Butch Furtman: A natural in the outdoors
ON PELICAN LAKE, NEAR ORR — Butch Furtman was just 5 years old when his dad plopped him on the Two Island River on Minnesota’s North Shore. He had a fishing rod and some worms. Then his dad took off up the river.
“I remember him putting me on a rock and telling me, ‘Don’t move,’ ” Furtman said. “I didn’t think my dad was ever coming back. He was probably only gone for an hour. But I still remember those brook trout biting.”
The experience is telling for a couple of reasons. It speaks to Furtman’s tenacity for fishing that he never budged from the rock. And it reveals that even at an early age, Furtman was cataloging fishing information that would last a lifetime.
The longtime Duluth angler and hunter has parlayed his fishing and hunting skills into a career in outdoor television that continues to this day. For his contributions to the sport of fishing, Furtman, 71, has received recognition at the highest levels. This past spring, he was inducted into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame based in Hayward. In 2004, he was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame, joining legendary anglers like Al and Ron Lindner, Gary Roach, Babe Winkelman and others.
He’s still producing 13 of his half-hour “Sportsman’s Notebook” shows a year that air Saturday nights on WDIO/WIRT-TV in the Northland; his run on WDIO/WIRT is now in its 38th year. He produces 13 more shows, called the “Sportsman’s Journal,” that air during the winter on Fox Sports North.
Russ Francisco of Marine General Sports in Duluth knows why Furtman’s low-key television show remains popular.
“It’s real,” Francisco said. “There’s not a lot of hype to it. He’s an honest and straightforward guy. You couldn’t invent that character.”
On camera, Furtman is unassuming, direct and down to Earth. His shows are unlike many in today’s fast-paced, highly produced outdoor TV genre.
“Butch is a real outdoorsman. He’s a doer instead of a talker,” said John Peterson, founder of Northland Fishing Tackle in Bemidji and one of Furtman’s longtime sponsors. “He comes across as a regular guy that a lot of people can relate to.”
Living on Pelican Lake
On a recent July day, as Furtman fished for largemouth bass on Pelican Lake near Orr, he talked about his life in the outdoors and the television shows that make him a household name among Northland anglers and hunters. Furtman moved to a log home on the lake three years ago after living in Duluth for most of his life.
Furtman credits his parents, Ralph and Bernice Furtman, for his love of the outdoors. They camped and fished from Lake Superior to Lake Winnibigoshish to the Gunflint Trail. Furtman learned to shoot at an early age. In scratchy 16-millimeter film shot by his dad, Butch holds stringers of lake trout and northern pike and practices with a single-shot shotgun. In one scene, he comes walking toward the camera with his shotgun and a pack, from which he pulls four ruffed grouse. He couldn’t have been much more than 10 or 11.
“Mom and Dad created a monster,” Furtman said with a laugh.
Those who have fished or hunted with Furtman say he possesses a quality that separates him from others in the outdoors.
“He’s a natural outdoor athlete, a superb wingshot,” said George Couture, vice-president and general manager of WDIO-TV in Duluth.
His brother Michael Furtman of Duluth, 11 years younger, has fished and hunted often with Butch.
“I’ve fished and hunted with a lot of people,” Michael Furtman said. “He takes it to a level beyond most folks. It’s native to him. Yes, there’s a lot of learning and practice, but there’s something about it to where he’s in tune with the environment around him. … There’s a level that is deeper than the conscious mind. Some people have it and some don’t. Butch has it.”
Francisco remembers joining Furtman on a fishing trip to a large lake in Canada. Furtman had never fished there before.
“I said, ‘Where do you think we’re going to fish?’ ” Francisco asked Furtman. “He said, ‘Over there.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because that’s where the fish are.’ He has this uncanny sense to look at the topography above the water and know what’s under the water.”
Determination to succeed
Part of what makes Furtman so good in the outdoors is that he is tireless and determined to be successful. He is driven to catch fish and take game, even when he’s in the field to do a show.
“I don’t think he’s preoccupied with the show as much as he wants to make sure he hits what he shoots at,” said WDIO’s Couture. “It’s important to him.”
Couture remembers a goose hunt with Furtman in Saskatchewan.
“He shot a Canada goose that fell into a pond,” Couture said. “An otter went after it, and Butch got into a tug of war with the otter. Anybody else would have said, ‘Give the otter a meal.’ ”
Michael Furtman told of a time when Butch and their dad were hunting at a deer camp near Cook one November. It had been a tough year. The season was ending, and the eight hunters had taken just one deer. Things looked bleak.
“Butch went deep into a cedar swamp,” Michael said. “There had been an early, heavy snowfall. He was still-hunting (moving slowly and pausing often). In one day, he ended up filling all but one tag for the entire party.”
For all of that intensity, Furtman is easy to be around, say those close to him.
