Not many of us own a Super Bowl ring or belong to baseball’s Hall of Fame. It’s also unlikely that we’ve won a pro golf championship or starred in a TV series. Nonetheless, many saltwater anglers passionately follow their favorite sports teams and idolize stars of stage and screen. It’s also human nature to be curious about how celebs share our love of saltwater fishing. In that spirit, I contacted a number of well-known personalities recognized as genuinely serious about the sport.
Jimmy Johnson, Football Coach, Broadcaster
I recently met Johnson at his Big Chill restaurant in Key Largo. We talked about how he coached the Miami Hurricanes to a national college football title in 1987, and the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the early 1990s.
“I’m proud of all those accomplishments,” said Johnson. “But these are the good old days.”
Indeed, Johnson’s tanned face — contrasting nicely with a superbly combed coif of gray hair — often lit up with an easy laugh or smile during our talk. He was loose, relaxed, and somehow younger-looking than when I’d last chatted with him years ago.
“I grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, and often fished with my dad in an old wooden boat,” he said. “After getting the head coaching job at the University of Miami, I started diving the reefs off the Keys and soon got into fishing.”
Fishing is the key that turns on Johnson’s positive energy. Unless it’s too windy or he’s out of town for a couple of days each week during football season, serving as a commentator on the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show, Johnson leaves the dock early in the morning to fish and usually returns well before noon. His oceanside home in Islamorada allows quick access to the Gulf Stream to troll for big-game fish in either his 39- or 43-foot twin-diesel boat — both appropriately named Three Rings to commemorate his triad of championships.
Johnson fishes alone 90 percent of the time. When he’s on the bridge, watching his lure spread, his mindset is a world apart from his years of big-time football pressures or the trappings of being a public figure.
“I like the fact that on the water, it becomes a level playing field, because fish don’t care who you are,” said Johnson.
He’s mastered the art of single-handedly performing the roles of skipper, angler and mate to land trophy-size wahoo, tuna and slammer dolphin. That talent has also earned him solo conquests of five blue marlin — an amazing demonstration of skill.
“Fishing is a great sport for family bonding,” he said. “It’s also a lot of fun when I take friends fishing, and such outings have included eight or nine NFL head coaches and many former college and pro players.”
Not surprisingly, the Big Chill is festooned with pictures of fish caught by Johnson with many of his well-known friends. They convey the message that Johnson is enjoying these good old days as a fisherman in the Florida Keys each time he heads offshore.
Wade Boggs, Major League Baseball
Boggs grew up in Brunswick, Georgia, and lived along a river. As a youngster he’d catch crabs and use them to nab redfish, sharks and the like. “We moved to Tampa when I was 11, and
I fished the flats with my dad near MacDill Air Force Base,” Boggs said. “As I grew older, my fishing interests stretched to fishing the reefs and offshore.”
Two years ago he broke the all‑tackle record for bluefish and also tied the record for striped bass. But his biggest thrill nowadays centers on billfishing. “I’m trying to catch a Royal Billfish Slam,” he explained, which will entail releasing all nine billfish species.
Pitchers feared Wade Boggs. He won five batting titles starting in 1983, and racked up a batting average of .328 and 3,010 hits in 18 years. He helped the Yankees win the World Series in 1996 and entered MLB’s Hall of Fame in 2005.
Now retired, Boggs uses his fame to help charities. He often fishes the Redbone tournaments in the Keys, which benefit cystic fibrosis research. Boggs also hosts the Steve Yerrid Celebrity Tournament each October, which funds the Pediatric Cancer Center in Tampa.
Andy Mill, Olympic Athlete, Broadcaster
“My roots in saltwater fishing are as deep as they are in Olympic skiing,” said Mill. “Growing up in Aspen, Colorado, it was a natural progression to be a skier, but at age 8 I also started fishing locally.”
An epiphany of sorts drew Mill inexorably into the art of fly-fishing. “I was walking by a park in Aspen one day as someone cast a fly rod,” Mill recalled. “As the fly line made a graceful arc, I felt a captivating energy. I started fly-fishing with my father and tying flies.”
