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Great Hitter Could Also Catch (Fish)

July 06, 2002|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Williams the baseball player will be remembered for his many remarkable accomplishments: his .344 lifetime batting average--.406 in 1941--his .482 on-base percentage, his 521 homers ...

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

In 19 years with the Boston 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 Curt Gowdy, 80, also a legendary sports broadcaster.

And if Williams, who died Friday, 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 thus was 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 its 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 down river, entrusted with one of Williams' signature fly-casting rigs.

"It was basically my first time free fishing in a river like that, and it was my first time fly fishing," Lee says. "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 says. "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 cantankerous old 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 recalls with a laugh.

That was just Williams being Williams, Lee assures. The Hall of Famer who refused to tip his cap to fans during most of his illustrious career with the Red Sox would willingly give the shirt off his back to any of his many 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 great outdoors, went far beyond the mere acts of casting and retrieving a fly, waiting for the magic moment of the strike and then playing the 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, Fla., Williams was a purist in every sense.

He meticulously tied his own flies the night before each outing--and brooked no interruptions while he did so.

"You did not come downstairs and if you did, you did not initiate conversation--you did not interfere whatsoever during his fly-tying time," Lee says.

Williams was respectful of those fishing with him only if they took the sport as seriously as he did--and didn't bungle along the way.

"The first time I went fishing with him, all he did was give me hell all day," Gowdy recalls. "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 fishing for permit, a powerful and elusive fish.

The fish could be seen in great numbers, but none bit over the course of three days. Gowdy's producer said that if none were caught by noon the fourth day, the episode would have to be canceled.

Williams bet Gowdy $500 he would land a permit long before then, and then raised the wager to $1,000 as the deadline approached.

Gowdy declined at accept both wagers, and sure enough, Williams finally fooled a permit into biting.

Gowdy then hooked up.

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