Charlie Moore Is Off the Hook

“This is gonna be kick-ass!” Charlie Moore bellows things like this all the time. Plenty of brazen, arrogant things. At the moment, minutes after 7 on a hazy summer morning, crouched low in a parking lot off I-93, rummaging through a bagful of Afro wigs and ridiculously colored clothing,

“This is gonna be kick-ass!” Charlie Moore bellows things like this all the time. Plenty of brazen, arrogant things. At the moment, minutes after 7 on a hazy summer morning, crouched low in a parking lot off I-93, rummaging through a bagful of Afro wigs and ridiculously colored clothing, he’s ranting about the idea he’s come up with for his show on the New England Sports Network.

Charlie Moore Outdoors usually involves Moore standing on a boat, clowning and making outlandish pronouncements while he fishes with a celebrity guest, typically a professional athlete. But today, when Moore had booked one of the most beloved jocks of them all—Boston Bruins Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr—the script has been torn up. Moore’s crew had already rigged up a hockey stick for Orr to use as a fishing pole when the Bruins hero called to say he had to reschedule. A problem? No way. Now Moore won’t have to share the camera. “Check this shit out,” he says, flashing a version of that toothy Charlie Moore grin that makes those in his company both excited and nervous. “This is gonna be hilarious.” He’s got Green Day and cool air pumping out of his idling Hummer as he and the crew check their gear before heading an hour north to Lake Winnipesaukee. But it’s not lures and rods that occupy his mind; instead he’s yanking rainbow duds from a sack of psychedelic garb, trying to get his look just right. Who needs Bobby Orr anyway? When Charlie Moore loses a legend, he simply replaces him with, well, himself, this time done up in bizarro costume. After all it’s Moore, the so-called Mad Fisherman, who viewers tune in to see. And not just those in New England—Moore has gone national, with a frenetic ESPN program, Beat Charlie Moore, that is the network’s most watched outdoors show. Though local fans who have been following the 35-year-old angler for a decade can be forgiven for perhaps not taking notice, Charlie Moore is blowing up.

Standing in front of his boat, Moore strikes a perfectly badass pose, his inky black shades matching the shine of his Hummer’s giant, freshly Armor All–ed tires. He’s tan, and his hair is wet, and he moves with the swagger of an established television star, one who’s perpetually anxious for more. Having hooked a piece of a fishing demographic that spends over $2 billion a year on the sport (an audience that has Madison Avenue swooning over its similarity to the rabid-spending NASCAR set), Moore is plotting a sort of Mad Fish brand extension, a multi-media blitz that he hopes will make him the Martha Stewart of bass fishing. “What I have is a gift,” he explains. “I say that seriously. There’s a difference between egotism and cockiness. I’m telling you that what I have is talent.”

OUT ON A MIRROR-FLAT LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE, with television cameras rolling, Moore flicks casts into the shallows close to shore. He’s using his foot to work the trolling motor of his boat, steering the thing just beyond the edge of a cluster of docks. He’s tossing the line quickly, trying to hook smallmouth, though the fuzzy Afro he’s wearing impedes his casts a bit. The sun is burning hot and Moore’s starting to sweat under his goofball costume. Through the get-up and a lake murky with rainwater, Moore can see the fish moving 20 yards in front of his boat, and he’s begging them to bite. “Come on, take it,” he booms, skipping his voice across the water, sending it rattling through evergreens and beckoning puzzled homeowners to their docks.

Moore’s shows are about angling, ostensibly, but he admits that those who are actually interested in the sport’s finer points would be better served watching some other programming. This admission, however, is no endorsement of other fishing shows—a genre Moore considers “lame” and “boring,” and from which he disassociates himself. This is especially true in his ESPN program, where Moore stands as testament to our cultural fascination with anything—even a fisherman—gone wild. The cocky, condescending Bostonian Moore channels on ESPN has outdoorsmen across the country tuning in, and waffling between wanting either to grab a beer with the wild man, or punch him. “People love me because I’m fucking crazy,” he says. “Not crazy like I’m gonna pull out a nine and fucking shoot you in the kneecap, but crazy still.”

The conceit for Beat Charlie Moore, now in its third season, is simple: The braggart from Massachusetts deigns to accept a challenge from a viewer. A fishing contest is dreamed up (most fish caught, biggest catch, whatever) and staged on the challenger’s home water. Sporting a Sox hat and an ego that the network describes as “bigger than Boston Harbor,” Moore shows up, talks some smack, puts some money or a dinner on the line, and, most times, beats his rival. “I’m acting like I don’t care, and it’s pissing these guys off,” Moore says. “This is their big chance, and they’re hot. They fish this place 150 times a year and I still come and kick their ass.”

