Fishin' Holes USA (reprint). Ted Williams.

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Fishing Holes U.S.A.  
 
So many fish and so little time. Great rivers, lakes and coastlines form an angler's paradise called America.  
 
BY TED WILLIAMS, Popular Mechanics Outdoors
     
 

The keen eyes of baseball's last .400 hitter, Ted Williams, scan the saltwater flats of Florida's Keys for the glint of a bonefish tail.
PM PHOTO BY BOB GELBERG

Editor’s Note--Ted Williams, arguably the best hitter who ever played the game of baseball, died on Friday, July 5, 2002 at age 83. Williams was a Hall of Famer, hitting .344 lifetime with 521 home runs. What would his numbers have been had he not lost five seasons serving in both World War II and the Korean War as a Marine pilot? He hit .406 in 1941 (the last major leaguer to hit .400 in a season) and .388 in 1957. On his last at bat as a major league player, he hit a home run.

But Ted Williams had a love even greater than baseball. Williams was an outdoorsman par excellence. He loved hunting and fishing--especially fishing. In the May 1989 issue of POPULAR MECHANICS, Williams shared his favorite fishing spots with readers. We reprinted the article in our centennial book, “The Best Of Popular Mechanics 1902-2002.” We republish it here as a tribute to Ted Williams.

I'VE BEEN ASKED a hundred times if I can compare the highlights of my career in baseball to the thrills of fishing. It's a tough question to answer because I've devoted myself to both sports and they're fundamentally different.

Is making a good cast to a fish and fighting it skillfully similar to hitting a home run? I'd be lying if I said yes. There's no feeling in the world comparable to hitting a baseball out of the park in front of a home-town crowd in a big game.

Yet, I firmly believe there's no greater outdoor activity available to human beings than sportfishing. You're never too young or too old to participate, and the excitement, pleasure and challenge are always there. It doesn't matter if the fish you're after is a 2-ounce bluegill or a 200-pound marlin. If the tackle is right for the size of fish, it's always a sporting proposition, and a damn fine one at that.

Some people have called me a "flag waver" for the good ol' U.S. of A., and I've never denied it. They're probably aware I've served as a fighter pilot in World War II and in the Korean Conflict. They're also probably aware that I don't hesitate to speak my mind on subjects regarding the role and status of the U.S. in the world.

Well, to paraphrase a recent president, here I go again: The United States, in my opinion, is the best angling country in the world, because the abundance and variety of fish found here is unmatched anywhere else. I might get an argument from my Canadian friends, who know I've spent a considerable amount of time casting flies at Atlantic salmon in the paradise-like pools of the Miramichi River, in New Brunswick.


But, like many lucky Americans, I've had the good fortune to fish for walleye and muskie in the Midwest, bonefish and tarpon in Florida's saltwater flats, marlin and tuna in the ocean, salmon and trout in streams from Maine to the Flathead River system in Montana, and bluegill and bass in the Arkansas River, near Little Rock, and throughout the South. I guess you could call me a Will Rogers fisherman: I've never met a fish I didn't like. But my point is that whatever kind of fishing you like to do, we've got plenty of it right here in America.

With 50 years of angling under my belt, and many more ahead, I know I'm not likely to grow tired of the sport. The reason? Whenever I see a young boy fishing with his dad I can't help but notice the magic in his face as he feels a fish pulling on the end of his line. I think I still have some of this kid-at-heart attitude about fishing within me, as I think most fishermen do, regardless of how gray they might be getting around the edges.

Like most fishermen my age, I started fishing with a bamboo pole as a California kid, and progressed from there. I didn't take it up seriously until much later in life. It was tough to break away for a day or so of fishing when I was playing baseball, although I did my best. During spring training in Flor-ida, for example, I always tried to find some time to fish for tarpon off Boca Grande, on the Gulf Coast, marlin off Palm Beach, on the Atlantic Coast, or cast for bonefish in the Keys. Occasionally, I was able to sample the fishing in cities I played ball in, but this was rare. Mostly, I had to wait for the off-season.

As I acquired more experience, comparing techniques with some of the top guys in the field, I began to wonder about the effectiveness of some of the tackle commonly used. Later, when I wasn't hitting baseballs for a living, I served as a consultant for a major line of sports equipment, which included fishing tackle. This gave me a chance to develop equipment and test some of my ideas. I like to think I helped push forward advancements made in technology and materials for fishing tackle by testing prototype rods, reels, lines and lures.

