George Hommell, an iconic figure in Florida Keys fishing, passed away this week. Long before Bass Pro Shops, long before fishing became a multi-billion dollar industry, George's World Wide Sportsman was a wonderful place to visit. I met George in the early 1970's, browsing a small section of fly fishing equipment that only his shop carried.
I wouldn't call it a time of innocence, but in a way it was. In Key West, writers Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, and friends like Jimmy Buffett had been sowing wild oats, fly fishing for tarpon and bonefish. Off Islamorada, guides like Steve Huff, Harry Spear, and an even older generation -- George Hommell -- had become so knowledgable about fish behavior, they carried the biological imprint of where the quarry would be, at any time and tide. We mourn the loss of what was, on Florida Bay.
George had another distinction and a significant one. He was fishing guide to former president George H.W. Bush. Even in those days, it was a scene when the president tried to steal a few quiet moments fishing the flats. Even out in the middle of Florida Bay, the Secret Service detail was never far away. It is certain the bonefish knew where they were, before the president could find a bonefish.
George was reticent to talk about his days with the president. They were unobtrusive, private affairs that continued with other key officials of his administration, like Dick Cheney. George -- quietly tracking bonefish -- took the opportunity to impress the president with the importance of preserving and protecting the Everglades. That passion was never engendered in the sons and that is too bad because sight fishing -- looking through a shallow column of clear water for fish that are often ghostly presences -- is to connect the dots: from fish to their food to ours. A curiousity that only deepens over time. Catch and release fishing is a very powerful way to learn to love the environment and God's creation.
Then, too, what George Hommell and guides of his generation experienced -- by way of diversity and plenty of the shallow water wilderness of Florida Bay -- passed, too. The change acquired momentum with massive algae blooms in the late 1980's.
Today Florida Bay looks the same from a distance, but what one president saw as George Hommell poled his flats skiff from a platform at the stern; that Florida Bay is gone. It is, however, a baseline that I remember along with the scent of oleander and aisles filled with fishing gear at World Wide Sportsman; an invitation to great adventure and knowledge of an irreplaceable natural world.