I recently spent some time at Fenway Park with an avid fly fisherman who happens to pitch every fifth day for the Boston Red Sox. Rick Porcello was acquired in the 2014 off-season from the Detroit Tigers and signed to a long-term deal, ensuring that he will be able to enjoy fly fishing in New England’s trout and salt water for a while.
After spending only an afternoon with Porcello, it became abundantly clear that he’s not wired like some of today’s superconnected athletes. In fact, Twitter is his only social media account and he currently goes months, not seconds, between tweets. Rather than starting online feuds with other players or trying to lure potential free agents to his team with the use of emojis (as the L.A. Clippers did recently in basketball), Porcello’s feed features the occasional fishing glory shot or updates on his buddy Joseph Penrod and the Team Joseph Foundation for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (www.teamjoseph.info).
Porcello has a laid-back but intensely thoughtful and focused personality that serves him well in his two endeavors: baseball and fly fishing. Both have a strong history, are slow paced, and generally do not favor the impatient. As Porcello puts it, “With the way society is now, everyone wants that instant gratification and that instant action . . . with fly fishing, you just have to work at it a bit. It’s not something that comes easy, but it’s a lot of fun, especially when you start going after the big migratory species like steelhead and salmon—that’s a lot of action and a lot of excitement.”
Indeed, both sports have a lot to do with the process: you must take your lumps and lose your fly in the elm tree or give up three runs in an inning before you make the tweak in your cast that launches your fly another 20 feet to the big fish or make the change in your arm slot or pitching motion that sets you up for success in sitting hitters down. Attention to detail is also key. Ted Williams didn’t compile a .344 lifetime batting average, hit 521 home runs, or catch more than 1,000 bonefish, tarpon, salmon, and other species by winging it. Hitting and fishing were much more than a livelihood to Williams: he studied and worked to perfect his craft with an intensity that bordered on the obsessive. As he told John Underwood in My Turn at Bat:
I can stand at the bow of my boat for hours on the Florida keys, hot sun beating down . . . and even as the time slips by the excitement and anticipation never wane. I sit at my tackle bench past midnight tying flies, making sure they’re exactly right. It relaxes me. I used to tie flies during the season, come in after a game all taut and nervous, tie a few flies and boom, right to sleep. . . . The fact remains I love to fish, period.1
Rick Porcello reflected that same passion during our interview. When asked if he was able to fish during the season, a sheepish grin crept over his face. He nodded his head: “Yeah, I have to get creative and kind of sneak around a bit,” he said. “This one time I was playing in Detroit, we had to come here [to Boston]. We didn’t have an off day but I really wanted to go striper fishing. I remember sneaking down to the basement of the hotel where they had their parking garage and my younger brother met me there. We drove out at five in the morning, met the guide by the mouth of the Merrimack River, and fished the Joppa Flats. We caught a bunch of stripers, came back. I was in sweatpants and a t-shirt and I had a change of clothes in the basement. I changed into the clothes that I’d normally go to the ballpark dressed in, walked right up to the lobby with my teammates, and then took off to my room like nothing had happened and went about my day.”
Porcello learned how to fly fish at a young age near the family home in New Jersey, at a creek that was stocked with rainbows. Fishing soon became a family tradition that continued at their summer property on a Vermont lake. “We used to fish for chain pickerel and perch there. It just turned into something that we did as brothers and with my father, and it became our passion really—all the men in our family. We really enjoyed fishing. It was something that we bonded over.” To gear up for those Green Mountain outings, he was a frequent visitor both to the American Museum of Fly Fishing and the Orvis flagship store in Manchester, Vermont. Touring the museum gallery gave him an appreciation for the sport’s storied past. “History is something that makes it special, and it is something that we want to keep and preserve,” he said.
The Boston Red Sox have a long-standing tradition of fly fishermen employed at 4 Yawkey Way. The list includes notable players Babe Ruth, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams, the last being the only man to be honored with a plaque in both the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The connection to this elite fraternity of anglers is not lost on Rick Porcello. “Fly fishing and baseball both have a strong history, and obviously the guy right in the middle of that is Ted Williams,” he said. “Playing here at Fenway where he played and fishing some of the rivers that he fished—and not only being able to see his stuff in Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame, but also the Fishing Hall of Fame—is pretty cool.”
