Angler of the Year

Angler of the Year

Fishing for Albacore with Ted Williams, FR&R's 2003 Angler of the Year.

  • By: Paul Guernsey

It's a cold, gusty autumn day, and Ted Williams and I are fishing for false albacore off Long Island's Montauk Point. Fat Alberts are one of Ted's intense passions, and we've come all the way over from the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound in his 17-foot Mako because Ted is certain this is the best place to fish for them. He had warned me that the hour-long crossing would probably get"a little choppy," especially at the midway point. Now it feels as if four or five of my vertebrae have been fused by the Mako's relentless pounding, and the two Dramamine tablets I chewed up earlier seem to be thinking about throwing their hands in the air and surrendering to the enemy.

You can't get sick, I keep reminding myself. Not in front of Ted Freakin' Williams. If I'd been riding with any of FR&R's other contributing editors—John Gierach, Darrel Martin or even, possibly, Joan Wulff—I would have rested my chest on the gunwale a long time before this. But there's something about Ted, some unyielding, almost military quality that seems to convey the unspoken command: For God's sake, man, hold yourself together!

Ted himself, of course, is looking fit as a fiddle. In fact, he looks positively raptor-like as he grips the wheel and scans the water for busting bait. Ted wants fish—he always wants fish—and he is not a happy camper right now, because as yet he we haven't found any. We've been to a lot of places—too many places, in my opinion—from the shore of Gardiner's Island to the ocean side of Long Island where the breaking waves roll in, and still we haven't hooked up with anything. Now we're hanging around beyond the fleet of sportfishing boats just off the Point itself, trying to figure out what to do.

Then another boat approaches us, and when it gets within shouting distance, Ted's friend, Capt. David Blinken, calls out a greeting. Blinken's 22-foot Contender looks like an ocean liner alongside the Mako, and after a bit of fly-fishing small talk, Blinken says,"Ted, the wind is supposed to pick up this afternoon. I think you ought to take your little boat and head back to Connecticut."

Ted is silent for a moment, then he calls out,"OK, David."

"Really, Ted," insists Blinken."I don't want to have to be concerned about you."

"Thank you, David," Ted says, almost sweetly.

"Yes, thank you, David," I whisper into the hood of my rain jacket.

But as soon as we're on our own again, Ted snickers, and my heart sinks."Blinken just doesn't understand that my boat can go anywhere or do anything his boat can do."

"It can?" I say.

"Sure it can." He seems surprised that I would even ask."Just not as comfortably."

My confession is that once, I really thought he was a baseball player. During an interview for my first FR&R editorial position nine years ago, then-editor Jim Butler asked me for my impressions of the magazine and its departments. When I got to Conservation I said,"And then there's Ted Williams—isn't he amazing? To be a professional athlete of that caliber, and then to go to Korea as a jet pilot and be one of the leading aces of the war, and after that to become so knowledgeable about the environment…"

"He's a different person," Jim said.

"Yes," I readily agreed,"To make a career change like that, I imagine you'd almost have to become a completely different person."

Jim said,"No. I mean that our Ted and the ball player are two different human beings."

"Oh."

"It's a common mistake. Funny, though; they do look quite a bit alike…"

Somehow, I still got the job—and one of my regular duties was to break the news to people that, no, FR&R's Williams was not the ballplayer. This often-humorous identity confusion endured even after the Splendid Splinter died: We received a number of messages of condolence from readers who said they shared our feeling of loss and despaired for the fate of our trout streams without Ted around to call attention to the polluters and the habitat destroyers. Our Williams—Edward F. Williams, lifetime fly-fisher, Colby College graduate, author of two books called Don't Blame The Indians and The Insightful Sportsman, columnist for Audubon Magazine as well as FR&R, and a former editor of Gray's Sporting Journal—never batted .400.

