Harold Edward Ensley was an American radio and television personality – The Sportsman’s Friend. – St. Joseph Mo and Life in the Midwest


Harold Edward Ensley (November 20, 1912 – August 24, 2005) was an American radio and television personality, best known for his television show The Sportsman’s Friend. His innovative nationally broadcast program was one of the first to feature fishing and hunting and ran continuously for 48 years. Harold Ensley earned the title of World Freshwater Sportfishing Champion by winning the 1960 World Series of Freshwater Sport Fishing, Sports Illustrated’s first major fishing tournament. He was inducted into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, the Kansas Association of Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame, the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame, the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. He has won numerous awards for hunting, fishing and broadcasting. As a well-known lure designer, he contributed to the development of modern sport fishing lures. He also marketed his own line of fishing rods, reels and various fishing accessories and wrote two books, Winds of Chance and Wings of Chance, which chronicle some of the outdoor adventures of his life.

Early Life and Radio Show

Harold Ensley grew up on a cattle ranch near the town of Healy, Kansas. He was an avid history student and graduated top of his class at his one-room school at age eighteen—although he had a habit of skipping classes to go fishing. After finishing school he moved to Joplin, Missouri, where he was a minister of the Church of Christ and had his own Christian radio show. Once when he was trying to sell ad space on his radio show, a friend remarked that if Harold had a fishing show, he would buy an ad. Ensley started this show by donating his time for free. For the show’s theme song, he chose the Smiley Burnette song “It’s My Lazy Day” which includes the line “Well, I might have gonna fish’…”. Many years later, Smiley sang the song live on Harold’s TV show. Ensley moved to the Kansas City metropolitan area in 1949. There he wrote a column for a syndicated newspaper while working for another radio station that sold advertising. He convinced the radio station to air The Fisherman’s Friend in 1951 by working for free. The radio show began with a new theme song, “Gone Fishin’,” written by Nick and Charles Kenny. This became Ensley’s theme song throughout his career.

The athlete’s friend

In 1953, Ensley decided to try something relatively new: a prime-time television show about fishing. The weekly half-hour show, titled “The Sportsman’s Friend,” aired on KCMO-TV in Kansas City and featured segments on fishing, hunting and other outdoor adventures. Thanks to the support of Ford Motor Company, the show was an instant success.

“When we first tried this live show, I wondered if anyone would tune in,” Mr. Ensley said. “But after that first show, the switchboard at the train station was full. There must be more fishermen out there than I thought.”

Ensley said it was the second televised outdoor show at the time. Initially in black and white, it was among the first television shows in the Midwest to be broadcast in color. When Ensley started his show, fishing was a prime-time topic. For 21 years he has done weekly live shows alongside popular series such as Peter Gunn and Ben Casey. Still, The Sportsman’s Friend jumped to the top of ratings and has done very well over the years. He decided to continue using the theme song from his radio show, Gone Fishin’, for his television show. At the end of each show, Harold Ensley gave his closing thoughts, which progressed to “his fishing fever is rising” and then his slightly varying catchphrase: “…and if anyone asks, you know when Ensley’s fishing fever is high.” Where Ensley is, tell them the last time you saw him he went fishing.” He then hung his “Gone Fishing” sign over the mantel of his “Hunting Lodge Set” and walked out while playing his theme song started. His slogan-song combination was so effective that The Sportsman’s Friend became known as “Gone Fishin'” to many viewers.

“I think the fact that we did it live really made the show what it was,” Ensley said in 1997. “We showed a movie where I was fishing somewhere, and then we had live guests .” People from all over called us to ask if they could be there to show the fish they had caught. Once a man from Hiawatha, Kansas came in with a 72 pound flathead catfish. We had it in a horse tank in the back of a pickup truck and he drove it straight to the set. When he pulled the big catfish out of the tank, water was flying all over the place.”

