Home: Edina, Minn.
Years fishing: Since 1984
Favorite bass lures: Homemade “flu-flu” lures
Favorite fishing hole: St. Croix River near St. Croix Falls, Wis.
Favorite fishing buddies: Kent Hrbek, Berkley rep. Joe Rassat, and his kids, Catherine and Kirby Jr.
Largest bass ever caught: 6 pounds (in Minnesota), 9 to 10 pounds (in Florida)
It was a crowning moment in Kirby Puckett’s sports career. He hadn’t been very productive all day, missing most everything that came his way. Sure, he was frustrated, but frustrated in that smiling, well-I’ll-just-try-harder, Kirby Puckett kind of way.
Then he got a hit. A huge hit.
He had to fight to get it. But when he finally connected, it was worth the wait.
That’s when Puckett landed the biggest bass he ever caught. It was a 6-pound largemouth snared from the waters of Maple Lake, where he was fishing with friend Joe Rassat, a product representative for Berkley. The Minnesota lake, located about 45 minutes west of Minneapolis, had been uncharacteristically stingy that day with its fish.
“We’d been struggling all day,” says Puckett. “Then all of a sudden, bam! This big one hits. I pulled him out and I mean, wow, I’ve never caught one that big before.”
It was a proud moment for Puckett, who takes his fishing almost as seriously as he takes his baseball. And just like in his ball-playing days, it was Kirby’s focus, tenacity and good hands on the water that brought it home in the clutch.
A fanatical fisherman
When Kirby Puckett blasted his epic 11th-inning homerun to win Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, it went down as one of the greatest moments in Series history and practically iced the gifted Minnesota Twins centerfielder’s chance for future Cooperstown consideration. In 1996, Puckett’s fans, friends and family – not to mention his teammates – were distressed to see the wildly popular player make an untimely exit from the game due to a career-ending battle with glaucoma in his right eye.
One might think that it was difficult for Puckett to go from being one of the game’s greatest active players in one instant to living the life of an average Joe – albeit as a living baseball legend – in the next. But that’s not true.
In fact, retirement for Puckett has been very fulfilling – and busy. He still works with the Twins as vice president of baseball, and the team has immortalized him by retiring his number 34. The City of Minneapolis has even named a street after him. This November, he became a first-time nominee for the Hall of Fame – an unparalleled honor for anyone who has played the game.
But one activity that Puckett has especially cherished since leaving baseball is one that fit his new common-man profile nicely.
Kirby Puckett is a fanatical fisherman. For hours and hours each week, one of Minnesota’s most beloved athletes ever spends his time on the placid waters outside of the Twin Cities chasing fish tails. Why? Because he’s Kirby Puckett, and because he loves the sport.
This is what I’m going to do
It began when he came to Minnesota as a rookie in 1984. Not surprisingly, it was first baseman Kent Hrbek – a native Minnesotan and an avid outdoorsman – who introduced Puckett to the thrill of fishing.
Puckett grew up in the projects of South Chicago, where his fishing experience as a youth was limited to a couple of occasions plucking carp out of little Lake Calumet in Chicago. When Hrbek took him out to Maple Lake west of Minneapolis during his first summer in the big leagues, it opened the door to a whole new world for Puckett.
“We went out there and we had action like you wouldn’t believe,” says Puckett.
Like the gangly rookie centerfielder who sprayed four hits in his major league debut, Puckett – with Hrbek’s help – caught a king’s share of bass, crappie and northern that day, his first day of serious fishing.
And it left an impression.
“I was hooked. I told Hrbie, `Boy, you opened my eyes to something big here. When I’m not playing ball anymore, this is what I’m going to do,'” Puckett says.
Thus it began for the future Hall of Famer. The man who would become a .318 lifetime hitter, 10-time All-Star and two-time world champion also became a devoted angler. And it began simply enough: Just a couple buddies out on the water catching a whole mess of fish.