As America's best conservation writer, he is a slugger, though. In the Conservation column he's written for us since 1988, he has rarely, if ever, pulled a punch. He thinks the topics of habitat protection and native-fish preservation are too important to give anyone the kid-glove treatment, no matter who they are. If he thinks a corporate official is lying, he says so; if he thinks an exalted bureaucrat is failing to protect the resources the public has placed in his care, he says that, too. In addition, Ted has very little patience with anglers themselves when they refuse to stand up for the clean water and healthy habitat their sport depends on. He once wrote that everything he was trying to say in his column could be summed up in the following sentence: Sportsmen who aren't environmentalists are fools.

Another of Ted's refrains is that unless conservationists and sportsmen of every stripe band together to defend fish and wildlife habitat, we don't stand a chance of saving much of it for the future. He also frequently reminds us in that uncompromising way of his that wild fish are better than stocked fish, and native fish are better than anything. I'd be lying if I said that Ted's zeal didn't lose us an occasional reader. Some people cancel their subscriptions because they think our federal elected officials should be above criticism. Others tell us that any economic gain to be gotten from our resources is far more important than the continued health, or even the existence, of those resources. Still others misunderstand what a column is and what a columnist does; they think anything in print should be"balanced," like a newspaper article whose writer avoids pointing out what he thinks the truth really is. And some former readers, I must admit, have merely objected to the scornful words and tone Ted sometimes employs when talking about anti-conservation attitudes and individuals.

Much more frequent than subscription cancellations, however, are the letters we get from people who say that Ted's column is the main reason they read the magazine. In fact as of this writing, FR&R's circulation currently stands at an all-time—that's 25 years—high, and I give Ted a great deal of the credit for that. I believe most real fly-fishers realize that Ted provides our sport with both a conscience and an outraged voice that it desperately needs and would be greatly diminished without.

As for his being America's best conservation writer, you might be inclined to think that this is merely hype on the part of a small magazine trying to puff itself up. But this isn't just my opinion. In 2002, the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) presented Ted with the organization's Aldo Leopold Conservation Award and declared him to be"The finest conservation writer in America today." And recently, the New York Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA New York) named Ted as the chapter's Conservationist of the Year. This last award is especially remarkable, because not long before receiving it, Ted had strongly criticized CCA's national leadership for one of their policies. Yet, the organization held him in such high esteem that he received the citation anyway. This year, it just seemed fitting that FR&R honor one if its own with the Angler of the Year Award.

Much to my relief, toward the end of our long, long day, Ted and I are finally back on the Connecticut side, just off New London. The wind dies down, and we start to see birds working the water. Ted repeatedly chases the birds, cutting his engine at the last minute and then grabbing his 10-weight and effortlessly throwing out long, smooth casts.

It is clear that Ted has taken great pains to hone his skills at the fly-fishing game. He and I actually boat a few albacore. But some of the fish we hook come unbuttoned; as any angler knows, that's part of the price of doing business. I merely shrug when that happens, or sometimes I laugh. Ted, on the other hand, curses bitterly at each lost opportunity to wrap his hand around an albacore's skinny tail. I imagine it is at times like this that he is most like that other Ted Williams; he is a ferocious competitor, and he does not like to lose.

Back at Ted's Massachusetts home that night, I carry a glass of whiskey into his den and pour my pain-wracked body into a soft chair. All my adult life I've felt myself lucky not to have back problems, but I'm thinking now that perhaps my luck has come to a sudden end. Ted, his wife, Donna, and Ted's Brittany spaniel, Westy, join me, and to my surprise Ted starts telling Donna how well I handled myself during our albacore odyssey.

"It was no problem for Paul," Ted tells Donna. Then he turns to me and relates a story of irredeemable disgrace. It seems that another angler who recently made the Sound crossing with Ted actually complained about the trip."He didn't like the pounding," Ted says with a shake of his head."All he did was whine about his back." I finish my drink and think about going to the kitchen for another. But I remain seated because I suspect that if I try to stand, I'll make a noise that sounds a lot like a whine.

