Callers who get O’Neill Williams’ voicemail get a surprise — and a chuckle. “O’Neill can’t come to the phone right now because he’s wrestling crocodiles,” says a pleasant-sounding woman with an Australian accent. “Please try again.”
It’s clear that this is not a guy who takes himself too seriously-in some respects.
What Williams does take seriously is his media mini-empire of popular outdoor shows on WSB radio, Fox TV, cable networks and YouTube, along with a podcast, a newsletter, a presence on social media and a book- with a second on the way.
There’s good reason to take his accomplishments seriously: they have been enshrined in The Georgia Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame, The Legends of the Outdoors National Hall of Fame, The Georgia Radio Hall of Fame and other lists of luminaries.
Williams’ knowledge of field and stream is broad, deep and confidently expressed. While he readily admits to both being self-taught and an attentive student of others in the field, what’s perhaps not as obvious is his considerable business savvy and a willingness to put the spotlight on others.
Throw in Williams’ ability to connect with anyone and everyone and a self-deprecating “aw shucks” personal style and it’s not hard to see why he’s become a go-to advisor and TV buddy to hundreds of thousands of hunting and angling enthusiasts.
But, as he himself says, it took a while for those stars to align.
Nicknamed “professor” by some, Williams’ first classrooms were Georgia fishing holes where he paired with his grandfather. Then, his family settled in DeKalb County, where, at age 14, he and a friend “went to local where you’d pay a dollar to fish. We caught so many that we’d sell them to other people on the bank.”
There was a trick to it, he admits. “We’d buy a can of corn and throw it out as we were casting,” Williams said. “Every fish in the lake would be in front of us. And people would literally stand behind us and order to catch the next fish.”
His early entrepreneurial sensibility was nurtured at Emory University, where he earned a degree in economics. He said his schooling had a large role in shaping his attitude and outlook. “I didn’t spend four years with a bunch of drunken fools,” Williams said, adding that his circle was chock full of professional and success-minded young men. “We had to concentrate. We had things to achieve.”
The year 1965 marked the end of his academic career at Emory (graduation) and the beginning of a long-term partnership with wife Gail. They’ve been married for 55 years and she helps with his radio show and other projects.
Williams carved out a successful career as a sales manager in the food industry. But the challenge, the freedom and the simple peace of the woods and streams never relaxed their hold on him. With techniques greatly refined from his “canned corn” days, he kicked off his broadcasting career by doing shows on weekends.
By the 1990s, he was tired of the corporate life and bailed out to concentrate on his outdoor projects. “When I decided to give it my full attention, it exploded,” he said.
Selling his own ads, he beefed up a loyal core of sponsors, many of whom remain on board today.
Jackson County businessman Kevin King is part of that roster. Initially unsure as to whether buying outdoor show commercials would connect him with his customers, he decided to take a chance, saying “I like what you do and what you stand for.” It worked.
King said he admires Williams not only for his hunting and fishing knowledge, but also because “when he brings a guest on his show, he allows them to talk about what they know. He never belittles anyone, but he then interjects what he knows.”
His style has produced loyal fans. One recent caller to his radio show, which is broadcast from his trophy-festooned hunting and fishing lodge in north Georgia and syndicated nationally, put it this way: “This is Wade from Bowling Green Kentucky,” the caller said. “I just wanted to say I love you. If I ever call you again and don’t tell you I love you first thing, you can hang up on me.”
Williams said he’s grateful to his listeners and viewers and to his fellow TV hosts and guides. On his home turf in the southeast, Williams doesn’t need hunting guides, he said, but if he’s heading to, say Montana or Texas, he seeks advice from locals on the terrain and on what weaponry is needed. He hires someone from the area and lets them hold forth on his shows.
There are also the interests of the audience to weigh.
“If I’m in Mississippi and hunting deer, people would say ‘I might want to go there.’ But if I’m in Afghanistan hunting bighorn sheep, then people aren’t going to say they’re going.”
He actually hasn’t hunted in Afghanistan, he admits, but he has filmed shows from California to Indiana, from Montana to Florida and overseas in places such as Argentina and South Africa. His fishing forays have taken him from Canada to Costa Rica.
Friends, including fishing partner David Altman, say there’s more to Williams than, “Here’s where they’re biting.” He’s a voracious reader. And a knowledgeable movie buff. He snared top honors as a bodybuilder in his 40s. And his background includes stints in high school wrestling, baseball and as a professional bass fisherman.
“I have been blessed with his friendship,” Altman said. “He’s a man of great humility and introspection who’s also been very successful.”
At 76, Williams doesn’t tromp through the woods and wade the streams as much as he used to. He heads out maybe two dozen times a year, he said. But he still delights in fishing for large-mouth bass and striper or hunting deer, and, on occasion, hogs.
He said he doesn’t mind holing up in a deer stand, but he expresses more appreciation for fishing, with its greater variation of both challenges and methodologies.
“My most enjoyable days are when I don’t have to catch or kill anything,” he says. “I have more fun when there isn’t a camera around.”
A strong conservationist, Williams is quick to defend hunting and fishing to those who look down their noses at it. He points out that taxes and fees outdoor sportspeople pay support conservation programs and that fishing and hunting make powerful, positive impressions on young minds.
“It’s a lesson for youngsters. There are rules and there’s no one there to make sure that you follow them, so you’re on your own,” he said. Among his rules? “You don’t hunt at night, you don’t catch over your limit, and you buy a license.”
How long will he stay at it? Another three or four years, perhaps. He still enjoys it, has no ailments to contend with and he wants to keep the folks who work for him employed.
So, until then, you’ll still be able to hear the signature tagline from his shows: “If you’re too busy to go fishing and take a child along, you’re too busy.”