Behind the scenes details about Top Hooker, the fishing competition almost called “Master Baiter”

The Animal Planet competition series Top Hooker concludes its first season a week from Sunday, and it’s been a surprisingly engaging series, especially since it’s about a sport not exactly known for producing a thrill every minute. Like another Pilgrim Studios-produced competition, Top Shot, it also appeals to people who aren’t enthusiasts of the sport.

Executive producer Craig Piligian told me that it “was a very difficult show to produce, obviously, because it’s fishing,” but thinks “it was successful because viewers saw fishing as not such a boring, solitary sport. It can be fun, it can have some humor in it, and it can be challenging at times. And that’s what we wanted to get across.”

“Whether or not it comes back, because it was an expensive show, we really respect Animal Planet for really embracing it, from the title on through the episodes,” he said. As a viewer and critic, it’s the kind of show I want to see more of, so I do hope it returns–in part because I think that it’d get even better in future seasons, like Top Shot has.

Here’s other behind-the-scenes details about the show from Piligian and Reno Collier, its host, who’s also a stand-up comedian and the host of NBC’s short-lived Great American Road Trip:

  • Craig Piligian said “the title got a lot of buzz, and we were happy about that.” He credited Animal Planet executive Charlie Foley with the title, and told me that “Master Baiter” was actually on the table at one point. Should the show return for a second season, I think that unused title should be the name of a web series following the show’s host messing with contestants. That’s because:
  • Reno Collier revealed that, when introducing challenges, “I’d screw with them.” One day, he told the contestants, “now you’re going to eat like [a fish], eat this stuff off the bottom of the pond.” While the female contestants were ready to tackle that fake challenge, Reno said “one guy was going to quit.”
  • Top Hooker “was a very labor-intensive, research intensive endeavor,” Piligian said, and that started well before production began. “We have to consult fishing experts, we have to consult fisheries, and the pre-pre- production research–what kinds of fish, how they live … all that stuff goes into it before we even start conceptualizing the challenges.”
  • Challenges were inspired by different types of fishing around the world or historical techniques, but the contestants just wanted to fish, even when cameras weren’t rolling. “During lunch breaks, they’d all fish,” Collier said. He’d tell them, “you guys, go eat lunch,” but they’d fish, and “that’s all they wanted to do the whole time.”
  • The contestants were “extremely competitive,” but “they genuinely got upset when someone had to leave” and didn’t like “knocking each other out” of the competition, Collier said.
  • The show was filmed over about five and a half weeks, with just three or four days off for the crew; the production traveled, but stayed in California. There were early hours, with Reno being picked up at 3 a.m., but the contestants had an even more challenging time, sleeping in tents (instead of in a hotel, like its host).
  • The real-life drama was so incredible sometimes that Collier thought viewers “aren’t going to believe it.” That included one contestant who “caught a fish with two seconds left after two hours” of fishing, and another who fell and broke his leg but kept going. As to Ian’s leg injury, Reno said, “I just about puked. I could hear it when he hit the wood,” he said, adding that the wound was “nasty.”
  • Providing color commentary while contestants were fishing was logistically “tough,” Reno said, in part because “you can scare the fish away.” He said his boat, which would have some cameras on it (for both him and long shots), would turn of its motor and float closer to contestants so he could interact with them. The jet ski challenge was difficult because his boat was slower than their jet skis, though being on the ocean was easier because scaring fish away wasn’t as much of a concern.
  • “I’m blown away by how many kids watch it,” Collier said, saying he’s been approached by kids in grocery stores and airports, and “that kind of caught me off guard.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.