When I began fishing, more than a half century ago, the tackle wasn't nearly as sophisticated as it is today. In fact, it was pretty crude. Modern reels, for example, are stronger, more reliable and equipped with smoother drags than anything available when I started.

Rods have equally improved. My first rod, as mentioned, was made of split bamboo. This material was replaced by fiberglass, which gave way to graphite, boron and synthetic composites. New rods are lighter, more powerful and much less tiring to use. Monofilament fishing line, of course, is a genuine marvel of science compared to the old silkworm gut leader and braided linen line I started out with.

DESPITE ALL THE technological advances I've witnessed, I've never lost sight of the fact that hard-fighting fish, even big offshore monsters, could always be whipped by using the right tackle. And that tackle didn't have to be heavy duty, either. Keep the pressure on, with just the right touch and skill, and the biggest tarpon or marlin in the world will eventually tire out and give up the fight.

As mentioned earlier, I like to fish for all sorts of fish, but it's no secret that I favor hunting what I call the "big three": bonefish, tarpon and Atlantic salmon. It's also no secret that I'm a dedicated fly fisherman.

For a number of years I've headed for the saltwater flats surrounding Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, for the elusive silvergray bonefish. Many times I've gone out with a guide, who stands on a raised platform and poles the boat into position like a gondolier.

But lately, I've taken to stalking the flats, while wading and casting to fish that I spot sticking their tails up out of the water as they feed. There's nothing like the excitement of seeing the sparkle of sunlight hitting a fish tail, wading in as quietly as possible, and then laying your fly a few feet in front of the bone's nose. If the fish takes the fly, then it's off to the races. Nothing runs line off like a hell-bent-for-leather bonefish. The reel whines and the fish streaks away like a torpedo. All you can do is hold the rod tip high and hope your fly, line and leader all hold together at this breakneck speed.

Then, if the fish stops before your reel empties, it's time to fight back. You reel in some slack line and pow, off it goes again. I release all bonefish I catch because any fish that takes the fly this well, fights this hard and gives me so much excitement deserves to be released. As the name implies, bonefish are too boney to make a convenient meal and too scarce to kill for mounting.

The tarpon is a special fish, too. What makes it so special? The answer is easy: It's a world-class jumper, runs as good as a bonefish, if it has a mind to, and comes in a jumbo-size package.

The average tarpon caught in the waters of Boca Grande Pass, off Florida's Gaspar-illa Island, is well under 100 pounds, but 100-pounders are far from rare. Tarpon are truly big-league fish, as well as Olympic jumpers.

Remember earlier that I said I prefer to use fly tackle and a tippet that tests 15 pounds or less? I said it and I meant it. Even the mighty tarpon can be landed on this kind of light line and tackle, if you use skill and do it right.

Tarpon are usually caught in relatively shallow water, so the big fish wear themselves out running and jumping, because they can't go deep and pull off your wrists. Keep the pressure on, lower your rod tip when it jumps (to prevent a snap-off or having the fish fall on a taut line) and you'll have the fight of your life, especially with a light fly rod.

THE FLY ROD is a frail-looking instrument to use for hard-fighting fish, when you consider its small diameter and flexible tip. Yet, its special design enables the angler to keep constant pressure on the fish without breaking the delicate leader. Heavier equipment can be used, but the challenge comes in doing the same job with the lighter tackle. Steady pressure, attention to slack line on the reel, avoiding snags and lowering the rod tip when a fish jumps are some of the skills an angler must hone to catch big fish this way. Using heavier tackle will make up for shortcomings, but it lessens the challenge, in my mind.

It may seem harder to fish this way, but there's no doubt that it's more rewarding. And it's fun, otherwise I wouldn't do it. I love fishing with a fly rod, and I've said many times that I may become tired from casting, but I never get tired of casting.

The final fish of my "big three" is the Atlantic salmon. Of the three, my salmon fishing days outnumber those of the other two by a wide margin. Why? I've asked myself this question many times and the answer is hard to express. The Atlantic salmon, from the Penobscot River, in Maine, to my favorite pools in New Brunswick, Canada, is mysterious in its ways. No matter how much anyone thinks he knows about this magnificent fish, the next day will bring a new surprise.

