Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Grits Gresham, Angler

Grits Gresham, Angler

Many of the outdoor web sites have been running commentary on the passing of Grits Gresham, noted television personality and outdoor enthusiast. Most of these commentaries note that he was the host (and producer) of The American Sportsman and Shooting Sports America, or that he was the shooting editor of Sports Afield magazine for over 25 years. But he was bigger than tv or magazines. He was a true personality, as famous for his Miller Lite advertisements alongside such diverse professional athletes as baseball player Bob Uecker or pool player Steve Mizerak as he was in the field with rod and gun. Most tributes have concentrated on the shooting aspects of his career, which were great indeed; this appreciation, however, is designed to illustrate what an important angler and fishing writer Grits Gresham was.

He was born Claude Hamilton Gresham, Jr. on 21 June 1922 in South Carolina and went on to graduate from Louisiana State University in his beloved Louisiana, where he would reside the remainder of his days. His college thesis was on conservation of the environment--a new field--and this subject would remain a central theme of his life. He served in the military during World War II and married his wife Mary Eleanor while on leave from the U.S. Army Air Corp.

While his hunting laurels were many, it is worth noting that he was an accomplished angler as well. His book Kiss the Land Goodbye was an early call to arms to save the wetlands of Louisiana, and he worked often with Ray Scott, the founder of B.A.S.S., to clean up cheating in bass tournaments. Scott considered Gresham's The Complete Book of Bass Fishing "the best book ever written on bass fishing."

Gresham began his writing career as the outdoor editor of a The Shreveport Times, and from the beginning, he was a consistent promoter of new fishing techniques and tackle. A 1958 article noted that the earliest proponents of Buck Perry's spoon plugging lures and methods were "Ray Bergman, Allen Corson, Grits Gresham, [and] Henry Reynolds." He was one of the first and most vocal proponents of the new-fangled contraption known as the bass boat.

In 1961, Gresham lost much of his material and tackle in a fire; as one writer noted, "Recently Grits Gresham, Louisiana outdoor writer, had...a fire. For weeks afterward he kept remembering items which had been destroyed." He took this personal loss and turned it into an opportunity to instruct American sportsmen on the importance of taking inventory and owning insurance on the fishing tackle and gunning equipment.

His greatest claim to fishing fame was The Complete Book of Bass Fishing. Outdoor writer Donnell Culpepper reviewed this work in 1967 and wrote:

Speaking of bass, Grits Gresham, famous free-lance outdoor writer who lives in Louisiana, writes me that he thinks his new book, "Complete Book of Bass Fishing," published by Harper and Row as an Outdoor Life Library book, is the best on the market. I don't blame Grits one bit for saying that. If I had written such a book, I would be proud to make the same statement. Grits has been a bass fisherman for many years, but he has taken the best thinking of experts such as Bill Adcock, Vic Myers, Buck Perry and others, and put it all into such shape that no man can help but learn many lessons on the art of bass fishing. You won't make any mistake by reading Grits' book, now on sale at your favorite bookstore.

In 1967, his television show The American Sportsman, which he and Curt Gowdy had taken over hosting duties from Governor Foss of WWII fame, was panned in a nationally syndicated column by Cleveland Amory (of cat book fame) as being "the worst show on the air" and for "assasinating weekly certain species of rare game for the dubious enjoyment of the viewing public." Richard Alden Knight and other prominent outdoor writers rushed to Grits' defense and decried the hypocrisy in Amory's arguments. The controversy only served to make the show better.

The show itself took many famous celebrities fishing, ranging from Bing Crosby to Ted Williams to Clint Walker to John Forsythe. Regulars included Lee Wulff, Joe Brooks, and other leading fishermen. From salmon fishing in Alaska to (famously) capturing an alligator in the Louisiana swamps, Gresham became a popular weekly addition to many outdoor enthusiasts' lives. As the show matured it tended to concentrate more on shooting sports, but fishing always remained an important part of its success.

Throughout all of the fame, from the Miller Lite commercials to The Tonight Show appearances, Gresham remained the same humble Southern gentleman throughout. A proficient and prolific writer, he wrote numerous free lance articles in addition to six books and, for many years, a syndicated outdoor column.

Grits Gresham's most famous Miller Lite commercial.

There are many eulogies of Gresham out and many more to come, but I think his friend and colleague Don Miller summed up Gresham best back in 1959, long before Grits had achieved national stardom. Miller wrote:

Grits is a long-time friend of mine, and an ardent, practicing fisherman. He actually has outdoor columns appearing in 35 newspapers across Louisiana, so when you mention "Grits" down there you aren't talking about a favorite Dixie Dish. You're talking about someone familiar to almost everyone in the South and Southwest.

With his trademark driftwood hat and that open, friendly grin, Grits Gresham was an appealing and likeable figure responsible for promoting field sports to nearly three generations of Americans. Perhaps the most fitting memorial of all is that his son Tom Gresham continues the family tradition with a nationally syndicated radio show "Gun Talk," taking up where his father left off. May he rest in peace.

-- Dr. Todd

1 comment:

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