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Nothing Goes As Planned

Behind the scenes with Zona, McKinnis

Mark Zona yanks in a fish during filming for his show. (James Overstreet photo) Mark Zona yanks in a fish during filming for his show. (James Overstreet photo)

By: Steve Wright, OutdoorChannel.com

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The plan was to meet at a small private lake near Stuttgart, Arkansas, to tape an edition of "(Mark) Zona's Awesome Fishing Show." But other than the early-morning gathering, nothing went as planned.

At the end of the day, it made for an apt edition of a televised outdoor show. You've got to be flexible in this business. No one knows that better than Jerry McKinnis, who had his own show, "The Fishin' Hole," on ESPN for 30 years.

"I've never experienced anything quite like that," said McKinnis of the adventure in central Arkansas that went completely off-script. "We wanted something different. We'll remember that day."

Mark Zona's hero in the TV fishing world has long been Jerry McKinnis. Since 2004, McKinnis has been Zona's boss, for lack of a better word. As the head of JM Associates in Little Rock, McKinnis has employed Zona, most often as a co-host with Tommy Sanders on "The Bassmasters" show, and now as host of his own show as well.

That's important background information, because a familial relationship has developed between McKinnis, 75, and Zona, 39. It's somewhere between father/son and older brother/younger brother. And it includes plenty of barbs.


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"Zona, I'm not doing any more TV shows," McKinnis said at 7:30 a.m., just after their boat was launched on this mid-October day. "And I'm not sure yet that I'm going to do this one. If I get close to the bank, I might just make a run for it."

McKinnis, however, would ride this rollercoaster to dusk.

For several years Zona has talked about taping a show with McKinnis. But, for one reason or another, it just never worked out. They both thought the episode, whenever the day finally came, would be done on a smallmouth bass fishery somewhere in Zona's home state of Michigan.

McKinnis had recently come up with a different plan. Arkansas annually produces almost half the rice grown in the U.S. In the rice-growing Delta and Grand Prairie regions of the state, every rice farm has a man-made reservoir that can be used for irrigation. An added benefit of these small lakes is they collectively produce some of the best largemouth bass fishing in the country – bass fishing that few people know about. McKinnis has fished a couple dozen of these reservoirs over the years, several more than once.

Zona knew about them, too, and jumped at the idea of taping a show with McKinnis within an hour's drive of the JM Associates studio in Little Rock. A year ago, Zona had been to the lake designated for the show and caught a three-pounder at the base of almost every cypress tree in this 30-acre reservoir, which is a forest of cypress trees.

It is a beautiful lake, especially so on this particular autumn day. The cypress trees were beginning to show the rust-colored shades of fall, and the tupelos had dropped a layer of bright yellow leaves that covered one end of the lake. But natural beauty gets you only so far in this business.

By 11 a.m., McKinnis and Zona had boated only two keeper-size bass, and there was considerable chatter about whether to grind it out or make a move. That's one of the benefits of fishing this area: If you've got the right contacts, you can quickly be on another reservoir. All these lakes are private, so contacts are key.

Forty-five minutes later, Zona was antsy for a change of scenery. He was ready for anything to salvage a day that had included some great story-telling, but not enough bass-catching to qualify as a fishing show, much less "Zona's Awesome Fishing Show."

"Jerry, you want to shoot a show together next May?" Zona asked.

"No," McKinnis quickly answered. "I don't know if I ever want to see you again."

That's pretty much the pattern with these guys: One man tosses out a thought, the other immediately engages, "with extreme prejudice," as they say in the military.

At noon, Zona made a decision: "This is the call of the day right here. I say we put it on the rack."

When you're taping a TV show, it's not just one bass boat that has to go on the trailer, there are two, on two trailers. And it's not just Zona and McKinnis making a move. In this case, there were four others: videographers Wes Miller and Brian Mason, photographer James Overstreet and this writer, spread among three vehicles and the two boats and trailers.

So it made for a small caravan when we left the first reservoir and headed for another lake that McKinnis had fished successfully several times over the years. It hadn't rained recently, and there were dirt roads to travel. The dust cloud was so thick at times you couldn't see the vehicle in front of you.

Less than an hour later, we had arrived at reservoir No. 2. Zona and McKinnis walked up the levee to check out the lake, which was otherwise shrouded in timber. And their jaws dropped, like the water level apparently had at some point during a drought-stricken Arkansas summer.

"The lake is gone, Mark. The lake is gone," McKinnis said.

"I don't ever remember a 'Fishin' Hole' episode where you pulled up to a lake and the lake was gone," Zona said.

"Now I know why I quit doing this," McKinnis laughed.

So Zona's sparkling new Nitro Z-9 bass boat with a 250-horsepower Mercury Pro XS outboard got another Iraq-like dust coating as our caravan roared off to lake No. 3.

"This boat literally has 11 minutes on it," Zona said. "I picked it up at home, put it in the water to make sure all the graphs worked and then came here."

