When the fish came, his demeanor abruptly changed. He went into a slight crouch, like a corner back anticipating a charge; where before only his eyes were alert, the prospect of action seemed to galvanize and bring to attention the rest of his body, and when he made his cast it was quick and sure.
It is Ted's opinion that he will average one score for every five tarpon that strike. The average for lesser tarpon fishermen is much lower, maybe one for 10. That first day he had four fish on the line. One was down at Long Key. Then when we switched across to the Florida Bay side, seven miles southwest of Islamorada on the edge of Buchanan Bank, to catch the falling tide there, he had three more. On this side, especially in June, Brothers said, the tarpon seem more eager to cooperate.
The first one jumped and spit out Ted's bucktail. The second rolled and spit it out. Finally the third took it firm. The fish exploded into the air. Sawhack-whack-whack. The tarpon jumped seven times, swooshing spectacularly into the air as Williams played it, worked it, reeled, kept the pressure on. All the time he was instructing us, telling us what he was doing, advising Charley when to shoot and what lens opening he might use, cautioning Jack about getting too eager with the gaff.
"It's a medium-size fish...about 50-60 pounds.... When he rolls, that's the time to put the pressure. If you can turn him there, it takes a lot out of him. If he jumps, get on him again.... See how I lighten the drag when it's under the boat? Watch, now, he'll jump. When I say, 'Now,' be ready to shoot. Now!" and the fish was up again, just feet away from the boat. The fish tired rapidly, and then when he had it next to the boat and Brothers stood waiting with the gaff the silver monster slipped the hook, as if at that critical moment it decided the entire episode was distasteful, and it was gone.
I have heard of the carnage when the Williams temper stirs. The fractured golf clubs. The snapped fishing rods. The busted water coolers. He does not have much sympathy, either, for another man's errors when the man is represented to be something he is not. Once on this same Buchanan Bank when he was going through his paces for a movie photographer he had hired to get footage for Sears, a tarpon he was playing actually jumped into the boat. He predicted aloud that it was about to happen, sensing the line of the jump, and when he discovered the photographer had missed this wildest of scenes he paid him off on the spot and told him to just get the hell back to shore. But with himself he is especially severe. So I expected him to blow.
But he did not. "That's all right, it happens," he said calmly. "It happens."
In the meantime I had found time to make a few tentative tries myself at getting in the way of a tarpon. I had made up my mind I would not attempt to carry out a fiction that I knew the ins and outs of tarpon fishing. I was very careful to point out that I had never fished for tarpon, had never used a rod that required two hands for casting. I did this as insulation against the inevitable embarrassment. Things not done out of habit usually feel awkward, and awkwardness is the mother of error.
In short order I had proved to their satisfaction that if I was no tarpon fisherman I was also no liar. Williams began to refer to my casts as "Chinese," as in Chinese homers, or bloopers. He tried to advise me. "Here," he said, grabbing the rod. "Now, keep the line here, just off the fingertip, and wait longer before you let it go." He shot one out about 60 feet. "Yes," I said, "I got it. Right." I popped another straight up into the air. "Damn," I said. "Beautiful Chinese cast," he said, but shortly after the cast a fish hit my lure in spite of myself. It jumped once, a silver blur in my face, and broke the line. "Wow," I said. Williams was paternally comforting. "It wasn't your fault," he said. "It must have been one of Jack's knots." He grinned as Jack tried to make a comeback. "It wasn't my knot, it was...."
So now, with the sun just rising on our second day and Charley Trainor busily lathering up with his World War II marooned-aviator's suntan lotion, we were heading back out to Buchanan. "Bet you $100 I get one today," said The Kid. Over the roar of his 100 horses he and Jack began a discussion on the amount of drag necessary for tarpon. They differed sharply. Jack likes a heavier drag. About seven pounds. Ted said that heavy a drag will pop your line when you get a real hot fish, and he brought up my miss as an example. The argument carried us to Buchanan Bank.
Brothers got us situated, and in the quiet moments as we waited, the sun getting higher, The Kid opened up for discussion one subject after another, sampling them as if they were unlabeled canned goods, each offering something worth considering. There is a difference between knowing and knowing it all. Williams has a keen, honest intellectual curiosity. The things he knows and feels sure of he is adamant on (baseball, the size of a hook, the value of his time); the things he does not know he wants to know. He wants to know what you think, right now, here in the car, in the living room, in the boat. From Charley he wanted to know about cameras, and demonstrated an exceptional knowledge himself by the questions he asked. Listen, Edwin, tell me about this Frazier guy. Is he much of a fighter? Is Shoemaker better than Hartack? Why is that? What do you think about Vietnam? Why did SPORTS ILLUSTRATED pick Jim Ryun as its Sportsman of the Year? What's he got that Frank Robinson doesn't have?