Outdoor Living

O'Neill Williams has become a big fish in the sea of sport and nature television

Mountain Man: While O'Neill Williams spent thirty years in the poultry industry, he was pursuing hobbies that would lead to a second career as a host of popular TV and radio shows about the outdoors.
Kay Hinton

Even at age twelve, O’Neill Williams 65C understood the business side of leisure.

During the summer and on weekends, he and his pal Merrick “Rick” Hobbins would go to the local ponds in DeKalb County where you could pay a dollar and fish all day, keeping whatever you caught.

Arriving early, they’d stake out a prime spot on the bank and set up their rods and buckets, and then they’d sweeten their odds by tossing handfuls of canned corn into the water in front of their chosen spot. The boys would then walk around the pond to chat with the other fishermen.

“I’d tell them, ‘If you don’t catch enough, and you need fish at the end of the day, I’ll be right across there and I’ll sell you some,’ ” Williams recalls. “I’m sure they were thinking, that little so-and-so.”

Sure enough, come evening, there would be a line of folks behind Williams’s chair saying, “I’ll take the next one you catch, fifty cents!”

After all these years, he says, he’s still selling his catch.

Williams is founder, producer, and host of O’Neill Outside, an outdoors-themed television show that celebrated thirty-five years in national syndication last May and reaches more than one hundred million households. Every Saturday morning for the past twenty-five years, he and his wife of fifty-two years, Gail, have risen early to produce the O’Neill Outside radio program. Gail Williams answers and screens calls while her husband hosts and answers questions on fishing and hunting, giving advice and dispelling hunting and fishing myths when he can.

“I’m the only outdoor TV show host you can pick up the phone and call on a Saturday morning, and I’ll pick up,” he says.

These days they broadcast from his office in their Jasper, Georgia, home, carefully observed by the glassy eyes of mountings from his most impressive catches and hunts from over the years.

Among them is the head of a five-hundred-pound wild pig shot by his grandson, Travis Johnson, who joined his grandfather’s TV show as cohost in 2012.

Williams also publishes a monthly video newsletter for more than 315,000 subscribers, and you can find him on YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and Twitter.

Raised in Atlanta, Williams enrolled at Emory when his mother urged him to become a doctor, an ambition that ended with organic chemistry. An early riser who started each morning with the daily newspaper, Williams found his calling in the financial pages.

After graduating with his economics degree, Williams spent thirty years in poultry sales and sales management while pursuing hobbies that would lead to a new livelihood.

A tournament bass fisherman in the 1970s, Williams developed important connections on the circuit, including a friendship with Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports writer Charles Salter, who got Williams his first gig on Atlanta TV in 1981.

“A local producer wanted to produce a studio fishing show, and Charles Salter told him, ‘O’Neill Williams is your guy,’ ” says Williams.

That first break—and Williams’s affable approachability and willingness to hustle for big-name sponsors—has led to success and recognition in the outdoors world. He’s been inducted into the “Legends of the Outdoors” Hall of Fame, the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame, and National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

He appreciates the affection of his audience—he’s happy to snap photos and he hosts charity events and contests every year to hunt and fish with fans—but he is exceedingly down-to-earth.

“This is not important,” he says, gesturing at the trophies on his walls. “I don’t save lives. I talk about fishing.”

He’s proud of his Emory connection—his degree hangs among family portraits in his home, and you can spot his Emory class ring glinting on his right hand when he hefts a prize fish out of the water or raises a rifle sight to his eye on his shows. In 2013, he was awarded Significant Sig status by his college fraternity, Sigma Chi.

“My Emory education is a badge of honor to me, and I thank my parents for that,” he says.

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