Roscoe Vernon Gaddis was born in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1896. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Great Falls, Montana, which is where, among other things, he caught his first rainbow trout and met Buffalo Bill. In 1915, he missed his chance to play professional baseball when he skipped a try-out with the St. Louis Cardinals because he heard the bass were running on the White River in Arkansas. Having passed up a career opportunity like that to go fishing, it is fitting that fishing eventually became his career.
Everywhere he went, whether working as a gandy dancer on a railroad gang in Iowa, selling vacuum cleaners in Minnesota, or driving mules in Louisiana, he fished. When the United States declared war on Germany, in 1917, he enlisted in the Army, signing up for the Signal Corps because that’s where the airplanes were and he had wanted to fly ever since he’d seen his first plane several years before. Shipped to San Antonio for basic training, while waiting for his air cadet application to be approved, he fished for bass in the Little Medina River.
A burst appendix and a round of peritonitis delayed his training and he was two weeks shy of certification when the Armistice was signed and the war ended on November 11, 1918. He did not acquire his wings, but he did grow a sporty aviator’s moustache, which he wore for most of his life.
He survived Florida hurricanes and Prohibition bootleggers, spotted a pretty girl named Ruby fishing one day, married her and, in 1929, entered into a partnership to open and run a hardware and sporting goods store in Decatur, Illinois. Feeling confined by the business, Roscoe Vernon Gaddis turned over his share of the store in exchange for “the company car, several shotguns, some tackle and a little cash.”
A chance encounter, little more than a week later, with a representative from the Shakespeare Fishing Tackle Company led to his taking a sales job with them, allowing him to combine his love for fishing and desire to travel with a paying job. He bought a movie camera and began recording his fishing trips, showing his films to sportsmen’s groups, lodge meetings, and anyone else who showed interest. He was soon making money doing that, too, and in 1939 he was asked to create a show that could be shown by General Electric’s experimental television station, W2AXD, in Schenectady, New York. He had the sponsorship of his employer and it was his boss who suggested the nickname “Gadabout” because they never knew where he’d be next. It was an immensely popular show and by the mid-1940s it was broadcast on five stations in three states.
There was no live-streaming or on-demand access in those days and his films were shot without sound, so he narrated every episode himself, and that meant driving to each station with his films and broadcasting live. Schenectady, Syracuse, Utica, Providence, and Springfield were all in his sales territory but it was a demanding schedule to keep and in the early 1950s he began producing recorded shows for a small production company. “Going Places with Gadabout Gaddis” was not successful at all.
Gadabout Gaddis finally got his pilot’s license in 1952 and bought a red and white Piper Cherokee. Now he was able to cover much greater distances in much less time, squeezing in fishing trips to places he’d not been able to before. Still wandering, still fishing and filming, he met a producer named Nick Russo who helped create “The Flying Fisherman”. Thirty minutes long, in color and with sound, this show was sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance and brought Gadabout Gaddis into living rooms across America, starting in 1964. The show was produced until 1969 and, at one point, “The Flying Fisherman” was broadcast in 70 markets, covering close to 80 percent of the country.
His memoir, “The Flying Fisherman” by R.V. “Gadabout” Gaddis as told to George Sullivan, captures the friendly, down home style that endeared him to so many. While adamantly insisting that he is no expert, he doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions and while he became a dedicated catch and release fisherman, his attitudes reflect a different time and a different way of thinking.
For example, he doesn’t understand the fuss people made when he didn’t keep all the fish he caught. He was, after all, opposed to wasting game but when he discusses catch and release technique he refers to the “old wives’ tale” that handling a fish with dry hands removes some of “that scum off him” and causes harm by allowing fungus to grow where that slime had been. He claims that this has been disproven by biologists who will tell you that “normal” handling of a fish causes no harm.
This argument is furthered by the example of hatchery brooders that are “handled constantly and never feel any effect from it” and salmon netted in lakes to collect their eggs, “pawed plenty” and not hurt “in the least”. To Gadabout Gaddis’ way of thinking (and that of others), “you can handle a fish all you want. As long as you’ve hooked him in the mouth and don’t squeeze him so hard that you injure his gills, that fish will be fine when he’s tossed back. He’ll just wonder what happened, that’s all.”
To his credit, Gadabout Gaddis was one of the first to sound the alarm over polluted water and degradation of the environment, and he allowed many anglers to experience things they might never see for themselves. With his dashing moustache and Borsalino hats, he was the first “TV Fisherman” (nominated for an Emmy in 1968) and everyone who watched his show felt he was their friend. In a time when we can instantaneously share our fishing with millions, reading this book reminded me of the time when guys like Gadabout Gaddis did it the hard way, driving from market to market, with film cans and a projector in the trunk of his car.
“The Flying Fisherman” is full of great stories and also gives a glimpse of the “behind the scenes” work that went into producing his shows. Most of all, it provides a fascinating look at a man who managed to live his life doing what he really wanted to do, gaddin’ about and fishing.
Roscoe Vernon Gaddis died in 1986, in Bingham, Maine, where the airport is named after him. Copies of his book can still be found but not many episodes of his shows have survived. A few clips from his 1969 movie, “Fishing USA”, are available on YouTube, like this one, where he fishes in Maine but, ironically, lets someone else do the flying. He didn’t have to mention that Shakespeare was a sponsor; that white fiberglass rod speaks for itself.