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The passion for hitting a baseball is still on him; the batting cage and batter's box remain beguiling places. In his youth they were the wellsprings of his expression, the laboratories where he fashioned as scientific an understanding of the art of hitting as the game has ever known. His love for the possibilities they pose continues to compete with the full-grown tugs of nature that take him so far away' from the arenas where he once starred.
Off Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, I have held on as he perilously rocked his bonefishing skiff while standing to demonstrate the proper way to hit a low outside pitch: "Hell, you can't pick your nose on this pitch...you've got to be quick, be quick with the bat." I have seen him leap from a circle of fishermen on the edge of a jungle in Costa Rica to heft an imaginary bat and hit towering imaginary home runs: "See that? It's an upswing, not a downswing or a level swing. They've been getting that wrong for years, the so-called batting experts."
The fits of temper—the spitting, the gesturing—that marked him with Boston fans have long faded from the composite of his image. With time, cleaner, more agreeable lines have emerged that define him better. Like many loners, it was only the rude crowds he hated—that part of being a celebrity. The rest of his feelings were really not so intense—it was more a matter of taste, a preference for simpler things. He wasn't running away from something as much as he was running to something. Non-outdoorsmen never quite understand that.
He is, now, an expert fisherman—maybe the most expert of our time, the way Zane Grey was considered to be in his. The unique drive that made him want to be, in his own words, "the greatest hitter that ever lived" turned out to be transmutable: He'd not mind at all being called "the greatest fisherman that ever lived." His expertise is vast. He has fished for black marlin in New Zealand and tiger fish on the Zambezi, and he has won international tournaments. No kind of tackle, no body of water has escaped his interest. The weight of his experience has led him, at a youthful 62, to certain hard-held beliefs on the subject.
Of all the fish that swim, Williams believes there are three worthy of a sportsman's consistent attention: the tarpon, the bonefish and the Atlantic salmon. He has now caught—and, for the most part, released—more than 1,000 of each. He fishes for the first two near his home in Islamorada. For Atlantic salmon, he spends the greater part of every summer at his camp on the Miramichi in New Brunswick. He has been going there every season for almost three decades; he owns, or has an interest in, four different pools (i.e., specific fishing areas) on the Miramichi, the best salmon river in the Western Hemisphere. There are 11 genetic strains of salmon in the Miramichi. In 1966 a record 80,000 salmon were angled there. Ted now believes that the Atlantic salmon is the greatest of game fish. It is a soliloquy easily memorized if you are around him enough:
"There's no fish that can touch it for all-round enjoyment. What are the requisites of a good fish? Size is a criterion, but it can't stand alone. I've caught a 1,000-pound marlin, and I wouldn't really care to catch another. I've caught a 600-pound thresher shark. You might as well call a thresher shark a Mack truck, because that's the way it fights. Fighting ability is a better criterion. The tarpon is a more spectacular fish—an eager fish that bends hooks and breaks up lines. The salmon doesn't fight like that, but he fights. I've known a 12-pound to run as far as any 12-pound bonefish, or jump as much as any tarpon and take you a quarter mile downstream doing it.
"And then there are all the other factors. Where you catch 'em, how you catch 'em, the skill involved. You catch salmon in beautiful surroundings, places you never get tired of going to. There's a constant expectation. You're always seeing fish, seeing 'em jump, seeing 'em roll, seeing 'em walk over a bar. The technique you have to have for salmon is awesome. Sometimes they're so hard to take, you think they're smart, and sometimes it's just a matter of changing the arc of your cast a little bit. And there's the added pleasure of the salmon being extremely edible. Most game fish you can't eat at all.
"And, gee, the Atlantic salmon is such a romantic fish. The life cycle is so damn romantic. They know specifically that a salmon hatched up this river, maybe 40 or 50 miles up, even more, will stay in the river three years, surviving kingfishers, eels, skunks, mergansers, coons, otters—damn near everything in or along the river takes shots at him. Then the third summer he runs the gantlet to the sea. Man's after him, beast's after him. But he goes out, no one knows where for sure, and he survives the predators there, and finally a year later he comes back upriver a grilse [a small adult salmon], maybe three or four pounds, or, if he has the right genes, he'll wait another year and come back a nine- or 10-pound salmon right back to the exact place he was spawned. At that point, he's a 4,000-to-1 shot. The hen that went upriver four years before laid around 8,000 eggs. The experts figure the best you can hope for is that two salmon will survive everything and make it back four or five years later.
"The tarpon is a super fish, and the bonefish is a super fish. You never quite get your belly full of those two. But this fish. It keeps getting on you more and more. You dream about it. You think about the next time, the ways you'll fish for it. The flies you'll use. If I only had one fish to fish for, it would be the Atlantic salmon. I'll be a little closer to death when I know I can't fish for 'em anymore."
I have heard these same words, in more or less the same order, over and over. Lately they've taken on an urgency. Like many sportsmen, Ted believes the Atlantic salmon might not be around by the end of this century.