Porcello enjoys pursuing Atlantic salmon, a trait he shares with the late Williams. Before our interview, we talked about my trip earlier that morning to (redacted) River near the Wachusett Reservoir. I had fooled a small landlocked Atlantic on a Supervisor, and Porcello asked about patterns and where to fish. Whereas Porcello’s previous employment in Detroit gave him great access to the steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes tributaries, Williams mostly fished the Miramichi for Atlantic salmon, first with guide Roy Curtis in 1955—by 1958, he was hooked. Williams bought a pool on the river in 1961 and hired Curtis as guide and Curtis’s wife, Edna, as housekeeper.
Perhaps the best testament to Williams’s love affair with the Atlantic salmon is this:
Now, now, the Atlantic salmon. They are caught in beautiful streams. Extremely game. They jump. They’re sometimes so hard to catch you think they’re smart, then the next time they’re easy. Sometimes you cast for two hours in the same arc, here, then here, here, and all the time you’re seeing fish, but you think you’re never going to get one, and then you change the angle a foot and it drifts right over him and, boom, you’ve got one. On the average, I would say it takes 400 casts per salmon, 400 to 600 casts per salmon. But on every cast you have the expectation that it’s going to happen.2
The Splendid Splinter practiced catch and release almost exclusively and gave his support to such organizations as Trout Unlimited, the Atlantic Salmon Association, and the Izaak Walton League of America. Porcello agrees that “The conservation side of it is everything: it’s not only the present, it’s the future. If you’re somebody who’s passionate about fly fishing and passionate about different species you catch with a fly rod, that should make it all that more important for you to protect that species.” Porcello thinks that having a balance is essential: “Everyone I fly fish with practices catch and release. We don’t take any fish, and we really enjoy it for the experience. That’s what it comes down to: anyone can come in and rip out four or five fish and get out of there and clean ’em and eat ’em, and I understand that part of it—but at the same time, you want your kids and their kids and generations going forward to be able to enjoy the sport and be able to practice that kind of conservation and to understand how important it is for the species.” He continued, “It’s something that I don’t think can be taken lightly, and we need to act fast. I mean, it’s not something we can wait around for—we need to understand what we have to protect the habitats and protect the species and do our job.”
Teaching this kind of appreciation for the sport and conservation is incredibly important for the next generation of fly fishers. Often considered gruff and private, Ted Williams always displayed an eagerness to take young people under his wing when it came to fly fishing, even if it meant interrupting his day on the river. He frequented the fly-fishing trade shows, making sure to stop and show kids how to tie flies before touring the room to grill exhibitors on their casting and tying techniques. His thirst for knowledge and reputation as a sportsman had a ripple effect on the future legends of the sport. Flip Pallot and Chico Fernandez were mesmerized watching Williams and a friend fly fish for snook along the Tamiami Trail Canal. Pallot recalls, “We just kind of stood there and watched these men fly cast and were amazed. We had no idea what they were doing or why, and we followed them for hours watching them catch snook on the fly rod . . . and we knew immediately that we had to do this.”3
Porcello shows the same inquisitiveness and eagerness as Williams to get the younger generation to not only experience fly fishing but also simply enjoy the outdoors. He has taught some of his teammates along the way, even though, as he says, sometimes “it’s like fishing with a three-year-old.” He retracts that immediately with a smile, saying “It’s always fun. Regardless of your skill level, I love seeing other people catch fish, too. Being out there, it’s about the whole experience. It’s not about how good you are, it’s about enjoying the moment. It’s definitely fun, and we try to get everybody out there as much as possible.”
1. John Underwood, “Going Fishing with the Kid: Ted Williams in the Florida Keys,” Sports Illustrated (vol. 27, 21 August 1967), 60.
2. Ted Williams with John Underwood, My Turn At Bat: The Story of My Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 26.
3. Quoted in American Museum of Fly Fishing, “Learning from the Masters,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFnNSAMB1q0. Accessed 30 July 2015.