The Atlantic is a leaper, perhaps not in the class of a frisky tarpon, but a fabulous jumper all the same. (Bonefish, by the way, don't jump at all.) It's easily the match of bones and tarpon in running ability and sheer will to fight.

As the Atlantic salmon leaves the ocean and enters the Penobscot River, for example, it's on a spawning mission that makes it a solid bundle of energy. It will gulp a fly and take off with such a rush that the reel handle becomes a blur. When it leaps, the angler's heart leaps with it--the water explodes and the silver rocket aims for the sky.

I GUESS I COULD say the gods of fishing, whoever they may be, have smiled on me, because I've caught more than a thousand Atlantic salmon. (I've caught about 1000 tarpon and bonefish, too.) I don't keep the big Atlantics anymore, although I did in years past when they were more plentiful. Each year I take a few grilse, the small ones, for the table, but that's about it. Despite the large numbers of fish I've caught, the next one will be just as exciting as the first one, because each is a great adventure in its own way.

It's a funny thing about releasing a fish. The first time you set a big one free feels kind of strange, maybe even a little painful. But the next one is easier and after that, they're all easy. You don't have to have a dead fish to prove you caught it. You know you did it, and that's all that's important.

AS I MENTIONED, I release all my bonefish, tarpon and all but a fraction of my Atlantic salmon. Why? Because it's clear to me, and to anyone who's been fishing for the last few decades, that size and quantity of gamefish are far below the levels they used to be. Do the fish survive after being caught? Experts disagree on the subject. Obviously, if you manhandle the fish in the process of pulling the hook out, the chances go down. Lately, I've taken to filing the barbs off my hooks, which makes it easy to release a prized fish. Just last fall I caught and released the largest Atlantic salmon of my life, a 30-pound-plus female. And, yes, it was taken on a barbless hook.

When I began angling seriously more than 30 years ago, the fishing was pretty good and I made up my mind to learn everything I could about this fantastic sport. As the years went by, I discovered that not everything I learned was good news.

Oldtimers told me that Atlantic salmon fishing was twice as good when they were younger. I shrugged at this, because I thought it was still pretty good in the mid-1950s. But it wasn't too long before I began to notice a change. Fewer fish appeared each year and they were noticeably smaller. I began to make a journal of my catches to chart the gradual change, but I gave it up before too long. Within a few years, the run of salmon was down to a trickle. You didn't need a written record to note the change, it was like night and day.

Generation after generation of Atlantic salmon were netted wholesale by commercial fishermen looking for an easy catch. They simply set nets up at the mouths of rivers and caught every fish headed toward its instinctive spawning grounds. Many of Maine's most productive salmon streams--and those in the Canadian Provinces, too--were wiped out completely. I don't mean that the fish were so depleted that sportfishermen were less likely to catch them. I mean that no fish made it to the spawning ground for several consecutive years, no eggs were laid, no salmonids hatched and no salmon headed out to the ocean to reach adulthood and someday return. None. Zero.

Bonefish and tarpon suffered during this time as well, and are still suffering. The difference with these fish is that they aren't the primary target of the commercial fishermen. They are an accidental catch. Commercial fishermen are becoming too efficient, using miles of netting and stripping the water of fish wherever they roam. They aren't actively seeking to kill bonefish, kingfish, marlin, swordfish, sailfish and several others, but the result is the same.

Gamefish or sportfish aren't the only species to suffer in recent years. Most fishermen are all too aware of species depletion in natural stocks of striped bass, snook, redfish, grouper, several kinds of tuna, sea bass, salmon, steelhead trout on the West Coast and many others. Sportsmen's groups and conservation agencies are working together on this to raise public awareness of the problem, to restore threatened stocks, and to get legislation passed to ensure continuation of current species for future generations. Some of the work done in this area is controversial. Commercial fishermen feel pressured. Even some sportfishermen feel that government regulation goes against the grain of a sport that is among the purest expressions of freedom.

WELL PILGRIMS, as John Wayne used to say, I'm going to spell out my opinion on the subject as straight as I can. Some people might not like it, but here goes. Firstly, it's time we made saltwater licenses mandatory for all anglers, both commercial and sport. I know that some states already have a saltwater license, but what good does it do if one state is regulated and the neighboring one isn't?