Nothing like it
Like his comrade, Hrbek (whose number 14 is also retired by the Twins, incidentally), Puckett likes introducing people to the sport of fishing. He owns riverfront property on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River near St. Croix Falls. The St. Croix, which joins the Mississippi River just southeast of the Twin Cities, is Puckett’s favorite fishing hole – one that he doesn’t hesitate to share with his friends.
“I’m always trying to take people out all the time,” he says with his trademark smile. “I take out a lot of first-timers and they get hooked on it.”
And, naturally, his two kids are devoted fishing buddies. On a recent family vacation to Florida, Catherine, 10, and Kirby Jr., 8, enjoyed the best of both worlds – Disney World and bass fishing with Dad.
“Yeah, my kids are hooked,” says the proud papa. “We went out fishing every day.”
Fishing every day. That seems to be Puckett’s enviable modus operandi. When the ice is out, he spends at least four days a week on the water. For him, a perfect day consists of hitting the water just before first light, fishing until noon, then heading back out in late afternoon until sundown.
“Man, I could do that every day,” he says.
He fishes for walleye. He fishes for crappie. He even fishes for the elusive muskie. Indeed, the largest freshwater fish he ever caught was a 41-inch, 25-pound muskie that, as he put it, “was a little scary.”
But Puckett’s favorite sport fish is bass. Last season was a banner year for bass on Puckett’s home waters, and he’s excited about the prospect of another full summer of stellar bass action come fishing opener in May. For the former ballplayer, the act of catching a bass is more than a sport, it’s the same kind of physical, even spiritual, fulfillment he used to feel on the ball field.
“There’s nothing like that feeling of a fish on the end of the line, fighting to bring it up to the boat, then pulling it up by the lip. Man, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Puckett explains.
Kind of like stroking a roped double down the line and hustling it into a triple?
“Yeah, something like that.”
The biggest bass?
Puckett fishes when he travels. And sometimes he travels in order to fish. He’s no stranger to offshore day trips in search of grouper, snapper, tarpon and the like in the Gulf of Mexico. In his playing days, he, Hrbek and the fellas would spend their off days on the road fishing trout farms. Then they would have a good old-fashioned fish fry, gorging on fresh trout with potatoes and onion, a culinary favorite of Puckett’s.
And he’s fished for Florida bass. He’s proud of a few 9- and 10-pounders he’s pulled from Lake Okeechobee.
But ask him about the biggest bass he ever caught, and he brings the conversation back to Minnesota and the 6-pounder he caught in Maple Lake.
“In Florida, there’s a lot of 9- and 10-pounders down there,” he explains, saying he’d consider it cheating to count those as his biggest bass. “But in Minnesota, to catch a 6-pounder, man, that’s something to be proud of.”
Where Puckett built his career as a devoted student of the sport of baseball, he has built his retirement as a student of the sport of fishing. He inhales fishing publications and watches outdoors programs on Saturday and Sunday to make himself a better fisherman.
A well-rounded student, he even makes his own lures. In his spare time, he’ll head down to the garage, sit at the vise and start tinkering. He prefers to use light tackle adorned with what he calls “flu-flu-type” lures.
“Believe it or not, I make some silly stuff,” he says, laughing. “I’ll bring it down to the lake, and the fish, they bite on it.”
While he modestly considers himself a “good fisherman,” Puckett harbors no illusions about someday fishing as a pro. He knows how intense a pro sports career can be, and he knows his limitations on the water. For 12 years in the majors, he brought countless smiles to the faces of millions who watched him play ball day in and day out. In those days, chasing rascally bass was his escape, his needed release from the sport that he loved.
And he plans to keep it that way.
“As far as going on tour, no,” he says. “In order to do what they do, you’ve got to have the time, the patience, and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Everything I do now, I do for fun and relaxation.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s not dedicated to the craft, oh no. Kirby Puckett loved to play baseball probably more than anyone else in the modern era. His unequalled gifts as an outfielder, strength at the plate and that contagious smile of his made baseball a better game for 12 years straight.
So it means something when you’re talking fishing with Kirby Puckett and he says, “Fishing? Man, I love it like I love baseball, and that’s kind of scary when you think about it.”
Scary? Only if you’re a bass.