Later I do go into the kitchen, to talk to Ted and Donna as they prepare supper. I'm surprised to find that we're having Atlantic salmon since Ted, in a number of FR&R columns, has been highly critical of salmon farms and the government agencies that regulate them. I myself have quit buying salmon largely because of what Ted's taught me about the environmentally destructive way it is produced. When I ask him about this, Ted smiles and explains that he doesn't want the salmon-farming industry to go away—he just wants it to clean up its act and stop discharging untreated waste and pathogens into the country's coastal waters. Nor, Ted suggests, is he likely to avoid using lumber or paper despite the fact that he bashes the timber industry with some frequency. Destructive industries don't really care if a handful environmental activists stop using their products, says Ted, because the much more numerous non-activists will keep on buying them."In fact, they want us to do that. They want us to think that if we all just do our little part, then everything will be OK, and it's not true."

This statement, I think, illustrates what is most important about Ted Williams, and where he differs most from many of the country's conservation writers—and certainly from almost anyone who writes for the other fishing and outdoor magazines. When they talk about conservation, other fishing publications take the safe course by focusing almost exclusively on individual"rock rollers" trying to remove a dam or to clean up or restore an individual river. There are a lot of hard workers out there among the memberships of Trout Unlimited, the FFF and other organizations, and there are certainly plenty of success stories that deserve to be reported. But there is also a danger that anglers and other outdoors people will look at some of the local battles we've won or are fighting with some success and conclude that this must mean conservation is carrying the day across the entire country. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: For just one example, the federal government's recent gutting of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts was a major blow to everyone who loves fishing or the outdoors, regardless of their politics. When the Clean Water Act was degraded, Ted Williams' was the only voice to speak up about it from the pages of a major fly-fishing magazine [June 2003]. I'm immensely proud of that fact—but I'm saddened by it, too. If the trashing of such a vital piece of legislation is not important enough for fly-fishers to discuss and get upset about, then what is? Certainly we should all recycle, donate as much as we can to conservation organizations and roll up our sleeves when a stream cleanup comes along. But none of that hard work will have any meaning 20 years from now unless we all tell the government in no uncertain terms that we expect it to take care of our water, our air, our fish stocks and fish habitat, and our national parks. And when government fails to protect the things we care about—or gives those things away to industries that would degrade or destroy them, we need to express our anger. We need to make the politicians afraid of what we as a group will do to them in the next election unless they do the right thing rather than invariably doing the easy thing or the profitable thing.

Ted Williams expresses anger over the assaults on fish and fish habitat, and he does it better and more eloquently than anyone else. Congratulations on this Angler of the Year Award, Ted; you deserve it at least as much as anyone ever has.

  • "How about a [Fly Rod& Reel Award] for Ted Williams, the best conservation writer in the world. Mandatory reading for everyone!"—Letters, March, 1989
  • "Keep track of the number of subscriptions you lose because of Ted Williams…How about a lifetime offer to support Ted Williams? You can have my money to balance the cancellations."—Letters, July/October, 1992
  • "While it is true that Ted is quick to criticize inert or malfeasant governments and regulators, he is just as quick to praise good performance."—Letters, November/December 1992
  • "Ted Williams is the heart of Fly Rod& Reel and the best thing about it."—Letters, November/December 1993
  • "Thanks for Ted Williams. Thanks for daring to offend everyone dim enough to imagine public policy regarding the environment can be separated from politics."—Letters, January/February 1995
  • "I can attest to the fact that Mr. Williams is totally promiscuous when it come to fish. Anytime, anywhere."—Letters, July/August, 1997
  • "So long as you have the courage to keep publishing Ted Williams, you will have my subscription."—Letters, June 2003
  • "He is a rude, radical protectionist and I don't want to be associated with that."—Letters, January/February 1991
  • "I am increasingly troubled by the narrow-minded, inflammatory and grossly inaccurate diatribe of Ted Williams."—Letters, April 1992
  • "I believe Ted Williams' overwrought rhetoric undermines the importance of cleaning up the environment and conserving our resources."—Letters, May/June 1993
  • "I find Ted Williams extremely irritating."—Letters, November/December 1993
  • "I find Ted Williams' articles very offensive; they reflect the lunatic fringe of the environmental movement."—Letters, November/December 1996
  • "Kindly cram your magazine where the sun doesn't shine, if you can get it past Ted Williams' head."—Letters, September/October 1997