Alfred Williams Casts Historic Line as First African-American Inducted into Bass Fishing Hall of Fame | Bass Angler Magazine

Alfred Williams Casts Historic Line as First African-American Inducted into Bass Fishing Hall of Fame | Bass Angler Magazine

It’s early summer of 1953, and Saturday mornings can’t come fast enough for Alfred Williams. Every Saturday morning, 6-year-old Williams wakes up early and mills around the house, hoping for an invite on a fishing adventure with Grandma. He’s in charge of carrying her bucket and keeping the snakes away during their outing, a big job for such a little guy.

“Grandma smoked a pipe, and she’d get that pipe lit and settled in the corner of her mouth and sit so quiet….and so content…and I’d just watch her,” Williams said. “I wasn’t fishing much back in those days; I was just watching. Waiting. Learning.”

Those tranquil moments would prove pivotal for Williams as he learned to navigate an uncertain world with quiet grace and got his first glimpse into a sport he would grow to love for the next 70 years.
Alfred Williams

Alfred Williams was born on April 9, 1947, in Jackson, Mississippi, where he spent his youth with a cane pole in hand, casting along the banks of the Pearl River with friends and family.

“Fishing was a way to bring people together in a time of racial tension,” Williams said. “There were groups of every race fishing down on the river. We always had a good time, but we weren’t fishing for sport – we were fishing to put food on the table.”

But the hook had been set. By the age of 10, Williams was fishing anywhere and everywhere he could, with anyone who would take him. By 14, Williams could often be seen on the banks of the Pearl River, alone or with friends.

Young Williams had no idea that he was embarking on a journey that would see him become the first African-American to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic in 1983, and a lifetime later in 2024, the first African-American to be inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.

In March of 1970, Williams returned from a tour in Vietnam at the age of 23. After three long years in the military without touching a fishing rod, he immediately hopped on a boat to go crappie fishing with a friend and felt the excitement course through his veins as his love for the sport came rushing back.

That was it for Williams. He bought a little boat with a 50-horsepower outboard and spent the next three years bass fishing every chance he could get. In 1973, he strolled into a Woolco department store and bought a Raycraft bass boat for $529.

“I couldn’t get that boat on the water fast enough,” Williams said. “I brought it back home, took the motor off the little runabout boat I had and put it on the bass boat. We picked the boat up from Woolco at 9 a.m. and were out on the Ross Barnett Reservoir by 2 p.m. that afternoon.”

Williams fished his first local bass tournament in 1975 in Jackson, Mississippi, in the beginning of the post-Civil Rights Movement era.

Although racial desegregation had been mandated by federal law and court rulings in the 1950s and 60s, the process of integration was extremely slow and in many cases, painful. Barriers between races continued to exist across the South, especially in the Jackson, Mississippi, area where Williams grew up.

“I went into a store and saw an application for the Have a Heart Bass Classic, and I really wanted to fish that tournament,” Williams explained. “So, I looked over the application and thought about it for a while, then called the number to talk to the tournament director.

“I said, ‘Listen, I’m calling about this tournament and I really want to fish this event,’ and he said they’d be happy to have me. I said, ‘Well, look, I’m black – do you guys have any problems with me fishing this event?’

While African-American citizens and athletes had begun breaking down racial barriers by 1975, African-American athletes had been largely excluded from full participation in most professional sports, relegating them to compete in segregated leagues, which offered lower pay and visibility than the pro leagues.

“I won’t ever forget his response,” Williams said. “He said, ‘You are absolutely welcome. This tournament is for the Heart Association and it’s for everybody. If you want to fish it, send your application in and if anybody says anything to you about fishing it, you call me. We want you to fish.’

“If he’d waivered or said it might be a problem, I wasn’t going to worry about it, I just wasn’t going to fish it. But he assured me that we were more than welcome.”

Williams filled out his application and mailed it in along with his entry fee.

Although Williams speaks about the racial inequality of those times with grace, this first brush with the world of tournament bass fishing was around the same timeframe that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record (1974) and received hundreds of thousands of hate mail letters and death threats for beating a white man’s record. It was also around the same time as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and his mother, Mrs. Alberta King, in 1974.

“We were a little nervous about it all,” Williams admitted. “My wife Gracie and I were raised in the South and just knew how things were back then. But just hearing the tournament director say how glad they would be for us to come eased our nerves a bit.”

Williams excitedly rigged his tackle and got geared up for his first tournament, then he and Gracie dressed to the nines and headed to the pre-tournament banquet.

“Back then, there was a banquet the night before every tournament, and those banquets were huge social gatherings,” Williams said. “We walked into our first banquet at this fancy, exclusive restaurant – there must have been 400 to 500 people in there – and when we walked through the door, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone stopped what they were doing and just stared at us. We looked around and saw an empty table and found a seat.”

What happened next was a pivotal moment for Williams and his wife, Gracie, and is  still a pivotal moment in the history of bass fishing.

“We had barely gotten seated when a well-dressed white gentleman walked up to our table,” Williams said. “We watched him approach with a little apprehension, and he said, ‘You don’t know me, but I see you catching fish behind my house out on the [Ross Barnett] reservoir all the time. My wife and I would be honored if y’all would come over and sit at our table and have dinner with us.’ And of course we did, and that broke the ice.