After watching a tarpon battle about 30 years ago while fishing in Belize, Mill became hooked on the species. He’s gone on to become one of the world’s best tarpon anglers, with 14 tournament victories.
Mill took a break from tournament action, but last year he decided to fish a Keys tarpon event. “Even though some of the competitors wrote me off as a has-been, I ended up winning it,” he said.
Throughout the 1970s, Mill was a dominant force on the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, and he won the downhill event at the 1976 U.S. Alpine Championships. Since retiring from ski racing in 1981, Mill has served as a TV commentator on skiing, and he produces Ski with Andy Mill for TV stations in ski-resort regions.
But nothing gets in the way of his fishing. During the winter, when he lives in Florida, Mill trailers his boat to “wherever the fish are,” and during spring he focuses on his favorite quarry: tarpon.
Cory Wells, Rock Star
One of the founders of Three Dog Night, the late Wells was a freshwater angler until he met William Conrad, better known in the 1960s as the lead star of the Cannon TV series.
“Being a big fan [of Three Dog Night], Bill got in touch and offered to show me how to catch saltwater fish,” said Wells.
On a trip together to Kona, Hawaii, Wells and Conrad chartered a boat, and Wells battled a huge blue marlin late in the afternoon.
“The fight lasted hours,” Wells recalled. “Sweating like a hog, I took my shirt off. By the time we’d released the marlin and run back to the dock, my skin had turned the color of a tomato, and I was in excruciating pain.”
Just one problem: Stores in Kona had closed by that time. “Just as I was ready to throw a brick through a drugstore window to get some ointment, a Hawaiian woman offered to help,” said Wells. “She plucked a plant in her garden and rubbed its juice all over my back and shoulders. The aloe in the plant worked, and the pain gradually eased. I told her that she had a lifetime free pass to any of our concerts.”
Over the years, while touring coastal cities with Three Dog Night, Wells tried to find time for saltwater fishing. This past summer, however, he complained to me about back spasms that were affecting his diaphragm.
“You sing through your diaphragm, not your throat like most people think,” he said.
Sadly, his health worsened, and Wells died this past October. The world lost a treasured rock star who enjoyed his days on the water as much as his nights onstage.
Antonio Cromartie, NFL Cornerback
Antonio Cromartie is one of pro football’s best active cornerbacks. Currently a free agent, he’s played for years with several NFL teams and most recently for the New York Jets.
I felt rather intimidated at the thought of speaking with someone less than half my age who last season earned $8 million, but I needn’t have worried. Our conversation couldn’t have been nicer, and Cromartie’s comments reflected a respectful, humble young man.
At 6 feet 2 inches, Cromartie is tall for a cornerback, and of course he’s lightning-fast — no turtle can cover an NFL receiver. Those attributes explain his selection in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers and his ongoing value as an asset to NFL defenses.
Cromartie’s grandfather used to take him and his brother crabbing, which in turn led to fishing. His biggest thrill as a fisherman was the time he duked it out with a blue marlin for an hour and a half before releasing it.
Cromartie said that his favorite fishing grounds are off Clearwater, Florida. “I know several spots where hookups on reds, trout and snook are constant in the right conditions,” he said. “But like a game plan in football, honey holes like that must remain confidential.”
Bill Engvall, Comedian
Sometimes people are reserved at the beginning of an interview and warm up as the discussion moves along. Not Bill Engvall. Right off the bat, he talked to me as personably as if we’d been friends for years.
His popularity exploded with The Bill Engvall Show, which ran on TBS from 2007 to 2009 and co-starred Jennifer Lawrence. It escalated even further with his participation in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Larry the Cable Guy, Jeff Foxworthy and Ron White.
His baptism into fishing occurred at age 4, in Galveston, Texas, while fishing with his granddad. “He saw a dead perch floating by, and when I wasn’t looking, he tied it to my hook and tugged the rod tip.
“I became overwhelmed with excitement and reeled in the fish,” said Engvall. “I kept it with me all day and night until it began to smell so bad, the family got rid of it.” He now likes to charter a boat, sit patiently in the fighting chair, and hope the rod bends and line burns off the reel. Engvall also enjoys stalking bonefish with a fly rod in the Bahamas and especially the Florida Keys.
