When a Boston production company reached out to me about a photographic assignment that sport fans could only dream of, I never hesitated. Finding my good fortune hard to believe, I signed on — two weeks in Canada filming Ted Williams fishing for Atlantic salmon.
In addition to his considerable baseball talents, Williams had developed a reputation as an expert fisherman and was considered by many to be the best sport fisherman in the country. His fly-casting demonstrations drew great crowds at the annual New England Sportsmen’s Show.
With the Yankees and the Dodgers about to play a “Subway Series” in New York, and the 1955 baseball season over for the Red Sox, Williams put away his bats and checked out his fly rods. By then, late in his career and a little beyond his “Splendid Splinter” days, he was still a handsome, dynamic figure who looked great on film.
Once on the Southwest Miramichi River, I quickly learned that Ted Williams the ballplayer — out of the public eye — doing the thing he loved best besides hitting a baseball, was a different Ted Williams than I’d ever filmed before.
I didn’t know much about fly-fishing. Most of the salmon I had seen came out of a can, but I knew how to tell a story with a motion picture camera. I had no idea what a “salmon pool” was until I got to New Brunswick, but quickly learned that it was just a leased spot on the river, where one fly fisherman, hip-deep in waders, was just a few yards from another doing the same thing.
Youngsters don’t often grow up and find themselves in the company of their boyhood heroes, but I did and now, so would others, through my lens. My film rolled as one of my baseball idols, wearing a fisherman’s bucket hat instead of his navy blue Red Sox cap, pulled on his waders and stepped into the early morning Southwest Miramichi.
In a way, it was like he was stepping up to the plate, the critical sports writers vanished from his mind, and his focus, like all great athletes, on the business at hand. He looked as comfortable in his fishing gear as he did when he was up at bat. Ted could drop the lure from his singing fly line with pinpoint accuracy anywhere he wanted to in the river — to wherever he felt that the salmon would take the bait. If the lure didn’t attract the fish, he’d change it.
“Bush,” he’d say (he called everyone “Bush”), “now focus the camera close-up on my hands.” He wanted to make sure his expertise at tying artificial flies was captured on film.
He didn’t “play” the salmon as much as the locals did — he just reeled them in and went after the next one, like he was trying to improve his average with another at bat.
None of us knew it at the time, but Ted had been smitten by the Southwest Miramichi and fishing for Atlantic salmon. He would eventually buy a place on the river and would spend many happy months there every year challenging the salmon with his hand-tied flies and his great skills.
Ted was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, but with his fly rod in hand, framed against a cobalt-blue sky, he looked like he was born to fish. With the sun setting and the lines reeled in for the day, some of the keepers were cooked for dinner on an outdoor grill. Surrounded by the changing colors and the heady air of a cool, crisp, autumn day in the forest, I enjoyed the best-tasting fish I had ever eaten.
Five years later, I filmed into history the Splendid Splinter’s final home run, but for this kid from the city, photographing Ted Williams the salmon fisherman was an experience not to be forgotten.
David Marlin covered the Northeast for CBS News for 25 years. He is the author of “Newsmakers of Our Time.” Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.