Article from ESPN Outdoors
greatest flyfisher also played baseball
Williams made a huge splash in the field, not just at the
By Bill Becher
Special to ESPNOutdoors.com
ANGELES — The sportswriter who dubbed Ted Williams "The
Splendid Splinter" was referring to the bat swung by the
world's greatest hitter. But he could have as easily been
talking about Williams' split-bamboo fly rod.
who died recently in Inverness, Fla., at age 83, took his
flyfishing as seriously as he did his baseball. His
extraordinary angling prowess went beyond the physical skills
of a gifted athlete.
Ted Williams, with a catch
from Maine's Ross Lake in July 1947, was thought by
some the finest flyfishermen they had ever known.
Martyn Vickers fished for
Atlantic salmon with Williams off and on for 30 years on the
Miramichi River in Canada.
"He was as accurate in
making a fly as a jeweler would be in creating a
masterpiece," said Vickers.
A good flyfisherman with a
decent salmon rod should be able to cast 50 to 60 feet,
according to Vickers. Williams' average cast was 85 to 95
feet, he said.
"Each one of his casts
was perfectly made," said Vickers. "The fly rolled
over the end of the line and dropped into the water
Vickers says Williams'
6-foot-3 frame also helped his fishing.
"This was a big
man," said Vickers. "I'm 5-9 so I could wade out in
the water and I'd be up to my chest and that sucker would have
water up to his waist. So he could go farther in the river and
with his long casts he'd cover a lot of water."
Vickers is now a doctor and
chief of surgery.
"I used to teach at
Harvard," said Vickers. "I've met a lot of
intelligent people. (Williams) was a very bright man. This was
not your dumb super athlete. I think his brains and attention
to detail were every bit as much the cause of his success as
his physical skills."
Inducted into the
International Game Fish Association's Fishing Hall of Fame in
2000, "The Kid" was not a trout angler. After
retiring, he divided his time between his homes on the
Miramichi River, where he fished for Atlantic salmon, and in
Islamorada, Fla., where he caught tarpon and bonefish.
In Florida, he often fished
with Gary Ellis, a guide in Islamorada.
the best flyfisherman I've had on my boat," Ellis said.
Each one of his casts was perfectly made. The fly
rolled over the end of the line and dropped into the
Ellis recalled the time he
and another guide spent 10 days fishing with Williams and a
group of tackle-company executives in prime tarpon water north
of Tampa. At the end of the trip, Williams told the guides he
would take them fishing the next day.
"Ted put me on the bow
of the boat," said Ellis. "I immediately hooked up a
100-plus-pound tarpon. We boated it in 19 minutes with Ted
screaming at m, 'Get off the bow. Get the rod tip down. Do
this. Do that.'
"He gave me an A minus. He
said he never gave anybody an A."
Later that day, Williams had a
130-pound tarpon on and talked to it, but not in language fit
for print, according to Ellis.
"He could put expletives
together in a stream that became poetry," Ellis said.
Jack Gartside, a noted
fly-tier and author of many angling books, said he lived a
dry-fly cast away from Fenway Park in the 1950s when Williams
and heavyweight boxer Jack Sharkey were demonstrating
flycasting at a sportsman's show in Boston.
"They had this beautiful
babe in a bikini at one end of the casting pool with a
cigarette in her mouth and Ted would try to knock it out of
her mouth," said Gartside. "He always did it."
When Williams tied flies at a table between casting
demonstrations, Gartside was fascinated.
"I wormed my way up to
the table and asked if he'd show me how to tie a fly,"
said Gartside. "They sat me down at the vise. Ted went
though the motions to show me how to tie a woolly worm."
As a teenage
baseball fan, Gartside saw another side of Ted Williams.
Splinter" was inducted into the International
Game Fish Association's Fishing Hall of Fame in 2000.
"We used to haunt the
entrance to Fenway Park where the ballplayers came in,"
"My friend got there
before me and said, 'You'll never believe this, but Ted
Williams talked to me before he talked to anyone else.'
"I said, 'No kidding.
What did he say?'
"He said, 'Get out of my
Boston sportswriters explored
Williams' dark side at length. They might have called him the
"Splendid Spitter" after the famous incident in 1956
when Williams responded to boos for muffing a Mickey Mantle
fly ball by spitting at the crowd.
Curt Gowdy, sportscaster and
host of the "American Sportsman" TV show and ESPN2's
"CITGO's In Search of Flywater," said Williams
didn't mind when sportswriters criticized his play on the
field, but didn't understand why his private life was fodder
for the press.
"I'll tell you a story
about how good he was," said Gowdy. "The Red Sox
were playing in Washington when the Senators were there. One
day about 9 in the morning, he called me and says, 'Curt,
they're having a national flycasting tournament over at the
At the tournament, one of the
participants recognized Williams and invited him to try a
cast. Williams put on a stripping basket and practiced a few
minutes with the unfamiliar rod.
"He made a cast and the
line went whoosh, all the loose line coiling out of the
basket," said Gowdy. "Ted's cast was about five feet
shorter than the guy who won the distance tournament."
"He was an American
hero," said Gowdy. "No one ever mentions that. He
flew in two wars; he landed a burning, shot-up plane in Korea.
He told it like it was. He was very good with children and
people who needed help. I loved the guy."
Guide Lee Hartman meet
Williams on the Kola Peninsula in Russia in 1991 fishing for
"I asked (Williams) what
his biggest thrill was, and was expecting something from
baseball," said Harman. "He said calling in his
first turkey. That's the thrill he remembered best."
guide Ellis said as much as Williams liked tarpon fishing, he
said it didn't compare to turkey hunting. Ellis also saw the
Williams boats a bonefish in
Florida waters in February 1955.
"He's been criticized
for being hard-hearted and cold, but he had the biggest heart
in the world," said Ellis. "He helped me start a
charity fund-raising event back in 1988.
"I had a daughter born
with cystic fibrosis," Ellis said. "We lived right
in town and Ted knew my situation and knew my daughter. I went
bonefishing with him in 1988 and said, 'Ted, I want to start a
When Williams said he didn't
do tournaments, Ellis told him it was for kids. When Williams
said he didn't kill fish, Ellis said it was a
catch-and-release tournament. When Williams said he only
flyfished, Ellis told him the tournament had a flyfishing
"Right there we wrote the
rules for a tournament, called the Mercury Redbone Celebrity
Tournament," said Ellis. "Ted Williams took a sketch
of himself swinging a bat and at the bottom wrote, 'Help save
young lives — fish the Redbone for cystic fibrosis — Ted
Ellis used the sketch in
promotional material for a series of fishing tournaments (www.redbone.org)
that have since raised $2.5 million for cystic fibrosis
Vickers saw the same Ted
Williams during 30 years of fishing trips in Canada.
"My family is from New
Brunswick and they are work-in-the-woods, very simple
people," Vickers said. "And (Williams) always
treated them with utmost respect. He has a reputation of being
gruff and just doing what he wanted to. That was not truly him
"Someone was salmon
fishing at our lodge for the first time. The guy is out there
in the river and catches a small salmon. About 5 pounds.
"Ted Williams came over
and congratulated the guy and made him feel like he was a
That, apparently, is how
those in the outdoors saw "The Splendid Splinter."
"Ted Williams had the
ability to make you feel special," Vickers said.