Mar 11, 2001
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A Hall of Fame fisherman, too

July 6 2002

As good a hitter as baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams was, he was an even better angler.

"He was the greatest all-around fisherman I've ever seen," said broadcaster Curt Gowdy of his longtime friend, who died Friday at the age of 83. "From marlin to salmon to bass to bonefish, he was the most versatile I ever saw."

The last man to bat over .400 (.406 in 1941), Williams hit 521 home runs and had a career average of .344. But perhaps his most impressive statistics were catching more than 1,000 bonefish, 1,000 tarpon and 1,000 Atlantic salmon on a fly rod.

"The Atlantic salmon I named No. 1. He jumps, he's strong and his life cycle's the greatest one in fishdom," Williams told me several years ago.

"The tarpon is the gamest fish that swims. But I'd rather fish for bonefish than I would tarpon. Tarpon is the gamest tackle-buster you can get, but I love bonefish. I started off with the bonefish."

Williams did a little fishing as a youngster in San Diego, then got hooked on the sport when he played for the Boston Red Sox. He first fished in the Florida Keys in 1947 and started coming down to Florida before spring training started just so he could go fishing.

"I couldn't wait to get down there the next year a month earlier than when I'd come down that year. Well after a while, between tarpon, bonefish and the other fish I was running into in the Keys and in Florida Bay, I decided that I was going to have a place there," said Williams, who bought a house in Islamorada in 1952 and lived there for 36 years.

A skilled plug caster, Williams, who was inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Dania Beach in 2000, got into fly-fishing while trying to catch snook. He first caught snook on plug tackle in Everglades City while he was a flight instructor in Pensacola. The following year, he came down to Florida before spring training just to fish for snook, but he had trouble catching them.

"So I'm going home one night all discouraged about it all," Williams recalled. "I looked on the side of the road and there's a fellow there fishing and he's got his rod bent and he's got a fish splashing. So I stopped the car and I went back and I asked the guy, `What do you got on?' He said, `I got a snook.' About an 8- or 10-pound snook. And I start talking to him. I saw his fly. I said, `Where'd you get the fly?' He said, `I make them.' So I started to tie flies immediately after that and I started to use a fly rod."

Williams quickly mastered the fly rod, wielding it as effectively as his baseball bat.

"He's the best fly-fisherman I've ever had on my boat," said Islamorada fishing guide Gary Ellis.

Gowdy, who was the Red Sox broadcaster from 1951-66, loved to tell a story about how the Red Sox were in Washington, D.C., playing the Senators in the late 1950s and Williams invited him to check out a casting contest.

"I was up in my room and the phone rang about 10 o'clock in the morning and it's Ted," Gowdy said. "`Gowdy!' he says, `There's a national distance casting championship at the Reflecting Pool. Let's go over and bum around.' I said OK, so we went over there and we're walking around and these guys have casting baskets with all their line in there.

"One guy recognized him and said, `Hey Ted, come here. Give it a shot.' So Williams straps this basket around him, plays with the rod a little bit, gets the feel of it ... I think he cast about 6 feet shorter than the guy who won the national championship."

Williams not only set high standards for himself, he also set them for his fishing companions, which made for some frustrating fishing trips. Fellow Red Sox Hall of Famer Bob Doerr recalled a tarpon trip with Williams in the Everglades. Doerr hooked two tarpon, but both of the fish broke the line, causing Williams to scream at and curse out his dear friend.

"Ted was so anxious for me to catch fish, it kind of drove him up the wall," Doerr said. "He's a perfectionist, and he wants you to fish like he does. And that's hard to do."

Failing health in his final years prevented Williams from fishing, but he still loved to talk about fishing. One of my most cherished memories was a dinner a few years ago with Williams that was arranged by his close friend Sammy Lee, a bass pro and the host of the Tight Lines with Sammy Lee radio show.

Lee invited my father, Lloyd, and me, along with several other bass pros, to join him and Williams. Although we were all eager to hear baseball stories, Williams preferred to grill the pros about their favorite lures and lure colors. Initially, Williams seemed a little gruff, but it soon became apparent that he was just having fun with the pros.

Finally, my dad got to have some fun with Williams. A Boston native and long-suffering Red Sox fan, my dad was a teenager when he asked Williams for his autograph hours before a game at Fenway Park. Williams' response was unprintable. As my dad related the story, a smile came to the great hitter's lips.

"You asked me for my autograph and I wouldn't give it to you," Williams said. "Now here we are, 50 years later. And you know what? You're still not getting my autograph!"

Steve Waters can be reached at swaters@sun-sentinel.com or at 954-356-4648.
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