(Ted Williams was, of course, one of the greatest hitters in baseball, known for his perfectionism in one of sport's most difficult tasks. His drive for excellence, his relentless attention to detail, also has made him, as John Underwood says, "an expert fisherman, perhaps the most expert of our time, the way Zane Grey was considered to be in his." Williams has fished for more than 50 years, from New Zealand to Africa to Central America. From the many species he has encountered, he chooses three as the greatest game fish: the tarpon, the bonefish and the Atlantic salmon. He is probably one of a handful to have caught 1,000 of each. The following are excerpts from the new book, "Fishing the Big Three," by Underwood and Williams (Simon and Schuster, $15.95)
He was absorbed now in examining the flat. An implacable sentinel. I had seen him in this posture so many times, for such incredibly long periods, hours actually, that I instinctively relaxed. I put my hands behind my head and leaned back in the stern, the sun at my back. I said it never ceased to amaze me how a guy famous for his impatience -- flying off the handle, throwing bats, tantrums -- could show more patience than anybody for a sport where success was so closely linked to long, lonely vigils.
"When I was a kid I could sit in a duck blind all day and never move," Williams said. "Just for that one flight of ducks. I used to sit by the road for hours waiting for that one rabbit to cross over. All morning I'd sit, then the damn rabbit would come down the road and stop and look and run the other way."
He laughed, then got serious again.
"That's patience, sure. But I don't necessarily show great patience fishing. I'm willing to wait because I know if I do it right, things will happen. Being in the right place at the right time, being properly rigged, I know I have a helluva chance to catch a fish. But look how little patience I have with a crappy cast or a bad maneuver in a boat. Or no style, no talent for fishing, especially with a guy who's supposed to know what he's doing but doesn't.
. . . "I never felt I had to shoot a lot of game or catch a lot of fish to enjoy it," Williams said. "Being there is enough. But I want to be in a nice safe boat. I want to be rigged properly. I want nice tackle. If my tackle isn't any good, I don't want to fish. I want my flies to be tied properly, preferably by me. When I hunt, if the gun doesn't suit me, I don't want to shoot. Same thing."
He had the lure in the water even before I could straighten up to look. Without a word he had crouched down and lifted the rod off his hip, the little white bucktail jig with a red tip dangling, a tiny pice of fresh shrimp visibly sweetening the hook. In one motion, astonishingly quick and smooth for a man so large, he had flicked his wrist and sent the lure flying to a spot 70 feet away, toward the other edge of the flat.
Still crouching, he waited -- one beat, two beats. I looked and saw nothing on the surface except the expanding circles where the lure had dipped in. No furrows, no waggling tails, no tiny tell-tale mushroom clouds of mud, the calling cards of bonefish. Whatever he had seen was cruising underneath and not stopping for lunch.
He bumped the lure twice -- twitches, he calls them -- inching it forward and slightly to the left. Then he gave it three short jerks and paused for a second or two. Suddenly he whipped the rod, setting the hook. The rod doubled. Four or five schoolmates of the fish that was now pinned to his line scattered like bits of shrapnel.
The terrified bonefish took off, and from the raveling line came a sound like wind tearing through a crack in a tin roof. Hearing that close up, from someone else's reel, for the first time made it somehow infinitely more impressive.
Ted lifted the rod high to keep the line out of the water and slightly dropped the tip and let the fish run. Forty, 60, 80 yards before it turned. Immediately he brought the tip of the rod up and, inclining it away from the turn, began to reel.
He was standing upright now, sure in the knowledge he had this one already in the book.
"There's nothing like that first run of a bonefish," he said. "No other fish does it quite like that. There's no question a 10-pound bonefish will pull a 10-pound Atlantic salmon down the river. For the first 100 yards he's that strong. But of course he doesn't jump, and he doesn't have great endurance. A tarpon you pretty much have to fight to exhaustion."
"That why you like this fish so much?" I asked. "That big burst out of the box?"
"That's part of it, sure. But I like it for all the other reasons, too. Picking the best spot, finding the fish, seeing them take a lure. You're not fishing blind. There's suspense to it. Skill. And you get to fish it so many ways."