Fishermen with a mind to circumvent the license law just pull into a dock in an unlicensed state and unload the ill-gotten catch. This type of thing happens every day. Without a federal license and certain nationwide regulations, depletion will continue and hoped for improvement will be impossible.

I'm basically conservative by nature and against government meddling whenever possible. But I've seen drastic changes in fish population in my lifetime and they haven't been for the better. The problem with licenses, of course, is enforcement. What good are they if no one checks? This is where the fee comes in. It should be written into the legislation that money collected for saltwater licenses goes for hard-nosed law enforcement and restoration work.

My second point (Have I stirred up enough controversy, yet?) concerns sportfish in general. I think a study should be done to determine exactly what a sportfish is and then ban their commercial sale. This is like opening the proverbial can of worms, because not everyone agrees with what a sportfish is. My list would include all the marlin, swordfish, striped bass, bonefish, tarpon, permit, redfish, sailfish and, to be honest, other species in danger of depletion. In addition, I believe bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon should be closely watched and, perhaps, commercial fishing near shore temporarily suspended.

LET ME CLARIFY what a sportfish is by explaining what it isn't. It isn't a fish that is essential to commercial fishermen, such as flounder, whiting, haddock, herring, hake, mackerel and so forth. Most common food fish, I believe, shouldn't be considered sportfish.

But, perhaps the most important criterion is whether fishermen are willing to spend good money on it. You don't find fishermen renting guides or party boats for carp, suckers, flying fish or mullet.

A fish is a sportfish if fishermen are willing to spend money on airfare, hotels, meals, guides, car rentals and other incidentals to make it more costly per pound than what commercial fishermen get to catch it. Take Atlantic salmon, for instance. Commercial fishermen get about $3 a pound. I can vouch for the fact that some individual salmon have cost me more than $200 per pound (counting all the expenses I incurred in the catch). And I paid it willingly. Sportfishing is an important industry to many statewide and local economies, when you look at the numbers as many analysts have, and it deserves protection.

My final point along these lines concerns pollution. Sure, we've got to do something with our garbage and industrial waste, but pouring it into the nearest body of water isn't the solution. Unrestricted dumping in rivers, lakes and coastal waters harms the habitat and harms the fish. You don't have to be a fisherman to understand this, it's plain to anyone.

Once again, I don't have an easy answer in mind and studies by experts and politicians need to be done. But once those studies are completed, I'd get behind them to make sure we take the steps necessary to create enough clean water to ensure fishing for future generations. Corrective measures this late in the game may prove to be harsh medicine to some special interest groups, but there's no easy solution and not everybody's going to be happy. Is this too strong a stand? I don't think so. In fact, I believe, more fishermen should move to the forefront of the fight against pollution and the cleaning up of the waterways in this country.

DESPITE THE CLOUD that seems to be hanging over some areas of the fishing scene, there are a number of bright spots, too. I have good feelings about the future of the sport, because I think we're finally beginning to turn the corner. In freshwater fishing, trout and bass stocks are actually better in many regions than they were 20 years ago. The Great Lakes have made an amazing comeback and serve as a wonderful example of what can be done when people get serious.

Lake trout, brown trout and Pacific salmon are providing better fishing today than many thought possible a few years ago. Even the Atlantic salmon is on the comeback trail in Maine and a couple of other New England states. Also, striped bass and walleye have recently become increasingly important sport species in freshwater lakes throughout the country.

State conservation agencies and private groups, such as Trout Unlimited, Atlantic Salmon Assn., Federation of Flyfishers, International Gamefish Assn. and the Isaac Walton League, are more active than ever before in conservation efforts. They're fighting the good fight and even winning a few battles. I support their efforts in trying to bring intelligent management to the world of fishing, and I think every fisherman should, too.

People who know me are aware that I have a dream of one day owning a seaworthy vessel big enough to carry a couple of skiffs on deck. The plan is to live on the big boat and fish out of the small ones as I cruise from port to port. I've been looking for the perfect boat for about 40 years now, and perhaps it's just a dream that will remain forever out of reach.

But it really doesn't matter, because I've done as much fishing as I could do in this great country of ours and I've enjoyed every minute of it. Fishing has given me a lot in life and the reason I've made such strong statements regarding its future is that I'd like to give something back. We've got the best country in the world for fishing right here in America. Let's do everything we can to keep it that way.
 

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