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Harold Ensley; show on fishing ran for 48 years

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Harold Ensley, who brought the outdoors to life for millions of television viewers through his show, ''The Sportsman's Friend," died Wednesday at his home. He was 92 and suffered with heart problems.

His TV show was one of the first nationally to feature fishing, and it lasted 48 years -- a testament to its popularity. Even after it went off the air after the 2001 season, Mr. Ensley wasn't forgotten. People would still line up to greet him and exchange fish stories with him at the Kansas City Sportshow.

''Harold was like 'sterling' stamped on silver," said Dave Perkins, longtime director of the Sportshow. ''He was a legend.

''He had a way of making the viewers feel that he was taking them along with him on a fishing or hunting trip," said Jim Higgins, who worked for Mr. Ensley for 55 years.

Mr. Ensley started carving his niche in Kansas City history in the early 1950s when he decided to try something the area hadn't seen before: a prime-time television show on fishing.

With the sponsorship of Ford, the show was an immediate hit.

''When we first tried this live show, I wondered if anyone would even tune in," Mr. Ensley once said. ''But after that first show, the switchboard at the station was filled up. . . I thought, 'There must be more fishermen out there than I thought.' "

When Mr. Ensley started his show, fishing was prime-time material. He did live shows weekly for 21 years, opposite such popular series as ''Peter Gunn" and ''Ben Casey." But ''The Sportsman's Friend" quickly jumped out on top of the ratings and fared very well throughout the years.

''I think that fact that we did it live really made the show what it was," Mr. Ensley said in 1997. ''We'd show film of me fishing someplace, then we'd have live guests.

''People from everywhere would call us to see if they could be on to show the fish they had caught. One time a guy from Hiawatha, Kan., came in with a 72-pound flathead catfish he had brought in.

''We had it in a horse tank in the back of a pickup, and he drove it right onto the set. When he pulled that big catfish out of the tank, water went flying everywhere.

As the show's popularity grew, so did its scope. Eventually, it was syndicated, and by 1973, it was shown in 70 markets across the nation. Mr. Ensley branched out and began traveling -- not only nationally, but internationally --to film his shows. He went on to do shows on four continents and every ocean except the Antarctic.

As Mr. Ensley's success grew, so did his celebrity. He was asked to make guest appearances on prime-time TV series such as ''Gunsmoke" and ''The Beverly Hillbillies," and he shared the boat with such legends as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle.

Mr. Ensley also was a noted lure designer, inventing the popular Reaper. He also designed his own line of fishing rods and found success in fishing tournaments, winning the World Series of Fishing in 1960.

But it was his TV show that brought him his greatest pride.

Even at age 80, when he had a heart attack, he didn't even consider retiring. Just a month after being hospitalized, he was back fishing in front of the cameras.

''I had a tarpon-fishing trip to Costa Rica planned, and I didn't want to miss it," Mr. Ensley told The Kansas City Star in 1997.

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