“He was the general manager for a well-known car dealer and was on television commercials and well respected. Everyone in the room went back to talking and socializing, and from that day on, he and I were really, really good friends up until he passed away.”

Williams drew avid hunter, fisherman and NFL football pro Perry Lee Dunn in that first event, finishing 33rd, only a few places from making a check.

“That was my first tournament, and my first response from the bass-fishing community, and I was absolutely hooked,” Williams said. “I’d proven myself and shown that I knew what I was doing, and I couldn’t wait to get back out there for the next tournament a couple weeks later.”

While racial inequality was still prevalent in the 70s and 80s, Williams said he and Gracie found not only acceptance, but respect, friendship and camaraderie in the bass-fishing community from day one and the couple has never dealt with any open racial discrimination over the nearly 50 years he’s been in the sport.

“It was just a feeling of relief, honestly, being free to do what I loved,” Williams said.  “After that I just felt accepted.”

Williams began fishing tournaments with B.A.S.S. and Operation Bass – which later became FLW, then Major League Fishing (MLF), in 1983 and has fished a total of 98 tournaments with B.A.S.S. and 178 tournaments with MLF over the past 41 years, winning four events and earning numerous Top 10s. Williams fished professionally with B.A.S.S. from 1987-2003 and professionally with FLW from 1997-1998 and 2004-2008. To this day, Williams enjoys fishing the occasional Phoenix Bass Fishing League (BFL) tournament in the Mississippi Division.

None of the bass clubs in Mississippi in the 70s and 80s had African-American members, so Williams and his fellow black anglers fished in their own club.

“Back then, all the bass clubs were full, and there were only three or four tournaments each spring, they didn’t have one every weekend like we do now,” Williams said. “We had a few white guys start joining our club in the late 70s, early 80s. We won a state tournament in 1983, which qualified me for the state team. We then fished a divisional tournament and won, and as the top team member, I qualified for the 1983 Bassmaster Classic.”

Williams was the first African-American angler to qualify for the Classic, which was being held on the Ohio River that year, a fishery Williams had never visited. In fact, the Mississippi native had only fished on Ross Barnett Reservoir up to that point.

“My boat was parked with Hank Parker on one side and Rick Clunn on the other side,” Williams said. “I just couldn’t believe it at the time – I still can’t believe it today.”

Williams said the whole experience was something he would never forget – from being chauffeured around town, dining out at every meal with the whole Classic entourage, and being catered to throughout the entire event. Williams finished 10th out of 42 competitors, ranking ahead of Parker, Clunn, Denny Brauer and Roland Martin – no small feat for his first major tournament, especially on a new body of water.

“Things really started happening for me after that time,” Williams said. “Beating so many of the guys that I’d read about in Bassmaster magazine, I felt such a sense of accomplishment. It was amazing and really gave me the confidence and determination to continue pursuing my dream.”

Williams received numerous congratulations after the Classic, including encouraging words from Paul Elias, who advised him to talk to Forrest L. Wood – founder of Ranger Boats – about competing professionally.

“I spoke with Forrest, thanking him for letting me use the boat during the Classic, and giving me the opportunity to fish,” Williams said. “I told him I really wanted to get into tournament fishing more and asked if there was anything he could do to help me get started. He told me to write him a letter when I got back home.”

Williams wrote the letter, and Wood and Ranger endorsed him and provided his tournament boat for the next 28 years.

“I can’t thank Forrest enough for that opportunity and for supplying me with a state-of-the-art boat all those years to follow my passion,” Williams said. The first tournament I ever won was the Dr. Pepper Open back in 1978. I took home a check for $2,500, which was a huge payday in the late 70s, but knowing my boat was taken care of each year was a huge blessing.”

Fast forward to 2024 and the bass-fishing community is celebrating yet another milestone with Williams and his family – as the first African-American to be inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.

Mark Daniels Jr., an African-American pro who fishes the Major League Fishing (MLF) Bass Pro Tour, met Williams through a mutual friend back in 2015, and the two became fast friends. However, Daniels said he’s been looking up to Alfred long before that first meeting.

“I was ate up with fishing from a young age, and you just never saw anyone who was African-American fishing professionally, so I was really inspired by Alfred,” Daniels said. “I belonged to a bass club, and we had some African-American weekend warriors, but no pros.”

Daniels expressed the importance for aspiring anglers to see professional anglers that they can identify with but said that Williams’ influence on the sport runs much deeper than the color of his skin.

“Every time the water temp gets above 55 degrees, we can’t wait to fish topwater and throw a frog – and every time I throw a frog, I think of Alfred,” Daniels said. “Regular, hollow-body frogs came out many years ago, with semi-hard plastic legs. Alfred had the inclination to cut off the plastic legs, then cut the skirt off a spinnerbait and push the spinnerbait skirt through the holes on the frog, so it now has spinner-bait style legs as opposed to hard legs.”

While Williams didn’t create the frog, he has been attributed for helping put it on the map and helping create the modern-day frog experience.

