A hard rain poured down when they buried Butch Ward in Hagerstown, Md., last week, causing hundreds of bass anglers paying last respects to ponder fate's curious twists. "Everyone had mixed feelings," said artist Mark Susinno. "It was miserable out there, but at the same time we were glad to see the rain.
"I thought, Butch went up there and did something about all this drought and low water we've been having. Thanksgiving has always been prime time for the kind of high-water, winter smallmouth fishing he pioneered, and here we were finally getting the rain we needed. It was just too bad he couldn't be there to enjoy it."
Bass fishermen across the mid-Atlantic region mourned the death of Nelson Lee Ward Jr., 58, who was stricken with stomach pains the weekend before Thanksgiving and died in the hospital two days later. "I was fishing with him the week before in the Susquehanna," said fly-fishing legend Lefty Kreh of Baltimore. "We caught 35 smallmouths, including some big ones, and he seemed to be in great shape.
"I started bass fishing back in the 1940s, before they even had spinning reels, and Butch was the best river bass angler I ever knew. He had an innovation every time we went out and he always shared it. Not many in bass fishing do that."
Ward--president of the Maryland Bass Federation, fishing guide, tournament director and originator of many popular Potomac bass fishing techniques--was a smallmouth expert best known for his unique approach to winter fishing.
"Before Butch and Ed Lewis perfected their technique on the Potomac, hardly anyone fished for smallmouths in the river after Labor Day," Kreh said. "Ed and Butch developed this method of slow-fishing pig 'n' jigs in what we call mini-eddies. They found they could catch 'em all winter, especially in high water when big bass got in the eddies.
"Then they figured out what they needed in the way of jet boats and high-powered trolling motors to get to these places. They helped design the boats and polished the winter smallmouth technique that's now used in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia."
In addition to developing fishing strategies, Ward was widely admired as a patient angling instructor. He took many celebrity clients bass fishing, including John Riggins, Joe Gibbs and NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte. "He was great to fish with," Susinno said. "He'd instruct you without making you feel like an idiot."
As president of the Maryland Bass Federation, Ward kept busy in recent years organizing tournaments on the Potomac, and was particularly influential in setting up and running tournaments for youths and groups of paralyzed veterans.
"If it needed to be done on the river," said longtime rival Potomac bass guide Bill Kramer, "Butch did it."
For several years Ward also ran guided fishing trips on the Potomac and Susquehanna for Ken Penrod's Life Outdoors Unlimited. Ward occasionally competed in club bass tournaments, winning more than 20 over the years.
A lifelong Western Marylander, Ward was retired from General Motors' Parts Distribution Center. He was a Marine Corps veteran, and also a soccer star in high school at Clear Spring and later in the Mason-Dixon Soccer League. He was named Bassman of the Year in 1987. He and his wife, Linda, had no children.
When the rivers rise with rain and snowmelt this winter, anglers from Washington to Harrisburg, Pa., and points beyond will know what to do and where to go to catch smallmouth bass, largely because of Ward's ingenuity. The hundreds who turned up to say farewell to a local fishing legend last week would be wise to take a moment then and say something else: "Thanks."