Ted Williams: Hall of Fame Fly Fisherman


You may know Ted Williams as the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1966) left fielder who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1939-1942 and 1946-1960. If so, you probably know Williams was a 17-time All-Star, two-time winner of the American League (AL) Most Valuable Player Award, six-time AL batting champion, two-time Triple Crown Winner (batting average, home runs and runs batted in), and the last man to bat over .400 for a season–.406 in 1941. You probably also know that he served in the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps during World War II and flew as a Marine pilot during the Korean War. Finally, you may know that Williams managed the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers franchise from 1969-1972.

Williams passed away in 2002, but if he were alive today, he would certainly tell you that baseball was only his second favorite pastime. Fly fishing was the sport he truly loved. “The Kid,” or “The Splendid Splinter,” as Williams was known during his baseball years, became an avid and expert fly fisherman and deep-sea angler during his baseball career.

John Underwood co-authored a book with Williams entitled Ted Williams Fishing “The Big Three,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982). Underwood wrote that Williams would fish anywhere, any time. He caught black marlin in New Zealand and tiger fish in the Zambezi River in Mozambique, and he caught these and other fish with different kinds of tackle, in and on all types of water. Underwood described very nicely what it was like to fly fish with Williams.

“To fish with Williams and emerge with your sensitivities intact is to undertake the voyage between Scylla and Charybdis. It is delicate work, but it can be done, and it can be enjoyable. It most certainly will be educational. An open boat with The Kid just does not happen to be the place for one with the heart of a fawn or the ear of a rabbit. Even his friends called him the Captain Queeg of fishing. There are four things to remember: one, he is a perfectionist; two, he is better at it than you are; three, he is a consummate needler; and four, he is in charge. He brings to fishing the same hard-eyed intensity, the same brooding capacity for scientific inquiry, he brought to hitting a baseball” (Underwood, p. 19).

According to Underwood, Williams believed there were three fish worthy of any true sportsman—tarpon, bonefish, and Atlantic salmon. Considered by Williams the triple crown of fishing, he had caught and released over 1,000 of each by 1982. After Williams retired, he spent time between a home along the Miramichi River in east-central New Brunswick and a home in Islamorada, Florida. Williams spent June to October fishing for Atlantic salmon in Canada and the rest of the year angling for tarpon and bonefish in Florida.

Williams’ favorite spots for catching tarpon were around Islamorada south to Key West, at Homosassa Springs north of Tampa, and around Boca Grande just north of Fort Myers. Nine out of ten times he used a fly rod to catch tarpon.   Williams shared his secrets with Underwood on fly fishing for tarpon.

“I put at least 200 yards of backing on the reel, braided Dacron testing out  to 30 pounds. I tie that to 90 feet of No. 12 fly line with a whip finish. Then I tie on a six-foot butt leader of 60-pound of monofilament with a nail knot. I make a perfection loop the diameter of a pencil on the other end and tie it to the strength measure, a two-foot tippet of 15-pound mono, a Bimini twist loop tied on both ends. I tie to the perfection loop with a clinch knot, going through the bottom and back through the top with a double barrel knot. Then I tie the bottom end of the leader through a loose knot on my 100-pound shock tippet and tighten that down against the Bimini twist. Then I tie the tippet with three half hitches and a whip finish of four wraps. I tie the lure on with a perfection loop” (Underwood, p. 40).

Williams suggested that a fisherman should have several spares in case a line breaks or if he just wanted to change lures. His final advice was that all rigs have at least 15 pound test line. According to Williams, this will be light enough to enhance the sport of the catch but strong enough for the heavy drag from a powerful tarpon. He found the best time to catch tarpon around Islamorada was mid-April to mid-June.

The bonefish, pound for pound, was the toughest fish in the ocean, Williams claimed. His favorite spots for catching bonefish were in the Bahamas, the Marquesas Islands, and around the Florida Keys, and he did so in mid-March through May. To catch bonefish, Williams generally used spinning tackle but would use a fly rod from time to time. When he did, he used a nine foot, three-and-three-quarter ounce graphite fly rod. On the rod he put a minimum of 150 yards of Dacron backing, which tested at 30 pounds, and used a 12-foot tapered leader with a 10-pound tippet, three feet long. Williams generally used weedless hooks. According to Williams, bonefish are indiscriminate eaters, so he would use lures with multi-colored tips. In particular, Williams stated he was successful using orange and pink bucktail jigs. His advice for fishing for bonefish is to be cautious because the fish are nervous and wary and to be very careful handling and working the lure. Retrieving too quickly is the number one error in bonefish fishing, according to Williams.

Williams called the Atlantic salmon “the greatest of game fish” (Underwood, p. 116). He judged fish by their fighting ability and claimed that the tarpon was “a more spectacular fish, an eager, tackle-busting fish that bends hooks and breaks lines. The salmon doesn’t always fight like that but he fights. No fish makes a more impressive first run than a bonefish. The salmon doesn’t always run like that but he runs. I’ve had a twelve-pound salmon that would run as long as any twelve-pound bonefish and jump as much as any tarpon and take me a quarter mile downstream doing it” (Underwood, p. 118). Williams’ favorite spots to catch Atlantic salmon included the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Canada, the Restigouche River in New Brunswick and the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. Williams’ home was located near Blackville on the Miramichi, where he fished for salmon generally from June into October.

An eight-and-a-half-foot graphite rod that weighed around three ounces was the weapon of choice for Williams when he battled the salmon. On the rod he used No. 8 to No. 9 shooting fly line with a six- to eight-pound leader and tapered the nylon leader with a 40-pound butt down to ten or eight pounds, depending on whether he used a six- or eight-pound tippet. Williams used blood knots to taper the leader and generally used small hooks. His favorite flies were the Black Does and the Conrad.

Whether fishing for tarpon, bonefish, Atlantic salmon, or anything else that moved in the water, Williams generally hit a home run. His fishing prowess earned him a spot in the International Game Fish Association’s Fishing Hall of Fame in 2000. He became one of only three athletes to be inducted into two professional halls of fame–Jim Brown (Pro Football Hall of Fame and Lacrosse Hall of Fame) and Carl Hubbard (Baseball Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame). Williams also raised millions of dollars for cancer care and research through the Jimmy Fund. His overall contributions to his fellow man through athletics and charity work prompted President George H. W. Bush to award Williams the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. While Williams would agree that all of the accolades bestowed upon him were magnificent, you must know by now that nothing meant more to him than fly fishing for tarpon, bonefish, and Atlantic salmon near his homes in Islamorada and along the Miramichi River.