BEAUFORT — It seems the title of his book and television show couldn’t have been more aptly named … “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta.”
Those in his life saw both sides as well.
That life came to an end on Sunday, Aug. 11 in a single-car accident on the Pan-American Highway near the remote town of Watson Lake by the border of the Yukon Territories and British Columbia.
He was 67.
He was known in this county for the Barta Boys & Girls Club Billfish Tournament that ran for 14 years before transitioning to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain Billfish Classic.
Jim Bailey, a real estate developer and former director of the Cap’n Fannie’s Billfish Tournament, co-founded the event, which sees kids do most of the fishing and also sees kids receive all of the proceeds. He had been a friend of Barta’s for 40 years.
“A mutual friend put it like this when describing Tred,” Bailey said. “We’re all flawed, Tred just put his flaws out there where you could see them, and he celebrated them. I think that is a pretty good description of the guy. Tred was like ‘I’m kind of a jerk, but that’s OK.’ ”
Barta had plenty of reason to build a big ego.
He was the subject of a feature story in the October 1, 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated titled “Oh, The Joys Of Losing Fish.”
He became a legendary angler while fishing off of Montauk and Shinnecock Hills on the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y. where the beaches, bays and ocean were his playground.
He held numerous International Game and Fishing Association (IGFA) world records on light line. He was the only man to ever hold the triple crown of light tackle tuna records – a 65-pound yellowfin on 6-pound line landed after three hours, a 63.5-pound bluefin tuna on 12-pound line and a 215-pound big eye tuna on 20-pound line boated in 5 hours and 17 minutes.
“The stories from his teenage years are extraordinary,” Dean Travis Clarke said.
Clarke, the executive editor of Sports Fishing magazine, along with a number of other fishing and boating magazines, was the editor for Barta, a frequent and longtime contributor to his magazines for 21 years.
“He would go out by himself in this little Boston Whaler-type boat, way offshore, like 100 miles offshore, and carry this bladder full of fuel,” Clarke said. “He would roll this thing off the side of his boat once he got out there, put a flag on it so he could find it, and go fishing. He would come back to it, fill up with fuel and come back. That’s insane. He became a truly world-class angler.”
Barta, who was also an accomplished pilot, continued to set fishing and hunting records and became a staple of those worlds. In addition to writing for Clarke’s magazines, he authored the book “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta” and hosted the fishing and hunting show by the same name that ran at different times on Outdoor Life Network, Versus and NBC Sports Network since 2004.
He even continued to host the show after suffering a spinal stroke in 2009 that caused paralysis from the chest down. He also received a rare blood cancer diagnosis that year and beat the disease.
Those two setbacks, however, dealt both physical and mental blows that were difficult to overcome. While it’s clear Barta fought to keep his head up, it proved a constant battle.
On Aug. 3, he put up a long Facebook post, writing “I’m lost” and “for the first time in my life, I’m at a loss for what to do or where to go.”
Barta, who had lived in Beaufort the past two years, spent the past four months on a soul-searching, hunting and fishing excursion in Alaska. He called the trip the “Tred Barta Get Off The Couch Expedition.” He was able to hunt and fish with an Action Trackchair, a cross between a wheelchair and an all-terrain vehicle.
He was returning from his solo trip to Alaska in his specially outfitted pickup truck that made it possible for him to drive from his wheelchair. He was with his dog, Pepper, who survived the crash when the accident happened.
According to 27east.com, which covers Southampton and East Hampton, N.Y., a family spokesperson said the Canadian police have not stated the suspected cause of the accident.
In April, he drove from Beaufort to Indiana where he picked up a handicap-accessible trailer to tow behind the truck and provide living quarters for when he got to Alaska.
“Anybody who ever rode with him will testify under oath that he was the worst driver and the wildest man behind a wheel,” Bailey said. “That is a heck of a drive. He had a couple of guys along for part of it, but more or less, he went by himself. You’ve got to love the guy’s guts. He said, ‘You think I’m crazy, Jim?’ I said, ‘Heck yeah you’re crazy, there ain’t no question about it.’”
Both Bailey and Clarke reported that Barta’s health problems had taken their toll on him in his final years.
“He was in pain,” Clarke said. “He was lonely, lost, disappointed in himself. He had been this very masculine, fiercely independent type of guy, and then he had to be totally dependent on others. He felt emasculated. I loved Tred, and I can’t imagine what he had to go through. Every aspect of his personality was just slashed.”
In addition to the effects of the paralysis and cancer, Barta also suffered from nerve damage in his hands that caused excruciating pain.
“I’ve seen him convulse because of the pain in his hands,” Clarke said. “Over these past 3-5 years, it was like he had the trials of Job. If the things that happened to him happened to me, I don’t know if I could handle it the way that he did.”
Some labeled Barta as bombastic, egotistical, opinionated and controversial.
He was a high-energy, dynamic, outspoken orator who ranted and raved on any number of topics. He started about every other sentence with “I’m Tred Barta,” and ended about every other sentence with “I do things my way … the hard way … the Barta way.”
“He was a pretty interesting guy,” Bailey said. “Love him or hate him, he was an unusual fella with a lot of gumption. He was not a man of ambivalence. There was no gray area with him. He had a flair that no one else had. I never knew anyone like him.”
Clarke said Barta’s columns generated more reader response than anything else in the magazines.
“Nobody was ever apathetic about Tred Barta,” he said. “I can tell you that. They responded good and bad. They either hated it, or they loved it. There was no middle road with Tred.”
Despite his brash nature, his heart usually seemed to be in the right place, at least when it came to charity fishing tournaments.
More than 20 years ago, he started something that was unheard of at the time – a 100-percent release, honor-based competition where no fish are killed, called the Barta Blue Marlin Classic, held each year in Walkers Cay, Bahamas. The tournament raised more than $1 million for the (IGFA) Junior Angler program.
He also had the Barta Camp Woodie Offshore Tournament in Georgetown, S.C. The event raised money for Camp Woodie in partnership with the South Carolina Waterfowl Association and its 26 chapters. Additionally, money was given to charities supporting underprivileged children in South Carolina.
He co-founded the Beaufort fishing tournament with Bailey, and the two set a goal of raising $1 million for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain (formerly the Boys & Girls Clubs of Coastal Carolina).
That goal isn’t too far away. The tournament has raised more than $900,000 up to this point.
The event decided to go in a different direction last year and severed ties with Barta.
“I think he kind of understood it was time,” Bailey said. “He was sad about it, and I was too, but it was time to do something different. We stayed friends. The tournament owes him a lot. Nobody involved with the tournament denies that.”
Bailey said there have already been discussions about how to honor his old friend at next year’s 17th annual tournament.
“We wouldn’t have a tournament if it weren’t for him,” he said. “If we can get to $1 million next year, that would be a great way to remember him. I’m very proud of him being my friend.”