“Butch is fun-loving when you’re out with him,” said Northland Fishing Tackle’s Peterson. “He likes to talk, especially after-hours or getting ready for the hunt. He’s a really enjoyable person to have in camp.”
After growing up in Duluth, where he earned a name for himself as an excellent steelhead fisherman, Furtman attended the University of Minnesota Duluth, working summers as a guide at Tuscarora Lodge on the Gunflint Trail. He caught his biggest walleye, a 13½-pounder, on nearby Alpine Lake.
He returned to Duluth and worked 20 years for Jim and Elsie Keuten at Jim’s Bait, a tiny shop in the Duluth Hillside where the area’s best anglers gathered. They came to pick up tips from veterans like Jim and Elsie, Furtman and other local anglers.
“People came from all over the Midwest,” Furtman said. “And, of course, steelheaders came from all over the area.”
It was during his time at Jim’s that WDIO first asked him to do tips on a local outdoor show. After earlier hosts Wally Pease and Joe Schillinger moved on, Butch took over. For years, he did 52 shows a year at WDIO. More recently, he has cut back to 26 and now 13 shows a year. About 18 years ago, he also started doing the show for Fox Sports North.
Furtman credits people like Jim Keuten and Duluth’s Ron Weber, who built the Rapala empire, as being important influences in his life and career. Throughout his career, Furtman has fished with everyone from hometown friends to leaders of the fishing industry. He has traveled widely across Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Canada producing his shows. Fishing with Weber in Quebec, he once caught a 25-pound Atlantic salmon on a dry fly.
Not always easy
It has been a good time, Furtman said. And hard work.
“As far as the television shows, people don’t realize how much work it is,” he said. “The biggest challenge is all the preparation and logistics, the planning and travel time, keeping the boat clean. And weather is a big deal, too. You can spend five days in North Dakota with the wind blowing, or go to Canada for ice-fishing and have it be 30 or 40 below with the wind blowing.”
Mergers and acquisitions in the fishing industry have made securing sponsorships more difficult, Furtman said. And the proliferation of outdoor television shows has created more competition for sponsorship dollars. Still, he has managed to maintain solid partnerships with Rapala, Northland Fishing Tackle, Alumacraft boats, Honda outboards and others.
“We’ve always been Butch Furtman fans,” said Northland’s Peterson. “We feel he’s provided us with a good bang for the buck. He’s very loyal. He won’t jump ship for a few bucks.”
He’s deserving of the Hall of Fame recognition he’s received, Peterson said.
“He’s devoted his life to the outdoors and to promoting fishing and hunting,” he said. “He’s done it for the love of the sport.”
Dale Kilby Sr. of Rice Lake Township has been Furtman’s videographer full-time since 2007. Working with Furtman has been a joy, he said.
“It’s always a relaxed atmosphere,” Kilby said. “Him and I just click in the boat. Everything goes smooth. There’s lots of time to chat. But when he gets a fish on, it’s all business.”
To gather material for shows, Furtman has fished for steelhead in British Columbia, brook trout on Ontario’s Sutton River, Atlantic salmon in Quebec and Arctic char near Canada’s Chesterfield Inlet.
For Furtman, the show is all about teaching, Kilby said. How to rig a worm or hook a minnow. How to fish a particular lure. How to make a drift for steelhead.
That’s what Kilby had in mind when he nominated Furtman for his recent Hall of Fame award. Furtman always has time to teach others, he said.
“We were up at Orr, at the restaurant,” Kilby said. “A couple of young boys approached him. He went on and on answering their questions, letting his meal go. He was more than willing to give them all the information he had. He’s a teacher, that’s for sure.”
On Pelican Lake a week ago, Furtman pulled a half-dozen largemouth bass from the weeds, the largest two of them 19-inchers, plump 4-pounders. It was an easy day for Furtman — no cameras rolling, no pressure to put a show together. He was fishing not far from his new log home on the lake.
“My nearest neighbors are timber wolves,” he said. “There’s a pack of five around here.”
Although still going strong, Furtman hinted that he may be nearing the end of his career in television.
“I’m getting toward that last cast,” Furtman said. “Maybe next year or the year after. It’s been a good run. If I had another life to lead, I’d never change a thing.”
Butch’s best walleye lakes
During a day of bass fishing with Butch Furtman on Pelican Lake near Orr, I asked him to rate the top walleye lakes he has fished.
Best walleye lake – “I’d have to say Lac Seul (near Sioux Lookout, Ontario). Also Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake. For just sheer numbers, Lac Seul.”
Best trophy walleye lake – Dogtooth Lake, near Kenora, Ontario
Catch Butch on TV
- Butch Furtman’s “Sportsman’s Notebook” airs on WDIO/WIRT-TV at 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. This summer’s 13-week schedule started May 31.
- Furtman’s “Sportsman’s Journal” show airs on Fox Sports North for 13 weeks each winter. Check local listings.