World's greatest flyfisher also played baseball

LOS 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.

Williams, 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.

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 perfectly."

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.

"He's the best flyfisherman I've had on my boat," Ellis said.

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.

"We used to haunt the entrance to Fenway Park where the ballplayers came in," said Gartside.

"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 way, kid.'"

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 Reflection Pool.'"

They went.

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 Atlantic salmon.

"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."

Florida guide Ellis said as much as Williams liked tarpon fishing, he said it didn't compare to turkey hunting. Ellis also saw the kinder Williams.

"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 tournament.'"

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 division.

"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 Williams 1988'"

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 research.

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 million dollars."

That, apparently, is how those in the outdoors saw "The Splendid Splinter."

"Ted Williams had the ability to make you feel special," Vickers said.