman who has sold everything from long underwear to fishing reels (he is credited for introducing the open-faced spinning reel to North America and, as a result, was inducted into the Fishing Hall of Fame). He was a screenwriter, a director, a producer, a sailor who spent his early days in the Navy and a poet who has distributed nearly a million copies of his books.
But above all, with a passionate wealth of outdoor adventures lining his trademark straw hat, Red will always be admired as one of Canada’s premier storytellers.
Fisher began his television career in 1968, after his radio show, Canadian Outdoors, was canceled because the program – which Red describes as "just me out on the ice yakking with the guys" – wasn’t really right for radio.
He received a letter from the CBC, in Toronto, asking him to come down for a meeting.
"I went to the meeting and the guy insulted me – so I asked him to step outside so that I could wipe the street with him," Red laughs.
"Then someone got hold of Ed Delaney at CTV and he asked me if I would come down to talk with him. That’s how it started.
"From there I made a pilot which I took down to Kansas City because I had a friend there who was a television critic. They ran it for him and [laughter] he says, ‘You know what it reminds me of Red? It reminds me of a beautiful blonde with big breasts, a low-cut blouse, and a miniskirt walking down the street with the snot running out of her nose.’ I said ‘what makes you say that, ya dink?’ He said that the show needed a reason."
Scuttlebutt Lodge became that reason.
"We were trying to think up a name for the show and I cracked a joke about something or other and the cameraman said, ‘That’s a load of Scuttlebutt!,’ which, in Navy language, means the fertilizer from a male cow. The director laughed and said: ‘There’s your answer Red. Call it Scuttlebutt Lodge, The Tall Tale Capital of the World.’ And we did. The rest is history."
And an impressive history at that. Red made shows with a legion of sports heroes that included Ted Williams, Merlin Olsen – a hall of fame football star who many will remember from his role as Father Murphy on The Little House on the Prairie – and other actors like Allan Hale, who grounded the S.S. Minnow on Gilligan’s Island, and Western stars like Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson, who won an Academy Award for The Last Picture Show. He even made two shows with Captain Jim Ruble from Apollo 13.
You wouldn’t know it from watching the show, but Red didn’t always get along with his celebrity guests. "The first time that I went fishing with Ted Williams," he says, "I got out of the boat and said, ‘Ted, I am not fishing with you.’ He had one phrase that everybody took offence to, and that was: ‘God Damn Jesus Syphilitic Christ!’ Every time he got mad that came out of his mouth.
"I thought that Jesus was a pretty good guy until I heard Ted talk about him."
Still, with enough time Red can warm up to anybody. "After I got to know him I realized that he has a great big heart underneath. He is really rough on the outside, and soft on the inside."
Not all of the guests were as outspoken as Williams. "Rusty the bush pilot was the worst! The only way I could get him to say anything was to get him bombed!" he laughs.
Red the critic
Red feels that the fishing shows today don’t have enough variety. "When you are out fishing there is only so much you can say. ‘Oh! I’ve got a big one. Look at him! Wow!’ And then you repeat that over and over again. If you don’t see these shows for six months, and then tune in, you will get the exact same thing."
Bob Izumi, whose Real Fishing Show is inspired by tournament fishing, says he watched Red’s show, "not so much for the fishing but for the awesome, exotic adventures."
Those adventures took him all over the world. Red filmed some of his 261 shows in Japan, Australia, Iceland and Austria, though most were shot in the Arctic where he could fish beautiful virgin waters and do an entire show in just two or three days.
He says he didn’t really appreciate the speed he was able to shoot those episodes until he spent two years of his life writing, producing and starring in Tight Lines North, a feature film that won some awards in Toronto. "I always call it my two films," he laughs, "because it was my first, and my last."
When the Korean War ended, Red took a job selling a new line of long underwear. "To show how well it insulated, we strapped six 400-pound blocks of ice into a wading pool at Eaton’s. Then either my wife or myself would get in. We travelled all over doing this. One day we were in Detroit and the manufacturers had to send five extra truckloads for all the people that were lined up."
Red has always enjoyed bouncing from place to place and sometimes even up and down. "I was bouncing on this trampoline one morning and made a huge mistake. I came down and landed right on the springs, which started tearing my goodies to bits. While I’m screaming, Lois, my wife, was laughing like hell. Eventually I pulled them apart enough to get out but I was already bleeding. I called the university and said: ‘If you can get down here in 15 minutes, you have yourself a trampoline.’ That was 46 years ago."
During the height of his show’s popularity, fans, not realizing that the lodge was a set, would write to Red and ask if they could book a vacation at Scuttlebutt Lodge. Some fanatics followed Red everywhere he went. "I love my fans and I never say no to an autograph but some people have no consideration. One guy had the audacity to follow me into the washroom while I was urinating and asked me to sign his shirt. I looked at him over my shoulder and said: ‘And just what do you want me to sign it with?’"
He laughs about them, but those days are a lifetime away for Red who, on the day of this interview, was preparing himself for hip replacement surgery. He doesn’t seem to worry about the fans much anymore, instead concentrating on his failing health and the loss of Lois, who passed away in November – they were married for two weeks and 50 years.
"It seems a lot longer without her," he says. "I’ve lost all interest in this place, and it is one of the nicest spots on this lake. I am 85 going on 86. I don’t know what I’m going to gain from this operation. Three years? Four years? If you are interested in quality instead of quantity then it’s a gamble."
It takes Red a few minutes to shuffle from his kitchen table into the sunshine on his back porch. "I’ve got heart disease. I’ve got a disease of the bone. Diabetes. How long and what odds? My doctor says that at my age I have a 95 per cent chance to recover from this surgery. I’ll take those odds. I’ll do anything to get rid of this pain in my hip."
Before leaving, Red smiles and extends invitations for the fall Pelee Island pheasant hunt.
"The show was perfect for the time and era that it was on," he says. "I loved the countryside so I would always put that in the film. I would start on the trees or the waterfalls, that’s what I liked. I love the natural beauty of the world and I’m really lucky because no matter what I did, I always had a whole lot of fun."