SI Vault
John Underwood
August 21, 1967
No longer a splinter, Ted Williams (right) is just as splendid—and brash—as ever when he turns his skill against another worthy opponent, the leaping tarpon of the Florida Keys
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August 21, 1967

Going Fishing With The Kid

No longer a splinter, Ted Williams (right) is just as splendid—and brash—as ever when he turns his skill against another worthy opponent, the leaping tarpon of the Florida Keys

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His celebrated appetite for privacy has not been diminished by the years. His phone is unlisted. It is not even printed on the receiver. When it gets to be too well-known, he changes it. To get in touch with him requires liaison with his secretary. Then he calls you. And when he says he will call at 7:30, he calls at 7:30, on the dot. Presumably, close friends and fishing guides are the only ones who know how to make direct contact, and Conchs don't snitch. In turn he seeks out their company. Often in the mornings, at daybreak, he materializes at Islamorada Tackle and Marine where the guides congregate, and he hangs around ribbing and needling. He has been especially close to Albright. He was visiting the Albright house when word arrived that he had been called back into the service for the Korean War in 1952, and when an AP guy came around to seek him out The Kid jumped into one of Albright's closets. Albright invited the reporter in, and deliberately small-talked for an hour as Williams silently melted in the closet.

Once or twice a week he foregoes the pleasure of his own cooking to patronize a small Cuban-style restaurant called Manny and Isa's, just on the other side of the Over-Sea Highway on the crusty little road that used to be the highway. He prefers it there, because recognition is less likely and he can wear his fishing uniform, and because the food is excellent. Manny was the cook down at the more fashionable Green Turtle Inn before he struck out on his own with black-eyed Isa, his wife, who knows how to make a Key lime pie. Isa is Ted's pet. He does not spare her the needle.

"Veal," he says loudly, and patrons at other tables look up knowingly. "People tell me there are a lot of restaurants on the Keys selling veal and saying it's turtle steak. This tastes like veal to me, Isa." "Oh, no, Ted," says Isa with a Spanish accent, pouting and shaking her finger at him. She runs off to the kitchen and returns with a great slab of meat, which is unmistakably turtle. "You see?" says Isa. "Well, I don't know," says Ted, making that wry face. "Oh, Ted, you are fooling me," says Isa, jabbing him on the shoulder.

It was here, at Manny and Isa's, that we went for lunch: Cuban sandwiches all around, recommended strongly by The Kid. "How about a beer?" he said. "A beer's good with Cuban sandwiches." Drinking beer is one of his more recent diversions. When he was younger he traveled strictly on nonalcohol. He still bridles when downwind from a cigarette-smoker. "What are you, a chain smoker?" he said to Pope, making him change seats. "Damn." At the table I asked if, in view of the obvious effort he puts in fishing, he got as much satisfaction from it as baseball gave him. He said no, that to become a success at baseball required more hours of practice, more competition, more everything, so he could not say that. But he said he had concluded that the two most enjoyable fish to fish for in the world were the tarpon and the Atlantic salmon. He crossed his legs, pushing back his chair, and launched into a soliloquy.

"The tarpon is dynamic, eager, tackle-busting—well, he's just a sensational, lively, spectacular fish. He jumps better than any of them. He'll take any kind of lure, artificial or live. He requires you to have the ability to handle tackle, probably more than any fish I know of. First place, you're playing the fish with basically fresh-water equipment, which means you don't have the best drags or the fastest retrieves, and you're also using fairly light line. As a result, your knots have to be right—I want to show you that 100% knot, I can show you real quick, before you leave I want to show it to you—and everything has to be right. They don't know a whole lot about its life cycle, and you can't eat it, but it has more attributes as far as the gameness of the fish itself is concerned.

"Now, now, the Atlantic salmon. They are caught in beautiful streams. They are wonderful eating. Extremely game. They jump. They're sometimes so hard to catch you think they're smart, then the next time they're easy. Sometimes you cast for two hours in the same arc, here, then here, here, and all the time you're seeing fish, but you think you're never going to get one, and then you change the angle a foot and it drifts right over him and, boom, you've got one. On the average, I would say it takes 400 casts per salmon, 400 to 600 casts per salmon. But on every cast you have the expectation that it's going to happen.

"And, gee, it's a romantic fish. The life cycle is so damn romantic. They know specifically that certain salmon will be hatched in this area, will stay in the river for three years, go out, nobody really knows where, except to sea, and that they grow an awful lot at sea, and then two of them, male and female, come back as adults to the exact same area to spawn. Two of them, five years later, coming back upstream out of maybe 10,000 eggs. I guess if I had to spend the rest of my life fishing for just one fish it would have to be the Atlantic salmon."

We went out again to Buchanan in the afternoon and fished unsuccessfully until dark. Williams brought a radio along and lay back on the deck so he could watch Jack and me in action. Having caught his fish for the day he was prepared to needle away his time. "I want to see this," he said. "I've got to see this." But before long he was up with us. At dusk the conversation got back to the merits of a tight drag, and the argument heated up again. The Kid said, "All right. Bush, I'm just trying to help you. And I'm going to prove it to you. A hot fish, a hot fish, will break your line with that drag."

When we got to shore it was almost dark. "C'mon," he said to Jack. He got Jack's line and tied it around his waist and in the semidarkness loped off into a ragged field of weeds and coral rock, lurching as he picked up speed on the uneven ground, and when he gave a sudden yank—whamp—the line popped. "Isn't that funny, Bush?" he shouted. "Isn't that funny?"

It was after 10 o'clock when we reached his house and relaxed into the big, soft, flower-printed chairs in the living room. Ten o'clock is late for The Kid, because he has got to be up and Out There again the next morning or he feels he has missed a chance, but sitting there, yawning, his eyes red, he told of his evolution as a fisherman. He tells the story in an absorbing anecdotal style, absently scratching his head and pulling on his hair and working his arms and legs around, his sunglasses dangling from the V of his shirt. He said it all began back in San Diego with a guy named Chick Rotert and an 11-year-old kid named Ted Williams.

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