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Williams was a fish slugger, too

The Red Sox legend excelled in salt and fresh water, from Florida to the Yucatan Peninsula.

©Los Angeles Times

July 7, 2002

The Red Sox legend excelled in salt and fresh water, from Florida to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Ted Williams the baseball player will be remembered for his many remarkable accomplishments: his .344 lifetime batting average, .406 in 1941, a .438 on-base percentage, his 521 homers.

Ted Williams the fisherman posted some pretty impressive numbers as well. How's this for a grand slam: 1,000 Atlantic salmon, 1,000 bonefish and 1,000 tarpon, all on a fly rod.

In 19 years with the Red Sox, Williams amassed 2,654 hits. On one of his countless memorable days on the water off Peru, Williams caught a black marlin that tipped the scale at an eye-popping 1,235 pounds.

Indeed, Williams' proficiency with a bat was, in many ways, matched by his proficiency with a rod and reel.

"I was host of the American Sportsman TV show for 20 years and got to fish with most of the world's great fishermen, and (Williams) was the best all-around fisherman I ever met," said legendary sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy, 80.

And if Williams, who died Friday at Crystal River, was considered a perfectionist on the field, you should have seen him on the water.

Sammy Lee, a Birmingham, Ala., talk-show host, met Williams in 1992 in Florida to tape an interview for his fishing show. It was the beginning of a friendship Lee valued above all others.

Reached recently at his home, he recalled the time Williams invited him to spend a week at his cabin on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada. Lee, a former pro bass fisherman, had taught Williams a thing or two about how to put a largemouth on the hook, but he was new to fly-fishing and in for some schooling he'll never forget.

Williams wouldn't even let Lee on the river the first day, instructing him instead to watch and learn from the bank. Lee gave his full attention to the master, knowing that when his time came he would be under intense scrutiny.

On the second day Williams sent Lee wading precariously downriver, entrusted with one of Williams' signature fly-casting outfits.

"It was basically my first time free fishing in a river like that, and it was my first time fly-fishing," Lee said. "And I have this man critiquing me? Talk about pressure!"

The pressure proved too much. While Lee was trying to negotiate around a large rock, the swift current caught him.

"I go head over heels," he said. "My waders fill up and my feet are sticking straight up in the air. And I remember thinking, "I don't care if I die, as long as I don't let go of the rod and reel,' because this is Williams' rod and reel we're talking about."

When Lee regained his footing he glanced toward the bank at Williams, who barked, "Why are you looking at me? You can't catch anything looking at me!"

Later that day Lee was told by Williams' personal guide that the slugger had been thinking along the same lines as the fallen fly caster.

"He said to his guide, "I don't care if that (SOB) dies as long as he doesn't let go of my rod and reel,' " Lee said, laughing.

That was just Williams being Williams, Lee assures. The Hall of Famer who refused to tip his cap to fans for most of his illustrious career would give the shirt off his back to any of his close friends.

Williams' abrasive style wasn't for everyone. But anyone with a passion for fishing shared common ground with him, to a point.

Williams' love of fishing and of the outdoors went far beyond the mere acts of casting and retrieving a fly, waiting for the magic moment of the strike and playing a fish.

He demanded of himself the perfect cast, the perfect retrieve and, once a fish was hooked, the perfect fight. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable. He learned to read rivers as well as he could pitches.

Whether on the Miramichi or in the tarpon-rich waters closer to his home in Hernando County, Williams was a purist in every sense.

Williams was respectful of those fishing with him only if they took the sport as seriously as he did.

"The first time I went fishing with him, all he did was give me hell all day," Gowdy said. "But I learned to give it right back, and that made him laugh."

Gowdy recalls a trip with Williams to the Yucatan Peninsula to film a show on permit, a powerful and elusive flats and reef fish.

The fish could be seen in great numbers, but none bit for three days. Gowdy's producer said if no fish were caught by noon the fourth day, the episode would be canceled. Williams bet Gowdy $500 he would land a permit long before then and raised the offered wager to $1,000 as the deadline approached.

Gowdy declined both bets, and sure enough Williams fooled a permit into biting. Gowdy also hooked up.

"We ended up catching about five permit and got a good show out of it," Gowdy said. "That's how confident this guy was in his ability."

Permit, tarpon and bonefish were among Williams' tropical favorites, but never was he more in his element, except perhaps when he was at the plate, than amid a run of migrating salmon.

"He always told me that Atlantic salmon was his favorite because he thought that presenting a fly in a river to a migrating salmon offered the greatest challenge," Lee said. "He told me salmon were the purest-fighting fish he ever went after."

And he went after them often. Williams reportedly turned down an offer of $100,000 to serve as an adviser for Robert Redford in his role in The Natural because the salmon were running.

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