Society

Go Fish: how Jamie Pistilli became a fishing star

How urban fisherman Jamie Pistilli’s YouTube moment turned him into a star — and set the stage for him to land his very own fishing show. Premiering this July, the 13-episode Big City Fishing opens in Pistilli’s favourite fishing town — you guessed it — Ottawa

(Photography: Don Theoret)

Jamie Pistilli figures it was the blood that made him a fishing star. His blood, spraying all over his kayak, his fishing line, the snout of the muskellunge he had just caught — over the muskie in particular. It happened on the Madawaska River, and it’s a good fishing story: how Jamie Pistilli injured himself and became a fishing star on the same day.

The day, September 12, 2009, started early for him — 4:30 a.m. — when he hooked up with a video crew at a boat launch on the Ottawa River. The crew was making a movie about kayak fishing and had been convinced to go fishing with Pistilli, an up-and-comer in the sport.

The video crew was after muskies. The editor thought a muskie (more a monster than a fish) being caught would make good footage. The movie was going to be called Kayak Fishing: Game On. So Pistilli took them to the Ottawa River. He fished for three hours and didn’t get so much as a bite. “I was sweating bullets,” he remembers. “I could see they were losing interest in the whole idea. So I decided to be bold.” Pistilli told them there were better places to catch muskies, that they needed to pack up and move. That stunt kept the crew members hanging around for a few more hours as they drove to the Madawaska River, near Arnprior. There they fished in the rain for another three hours.

As dusk fell, there was almost a mutiny among the crew, who had had enough and wanted to head back to the city. Then — imagine it as a movie, shifting suddenly to slow motion — Pistilli yelled, “Last cast.” He arced his rod back and sent a lure sailing through the twilit sky. The lure hit the water, and Pistilli began a slow retrieval. The muskie struck four feet from the boat. It was a monster — nearly 20 pounds, easily — and as it broke the surface of the water, the video crew scrambled back into position.

The fish thrashed and fought, churning the water. Pistilli finally got it boatside, when it jumped and the front treble hook went right through his thumb, leaving Pistilli literally stuck to the muskie. Pistilli called for bolt cutters and a first-aid kit and, between expletives, still managed to mug for the camera, holding his prized catch long enough to yell “Game on!” before heading to the hospital.

A few thousand YouTube hits later, a fishing star was born.

“The Ottawa and the Rideau, they’re two of the best fishing rivers in the world, bar none. The kinds of fish you can catch just by walking out your front door, it’s goofy”

Big City Fishing, which premieres on the World Fishing Network in July, promises to offer anglers pointers on how to catch trophy fish right inside the urban boundaries of their cities. Ottawa is scheduled to be featured in the first show, and the network has already committed to 13 episodes, asking Jamie Pistilli to showcase his shore-fishing techniques. “You don’t even need a boat to fish in Ottawa,” he says with glee. “You can catch fish out of the Rideau Canal with a kids’ combo kit from Canadian Tire.” As he says it, he shakes his head in wonder. What a city!

Pistilli has always wanted to fish for a living. Originally from Montreal, when he arrived in Ottawa at the age of 12, he immediately started fishing in the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River. He strapped his fishing rod to his bicycle and just took off. He fished in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings, underneath bridges along the Rideau River, in Andrew Haydon Park. Along the way — and how could a young boy know such things — he was pioneering a fishing craze that is just now really taking off. Urban fishing. Jamie Pistilli is one of its most evangelical devotees.

The more he talks, the more convinced I become that he’ll make a great television host. Even if you never cared a whit about fishing, Pistilli can draw you in, somehow. “I know there’s a lot of other people out there trying to do the same thing, but I’m definitely going to make it,” he says. “Big-city fishing. Before long, everyone is going to be doing it. And I’ll be the lucky one doing it full-time.” (Along with his television gig, Pistilli has recently opened a guiding business in the Gatineaus and is the eastern Ontario editor for Kayak Angler magazine.)

Pistilli’s exuberance redoubles as he continues on his theme. “The Ottawa and the Rideau, they’re two of the best fishing rivers in the world, bar none. The kinds of fish you can catch just by walking out your front door, it’s goofy.” He starts to rhyme them off: trout, bass, muskies, pickerel, pike, carp (a huge sport fish in Europe, not so much here; Pistilli once caught a near-world-record carp [271/2 pounds] in the Rideau River, right in the city limits). Then there are the crappies, catfish, perch. He gets more excited with each passing species. “Urban fishing is really going to take off. People love the idea of going fishing for an hour or two after work.” Stay tuned.