“I often hire a guide, but on occasion it’s nice to be alone, because it gives me time to decompress from performing,” said Engvall.
His most memorable day on the water involved taking his wife and kids to Panama and chartering a boat for four days. “What made that trip special is the joke my family played on me,” he said. “I smoke a cigar at times while fishing, so my wife, daughter and son put a cigar in their mouths and pretended that they were me, puffing away while battling their fish.”
Ernest Hemingway, Novelist, Writer
Tom Colicchio, Celebrity Chef
Candid, hard-hitting, opinionated but fair — all characteristics that render Tom Colicchio one of the most popular cooking-show personalities on TV. He has co-hosted and been a judge on Top Chef since its inception in 2006 on the Bravo TV network.
Colicchio, the recipient of five James Beard Foundation awards and author of three cookbooks, has co-founded several successful restaurants. Though busy, he still manages to fish by going out early.
“I live on the north part of Long Island and keep my boat nearby,” he said. “I shove off at first light in the morning, striper-fish a few hours, and get back in time to work a full day.
“It’s not easy targeting species off the Northeast coast, but I’m really hoping to nail a white marlin on fly soon. There’s a promising wreck site I want to try in 180 feet of water.”
When possible, Colicchio takes serious time off to fish the Bahamas and Florida Keys with Capt. Simon Becker, based in Key West. That’s led to a deep affection for flats fishing, especially for permit on fly.
His favorite place to fish in the world? “When I’m not on the water, I think about fly-fishing around the Marquesas Keys off Key West,” he said.
Ted Williams, Major League Baseball
Greg Norman, Pro Golfer, Entrepreneur
Greg Norman grew up fishing the Great Barrier Reef off Australia with his father, so it’s no wonder that he gained a lifelong interest in fishing.
The owner of 41- and 64-foot sport-fishing boats, he’s often seen prowling the waters off Jupiter, Florida, where he lives part of the year. Then again, you might run into Norman even at some of the world’s most remote archipelagos and reefs.
“I still love fly-fishing for black marlin on the Great Barrier Reef,” he said. “But then I also enjoy bonefishing in the Abacos, so it really depends on what’s available. There’s not a game fish I don’t like.”
Norman became a golfing legend from the late 1980s through the 1990s, when he held title as the world’s best player for 331 weeks. Nicknamed the Great White Shark for his white-blond hair and Aussie swagger, he won two British Open titles and 85 international pro events.
During filming years ago for a show called Great White vs. Great White, out of Port Lincoln, Australia, Norman in fact became engaged in a battle with a great white shark. Hooked on 50-pound-test stand-up gear, the estimated 2,000-pound monster fought Norman for four hours and 45 minutes.
“We had it to the boat several times, but the wireman just couldn’t get the right wrap on it,” recalled Norman. “Oh well. It was a great tussle.”
Since he retired from golf, Norman’s Great White Shark Enterprises has been involved in numerous pursuits, including apparel, golf course design, wineries and golf academies. He has also served as a TV co-host and commentator at PGA Tour golf tournaments.
“I have less time to fish now than when I was playing pro golf,” Norman lamented. “But at the end of the day, the thing I cherish most now is fishing with my family.”
Thousands of sports figures and entertainers have fished briny waters over the years, and of course only a handful could be chronicled here. I did try to contact many other celebrities for this article, especially a number of notable female saltwater fishers, but couldn’t get past the defensive lines of talent agencies, PR managers and agents blocking access to the unwashed masses and pesky writers like me.
That said, fishing celebrities help elevate our sport to the public, and that does some good for many charitable tournaments. While the mucky-mucks might own bigger houses and drive fancier cars than we do, when it comes to fishing, we’re all merely actors on the same stage, hoping to land a Facebook-worthy fish.
About the Author: A veteran outdoors journalist based in Florida, Doug Kelly has served as a representative for the International Game Fish Association for more than 20 years. He authored the award-winning Florida’s Fishing Legends and Pioneers, and his new book, Alaska’s Greatest Outdoor Legends, has just been released.