Williams is also credited with adding weight to his favorite Snag Proof models to make them ride lower in the water, dramatically improving his hooksets, as well as adding a rattle chamber to the belly to draw more strikes. Snag Proof incorporated some of Williams’ frog modifications in certain tournament models of its frogs.

“You see those types of frogs everywhere now,” Daniels said. “From the highest-end baits made in Japan, to all the American-made baits and everything in between, every hollow-body frog has skirted legs and that is literally Alfred’s design. That blows my mind.

“There’s always somebody that takes that first step and breaks the mold, and Alfred is that guy. He’s truly a pioneer in our sport. One can only imagine how apprehensive he was when he first started out, yet he overcame all of that and had a very successful career as a tournament angler. I’m very proud of him and his accomplishments and am happy to call him a friend.”

Williams’ success over the years has attracted more African-American anglers, and opened the door for Daniels, Ish Monroe, Brian Latimer and other African-American anglers along the way. But his impact and his legacy have been far-reaching throughout the entire bass world.

Dudley Salers is a lifelong friend of Williams who’s competed with him for over 50 years. Salers and Williams fished the former Red Man Trail together in the 70s – now known as the Phoenix Bass Fishing League – but never let their competitive nature come before their friendship.

“I have a lot of respect for Alfred and am proud to call him my friend. He’s just a genuinely nice person and treats everyone with respect,” said the 83-year-old Salers. “He called to tell me he’d been nominated, and I was so happy for him. I told him it’s an honor just to be nominated, but when they selected him, I was thrilled. Alfred’s had a lot of success in his lifetime, and a lot of opportunities that could have changed him, but he’s never let it go to his head. He’s just always been the same old Alfred.”

That sentiment is shared throughout the bass community. Bill Taylor – former MLF Tournament Director and the longest-tenured tournament director in the company’s history – said he started watching Williams when he fished for Bassmaster in the 70s, not realizing at the time that he was watching history in the making.

“I watched him his first few years, then followed him on the Red Man Trail, but I didn’t meet him until the late 80s when he was fishing the BFL’s,” Taylor said. “I took a liking to Alfred because he was a great angler and was very well respected. His wife, Gracie, traveled with him on tour and they were just a lovely couple. Everyone loved him.

“Alfred inspired a lot of people throughout his lifetime and continues to inspire today. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and saw firsthand the racial tension throughout the country. Race was never brought up the entire time I worked with Alfred, but I admire him deeply for getting involved in professional fishing when he did, because it had to have been a challenge.”

Williams said after everything he’s experienced in his lifetime, being inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame is just the icing on the cake.

“I feel very, very honored,” he said. “I want to thank all the people who not only supported me but believed in me. I’m just overwhelmed, really, to be the first African-American inducted into the Hall of Fame. There can only be one ‘first’ and it truly means a lot to me to be the first.”

Kathy Fennel, MLF Executive Vice President and General Manager, had only been on the bass-fishing scene for one year when the Mississippi Division of the Red Man Trail was launched in 1983. Fennel was the assigned Tournament Administrator for that division and remembers Williams’ start on the Red Man Trail fondly.

“Alfred was a fierce competitor, but was such a gentleman and always extremely professional,” Fennel said. “From the moment we met, I was impressed by his demeanor and the way he presented himself. He was – and still is – a pioneer in our industry and a great representative for his sponsors.”

Fennel, who was inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2022 and serves as a member of the Hall of Fame board, said she’s excited about Williams’ induction and feels it has been a long time coming.

“It makes me very proud to see the Hall of Fame recognize Alfred for his accomplishments,” Fennel said. “Beyond his ability as a competitor and his longevity in the sport, he has a unique opportunity to influence a larger audience that hasn’t been as engaged in professional tournament fishing and we’re honored to be a part of his story.”

Williams doesn’t take that sentiment or the responsibility it requires lightly.

“I’m just so thankful that I was able to accomplish these feats and have individuals follow me and my journey over the years,” Williams said. “All the black anglers who have fished with me over the past 40-something years, have thanked me for my influence and accomplishments. I feel fortunate to be the one that it happened to, all those years ago.”

But success like Williams’ doesn’t just “happen.” It comes from a lot of hard work and not being afraid to step out and take chances, and it requires respect, grace, admiration and trust – all trademarks of Williams’ life story.  A life story that’s far from over.

“At 77, I still fish tournaments almost every weekend and I would still be out on tour, but I finally decided enough’s enough,” Williams said, laughing. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. When I started fishing tournaments, I wasn’t thinking about trying to qualify for the Classic or where I was going to be later in life, I was just focused on fishing the tournament in front of me.”

Williams said that was the key to longevity in the sport, but even more than that, endurance – and success – in everyday life.

“Always put yourself in a position to do well, in whatever you do in life,” Williams said. “If you believe in yourself, then you aren’t going to be dependent on anybody else to show you the way.”

May 9, 2024
Charity Muehlenweg • Major League Fishing

For complete details and updated information, visit For regular updates, photos, tournament news and more, follow MLF’s social media outlets at FacebookTwitterInstagram and  YouTube.

See the latest in bass fishing here


Boat Lyfe