The showdowns are packaged in shaky handheld shots, split screens, quick zooms, funny graphics, darkly lit interviews, and a rock soundtrack that, taken together, call to mind the bastard hell spawn of a sports highlight reel and a FOX reality show. In the middle of each episode, other viewers are dared to take on the vainglorious Charlie Moore themselves. “Do you consider yourself the baddest angler in your area? You wanna whoop up on Charlie Mooohre in fronta your friends?” an announcer asks, playing up a caustic Boston accent.

“I don’t really want to make him into a villain,” explains Doug Orr, the show’s producer. “But we do want the natural trash-talking and the Boston stuff to come through. We get so much mail from people who tell us how much they hate Charlie. But you know what that means? It means they watch.” Moore’s older brother remembers how the mail came pouring in when the Masshole was first unleashed on ESPN. “They blasted his ass out of the water,” Chris Moore says. “It reminds me of the way people felt about Howard Cosell. People just love to hate him.”

All of which raises the question: Can the braggadocio even fish? To hear Moore describe his gifts, one might think that nobody has produced this many fish since Christ fed the masses near Galilee. He’s characteristically full of big claims, but those who watch him up close say Moore can back it up. A cameraman on the ESPN crew, Ryan Moore (no relation), is a serious angler who films bass tournaments for the network and owns an outdoor guide service in Oklahoma. He says the first thing he noticed about the Mad Fisherman was his skill with a rod. “I’ve worked hundreds of tournaments, and he’s as good as the pros out there,” he says. “He’s also moving the boat, talking to the camera, and interacting with a guest while he’s doing it. He’s making it look easy, and that’s what people don’t get.”

A lot of the sequences on Beat Charlie Moore are filmed far from the water—another genre no-no—and in these scenes the show’s star proves equally comfortable. Last year, when the show traveled to Central America, Moore and his crew spent a good chunk of their visit darting through the choked streets of Panama City. Onscreen, we see Charlie come across a little taste of home and demand a pit stop. “Check it out,” he yells. “Dunkin’ Donuts in Panama!” Once inside, Moore needles the Spanish-speaking clerks, setting up a riff that continues when he meets the local guides helping him fish—a series of condescending “huhs?” and “whats?” plays over mariachi music as Moore, the impolitic gringo, spits out nonsensical Spanglish. Later, while belittling the Panama Canal, he laughs in the face of a boring tour guide. When he decides to actually fish, Moore strategically dispenses with the pretentious all-knowing–fish-expert routine that is a staple of other outdoors shows. “What the hell is that?” he says, displaying a catch. He swivels the lens around to film his own cameraman explaining to the baffled Mad Fisherman that he’s just snagged a common oscar fish. More casting and laughing and here’s Moore feeding a group of curious monkeys in some nearby trees. He’s complaining about his miserable lunch; he’s grabbing the camera, wagging his tongue, sticking his face in the lens. He hooks a few more fish, too, when the spirit moves him. With a fish held near his lips, he’s barking, and, when he sees that the things have teeth, he yanks back his flapping prop, imitating the fish’s startling chomp.

“This is not a fucking fishing show; fishing shows suck,” Moore says. “I’m out to make a great television show; I’m out to make people’s TiVo lists. The show works not because I’m a better fisherman than other people on TV—which I am—it works because I’m flat out more talented. I’m Jim Carrey on a bass boat.”

THOUGH HIS TRAVELS often take him away, Charlie Moore’s New Hampshire home, a spread chiseled out of a stand of trees, is a place he doesn’t much like to leave. Out by the pool, he’s got a couple of Corvettes shining in the sun. And down in the basement, where he’s most at ease, it’s all done up like a sports bar, with autographs and jerseys everywhere. Down here, the Mad Fisherman exists only behind the glass of dozens of framed pictures. He’s calm. Not exactly content—as anyone who knows him quickly learns, Charlie Moore never is—but he’s left the sunglasses and the swagger upstairs. Down here, there’s just Charlie. And in moments like these, it’s not how far he’s come that occupies his mind, it’s how much farther there is to go.

Moore grew up in Lynnfield, but really took an interest in fishing when he started hanging out at the docks in Winthrop, fooling around on the boat his dad kept there. Fishing made those days idyllic, though they came in the wake of less tranquil times. In 1972, a bank in Wakefield went under—the first in Massachusetts to do so since the Depression. The president of the bank had been Moore’s father, who, the newspapers said, lived in a fancy house with a fancy indoor pool. After authorities investigating the bank discovered a $7 million shortfall, Moore’s father pleaded guilty to mishandling funds, though he steadfastly maintained that he’d used the money to keep the institution afloat. Under a plea-bargain deal, he avoided having to serve his sentence. “I don’t hold you personally responsible for everything that happened here,” the judge told him at the sentencing. Charlie, who was too young to remember much and grew up only with a fuzzy sense of the details, doesn’t say much about it now, except that the ordeal changed his family and taught him some lessons. “People will fuck you,” he says. “You realize that you can have everything and then lose it.”