For twenty-one years, Harold and his son Dusty filmed their adventures in 1,104 live broadcasts every week, with no reruns. They shot over two million feet of film. The episodes covered subjects ranging from snow and water skiing, waterfowl and highland wildfowl hunting, hang gliding to highland horseback riding. And of course fishing remained the dominant element of the program. Extras on his show included his two dogs, Ben, an English setter, and a pointer named after his red Country Squire, the Ford station wagon.

As the show grew in popularity, Ensley expanded and began touring the world. He has traveled internationally covering television shows on four continents and from four oceans. His show received national distribution in 1973 and was shown in seventy markets across the country over the next 27 years. In all, The Sportsman’s Friend has aired for forty-eight years in a row. It became the longest-running show of its kind.

Fishing lures and merchandise designed by Harold Ensley

Ensley is also known for developing fishing lures. In the 1950’s he invented the ‘Reaper’ lure which played a pivotal role in the development of jig and soft plastic fishing lures. It was made by Ted Green of the Mar-Lynn Lure Company in Blue Springs, Missouri. Ensley designed it for lake trout fishing in Canada, but when Green made it in various sizes it became a popular multi-species lure. The Reaper was a precursor to modern soft plastic lure shapes that are now commonly used around the world. Harold Ensley’s Tiny Tots jigs helped introduce and popularize ultra-lightweight crappie and panfish spinning tackle.

Throughout his career he endorsed and marketed his own line of fishing rods, reels and various fishing items manufactured by various companies. These items included lures like the Chuck Woods and Ted Green designed soft plastic puddle jumper, filleting knives, fishing tackle and even fish fryer coating mixes that bear his signature and often his image.

TV appearances and celebrity status

As Harold Ensley’s success grew, he became a national celebrity. He has been asked to make guest appearances on prime-time television series. He accompanied Jed Clampett on a fishing trip during an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. The cast of Gunsmoke appeared on his show, and in 1965 he returned the favor by appearing as a waiter in the episode “Deputy Festus” (S10E17). Harold Ensley taught Jimmy Stewart how to cast a fishing rod at a motel pool. While filming Spencer’s Mountain in 1962, he taught Henry Fonda how to catch trout in Wyoming. He has fished with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Karl Malden, Rex Allen, William Holden, Denver Pyle, Mel Tillis, Kirk Douglas, Clint Walker, Clint Eastwood, Barbara Rhoades, Robert Fuller and many others. He hunted quail with Roy Rogers and the Apollo 17 astronauts and fished with various governors, senators and a president’s son. He loved major league baseball and fished with Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Roger Maris and George Brett. Mickey Mantle autographed him a photograph that read: “For Harold, the second best fisherman I know.” (signed) Number One; Mickey Mantle.”

Final Years and Death

Harold’s wife, Bonnie R. Ensley, died on January 12, 1992 at the age of 70. Harold Ensley himself had suffered from heart problems for many years, but that didn’t stop him from slowing him down. When he suffered a heart attack at the age of 80, he didn’t even think about retiring. Just a month after his hospitalization, he was back fishing in front of the cameras.

“I had planned a tarpoon fishing trip to Costa Rica and didn’t want to miss it,” Ensley told the Kansas City Star in 1997. At 88, Ensley was forced to leave the show after a boating accident in Costa Rica, when he seriously injured his spine. After the show ended, he wrote two books about his life experiences and was a popular speaker at banquets and sporting events. Ensley also loved gardening at home and continued to fish when his health permitted. He never stopped promoting sport fishing. In the last year of his life, he taught his caretaker how to catch and clean manure. She accompanied Ensley, who was in a wheelchair, on a fishing trip days before his final hospitalization began.

In a 2003 interview with the Wichita Eagle, Ensley said of his early life, “Back then, fishing and hunting were largely seen as a waste of time when you could work.” years of being paid to hunt and fish?”

During their last conversation, Ensley claimed to his son that he dreamed of fishing. “He said he dreamed of fishing bass at Table Rock Lake with a buzzbait,” said Dusty Ensley. “He went out and thought about hunting and fishing.” Harold Ensley died at his home in Overland Park, Kansas, at the age of 92.

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Robert Dunfee