It would need considerable washing, with extreme prejudice toward dust, at the end of the day.

The third lake had plenty of water in it, but not much in the way of a boat ramp. The "ramp" was simply a break in the cattails lining the levee and some gravel on the soft mud bottom. In order to get launched, it took four-wheel-drive vehicles and one man wading thigh-deep to push the boats off their trailers, aided by the outboards revved in reverse.

McKinnis has more experience than he'd prefer in rescuing a no-fish-catching show at the last minute. At the top of the list would be a brown trout fishing trip several years ago to Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border. McKinnis and crew towed a bass boat through a blizzard to get there, then filmed two days in miserably cold weather without catching a fish.

The brutal weather provided part of a story, not a whole one.

"With no fish, I've got no way to tell the story," McKinnis said.

So after two days of fruitless trolling with a local fishing guide, McKinnis pulled out his secret weapon used often over the years – a marabou "crappie jig" tied to four-pound test line on spinning gear.

"We should have already loaded up and gone in. It was that cold," McKinnis said. "I remember to this day what that tick (on the line) felt like."

After first thinking he might have hooked a carp, McKinnis realized he had a monster brown trout on the end of his light monofilament line. After a long fight and one failed attempt at netting it, McKinnis finally boated the fish. It weighed 24 pounds and was a four-pound line-class record for a short while.

McKinnis refers to it as "the most important fish I ever caught."

There wouldn't be a single fish that rescued this day in central Arkansas; there would be several. Once in the water at 2 p.m. on lake No. 3, it quickly became apparent this was a good choice.

Zona caught a three-pounder on a crankbait at 2:05 and added a smaller bass soon after. Twenty minutes later, McKinnis landed two bass on one cast with a crankbait.

"That's the first double on the show," said a now-smiling Zona.

"If I'd known that, I would have done it sooner," McKinnis said.

The next day, McKinnis admitted it was a "first" for him.

"Lots of times you'll catch a fish and see others with it as you reel it in," he said. "That's the first time I've ever seen one come up and smash the jaw of the one that's hooked, then suddenly you've got two. Usually, you're trying to get your buddy to throw in there with them."

As the afternoon progressed, Zona and McKinnis got dialed-in on a pattern. The lake had two small islands and an abundance of wood cover. A soft plastic Strike King Rodent pitched into the gnarly stuff produced bass after bass, including, of course, a big one that got away. McKinnis had a five- or six-pounder halfway to the boat when it came unhooked.

"Oh what a great sight to see, when your line moves, and it's not your rod tip doing it," McKinnis said. "I'm sure that was a five-pound fish or better."

Between bass landings, Zona quizzed McKinnis about various aspects of "The Fishin' Hole," which remains the second-longest running show on ESPN, topped only by the network's signature creation, "Sports Center." In his first year on ESPN, McKinnis produced 52 one-hour episodes, a staggering number in this era when 13-week runs are the standard and 26-week runs are the exceptions.

"That really established me at ESPN," McKinnis said. "But I wouldn't want to do anything like that again.

"The next year we realized we couldn't do this for 52 weeks, so we did 26. But those 26 were backed up to the 52, so it was a year-and-a-half of hard work. I edited every minute of it."

One of McKinnis' favorite shows involved fishing from a helicopter for steelhead in Oregon with his long-time friend Forrest Wood, founder of Ranger Boats. It happened in the late 1980s.

"We'd fly up the stream and look," McKinnis said. "The pilot wouldn't land if we didn't see fish."

There were few role models for McKinnis when he began his television career. He was born in St. Louis in 1937. In 1954, only 55 percent of U.S. households had television. The 1960s was the decade when TV took hold, and McKinnis was there. His first TV appearance was as part of a Little Rock station's nightly sportscast in 1963. Then he began producing a 30-minute show entitled "The Arkansas Sportsmen" that eventually was regionally syndicated to 120 stations. "The Fishin' Hole" aired on ESPN from 1981 to 2010.

"I was on TV about three-fourths of the time there was TV," laughed McKinnis.

With no mentors to follow, McKinnis was guided by the centuries-old craft of storytelling. Even in a show about fishing, catching fish is secondary to telling a good story, according to McKinnis.

That was, finally, the result of this October day – a good story. The lake where the fish weren't biting, and the lake that was no longer a lake became integral parts of this three-act play.

"It was an incredible adventure I was sent on," said McKinnis of his TV career. "And (this day) was definitely an adventure."

In a way it marked the passing of the torch, from McKinnis to Zona. Earlier in the day, Zona hilariously told of his goofy, star-struck approach in his first conversation with McKinnis 20 years ago, when they were both competing in a bass tournament. They've spent a lot of time together since then, despite the awkward start.

"You've got a good show, Mark. I'm proud of you," said McKinnis.

But a somber mood doesn't last long around these two.

"Hey, when we're done, we're not going to shake hands are we?" McKinnis said at the end of the day. "I hate that when I see it on another show."

There were no handshakes. But there had been a daily limit of laughter.

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