But for Moore, it has actually worked out the other way around. He married at 21 and moved with his new bride, Angela, into his in-laws’ place in Beverly. After a few years, he scraped together enough cash and credit to open a shabby bait shop. That lasted less than a year. “I looked around and asked myself if I wanted to be a clerk all my life. I wanted to be something special,” Moore explains. “We boxed it up, and I said forget it.” The 25-year-old Moore now had two kids and another on the way. He found a Texaco station near the highway looking for help, figuring he could pump gas until he hatched a better plan. The owner turned him down. “At that point,” Moore remembers, “I’m like, ‘where’s the gun?’” His pride was wounded; his credit was junk. And he was scared. “At the time I remember walking through the store wondering how I was going to feed a wife and three kids,” he says. “I know what it’s like not to eat with your family. To not be able to buy diapers, to know that your in-laws are paying the rent.”

Moore went to work on a landscaping crew, where he thought about the things he most liked to do: fish and make people laugh. Pacing those big lawns, he dreamed up a big plan for a television show. One of the lawns belonged to NECN personality Billy Costa, who, one afternoon, endured a breathless pitch from his grass trimmer about a comic fishing show. “He was like ‘Alright kid, get back to mowing my lawn,’” Moore says. (Costa recalled the story a few years later while presenting Moore with a local Emmy.) Moore got even less encouragement from the television stations he called. But he cajoled NESN for the better part of a year and eventually got the network to agree to a sit-down. “I knew we’d either be celebrating, or I’d be bailing him out of jail after he beat the guy’s ass for saying no,” Moore’s brother Chris remembers. Moore explained his concept. NESN bit. They gave him three minutes each week on the network’s magazine show, “Front Row.” He honed his act until the three-minute segment grew into a half-hour program in 1999.

Back when Moore first hit the air in 1996, he was a pale image of what viewers see today. With no money for a haircut, he wore a shaggy flop of blond hair and a nervous grin. His brother David, hoping to outfit Moore in what he figured a TV fisherman would wear, gave him a big pair of jeans and a brown flannel shirt. Moore was paid just 50 bucks per show for 10 episodes a year.

But New England took an early liking to the smiling kid. During the second season, Moore and a buddy took a beat-up green pickup to a fishing show in Worcester, where Moore was met by fans lining up to get his autograph. It felt good, but the rush faded after the truck broke down on the drive home and Moore was forced to hitch a ride with the same anglers who’d been panting earlier in the day for his signature. It was during these in-between days that he told Angela he’d be happy if one day he could earn 40 grand doing his show and maybe get to drive a truck and a boat paid for by a sponsor. He said it like a guy scratching lotto tickets.

THAT WAS ALL A LONG TIME AGO, of course. He’s got the big house now, a measure of fame, a future. But contentment, that remains elusive. “I worry about how tough it is to satisfy me,” he admits. “It’s like, sometimes I wish there was a pill to take to make you satisfied with what you’ve got. I wonder if I’d take it, if you gave it to me. I wonder when I’d take it.”

Certainly not now. The uncomfortable idea that maybe Moore is about as big as a fishing show host can get is not lost on him. That’s why he’s chasing bigger deals, spinning broader plans. Charlie Moore is not settling for fishing show host. He’s reading movie scripts, and talking with networks that want to develop new programming. He’s pitching a sitcom idea, working with a video game developer on a rollicking fishing title, and banging away on a book that will deliver a peek inside the Mad Fish circus. He’s also just signed a merchandising agreement to put Mad Fisherman apparel on store shelves. “I always want more, and I’m always concerned with how fast things are coming,” he says. “I push and push. Is this all there is for me? Hell, no.”

Charlie’s older brother Chris, who saw the things Charlie saw as a kid, has a theory about where the drive comes from. “Sometimes he has this fear that people will figure him out as some kind of fraud,” he says. “That all of this will come falling down.” And so he’s pushing, steady as the soundless churn of a trolling motor, for greatness. “My dad and my family instilled in me this idea that life is a fucking race, and if you slow down you’re dead,” Charlie says. “Everybody wants to be famous, but you gotta be willing to pull down your pants and put your balls on the fucking table, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Moore says it like he’s responding to a challenge, like he’s talking down one of those mooks who think they can outfish him. “Put your money in Mad Fish stock,” he advises. “I fucking guarantee that shit’s going through the roof.”