Remembering George Hommell Jr.

This past fall, hundreds gathered on the sand at World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada, Florida to remember and celebrate the life of George Hommell Jr., one of the pioneers of flats fishing in the Florida Keys and one of the early champions of fishing conservation. Tarpon rolled in the background as the sun set. Many people, including Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops, spoke, and fondly reminisced about their dear friend George, and everyone present laughed and cried at the tales they recounted. The location for the memorial was fitting, as Hommell helped found World Wide Sportsman, and was a consistent, welcoming presence there until shortly before his death. At the request of his children and with a declaration of support from Bass Pro Shops, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust announced the formation of the BTT George Hommell Jr. Florida Keys Habitat Fund in his honor, with the goal that funds raised will be used to help restore the Florida Keys flats to their former glory.

Hommell moved to the Keys in 1945, at a time when fly fishing was in its very early days, and began fishing by himself, eventually becoming a full-time guide. He is credited with refining the techniques for poling for bonefish, was one of the first people to trailer his boat around to find fish, and also developed a number of important shrimp fly patterns, including the Hommell Evil Eye. He guided president George H.W. Bush and was fishing buddies with baseball legend Ted Williams, helping him initiate the infamous Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament in 1964. He helped guide client Mac Miller to the fly fishing world record for tarpon in 1961, a record that was snapped a few days later by Joe Brooks with guide Stu Apte. A huge admirer of Hommell’s, Apte later wrote in his 2008 memoir Of Winds and Tides: A Memoir “if I had to choose a guide for myself, George would probably be the one I would choose.”

George Hommell Jr.

Hommell was an angling legend, but is perhaps best known for what he did off the water. In 1967, Hommell, along with fishing clients Carl Navarre and Billy Pate, founded World Wide Sportsman, a shop that was one of the first of its kind and remains one of the great landmarks in the Florida Keys. World Wide Sportsman made saltwater fly fishing more accessible and helped to grow the sport, and was also responsible for a number of innovations including the Billy Pate Reel, which changed the saltwater fly fishing world forever. In 1997, they sold the store to Bass Pro Shops, and that new shop remains a Keys landmark today. Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris decided to keep the name World Wide Sportsman in part because of his tremendous respect for Hommell. While George’s health permitted, he still came to the shop almost every day at the crack of dawn to greet customers with a smile.

In the 1970s, Hommell became one of the early proponents of fishing conservation. In the early days of saltwater fly fishing, guides killed most of their catch. By the 1970s, Keys guides started to notice that catch numbers were declining, and as a member of the Islamorada Fishing Guides Association, George became one of the first proponents of catch and release fishing. He promoted tarpon and bonefish protection and Everglades Restoration through World Wide Sportsman, promoted awareness about the importance of seagrass preservation, and under his leadership, Bayside Marina became the first certified “green” marina in the Keys. In 2002, Hommell was named one of NOAA’s environmental heroes in recognition of his numerous contributions to conservation causes. In one of his most significant conservation initiatives, Hommell was a Founding Director of Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (then Bonefish and Tarpon Unlimited) in 1998. BTT Chairman Tom Davidson noted that Hommell’s enthusiastic support of BTT was vital to the organization’s success. He will be dearly missed by BTT and the greater fly fishing community, and will always be remembered for his incredible contributions to the sport of fly fishing and his deep commitment to conservation of his beloved fishery.

In his memory, BTT has established the BTT George Hommell Jr. Florida Keys Habitat Fund, which will be used to support BTT’s efforts to bring back the golden years by bringing Keys flats habitats back to health. Donations to the fund can be made online at www.bonefishtarpontrust.org , by mail to 24 Dockside Lane PMB 83 Key Largo, FL 33037, or by phone at 321-674-7758.

East End townships unanimously support proposed East Grand Bahama National Park

Last week Grand Bahama Parks Manager for the Bahama National Trust (BNT), Lakeshia Anderson, met with the local citizens, tour operators, and fishing guides of McLean’s Town to discuss BNT’s proposal to extend the Grand Bahamas National Park.

“We have held five prior meetings, and completed 150 one-on-one surveys in East End, and tonight we’re back to discuss the input from the communities and research findings, and how these components have provided guidance for proposed boundaries.” said Anderson.

When Anderson opened the floor to questions, there were comments and concerns surrounding the proposed sand dredging of the Bursus Cay area. Many locals suggested a possible expansion to the park boundaries, to include the Bursus Cay area. Local fishing guide Cecil Leathern stated, “We all know what will happen if this dredging is allowed; how it could destroy not only the bonefish flats and our lobster grounds, but also affect them down in Abaco.  We need it all protected.”

The proposed East Grand Bahama National Park was unanimously supported by all in attendance. Making this area of East End into a national park is vital to BTT’s Bahamas Initiative and the local buy-in is key to it’s success.

Click here to read the full article on bahamaislandinfo.com

Ghost Stories and Fisheries Habitat Mapping

Tom Karrow working with Shawn Leadon at the Andros Island Bonefish Club. Shawn is a son of pioneering Bahamian guide, Rupert Leadon and has a vast knowledge of local ecology and flats species habitat preferences.

Tom Karrow, a PhD Candidate is working with elder Bahamian bonefish guides in an effort to document and gain a better understanding of their knowledge of the local environment and to assist in the creation of fisheries habitat maps.

These types of maps are important because they highlight critical fisheries habitat areas and that helps in conservation measures ensuring that established policies are highly effective and ensure greater sustainability of the resource.  Read more about Tom’s project.

 

 

 

Proposed Parks by Bahamas National Trust Address The Concerns of Local Fishermen

Recent meetings in Abaco, Bahamas show good progress in the effort to protect habitats of bonefish and other fisheries on the Island. This is an important component of the Bahamas Initiative, so it is good to see this progress.

The proposed protection of the new Abaco areas will ensure that prime fishing grounds and important nursery habitats are protected from unsustainable development.  As such, the livelihoods of fishermen that depend on the natural resources will be safeguarded and for those of future generations to come.  Read the full article on Bahama Island Info.

 

The Florida Keys Initiative

by MIKE HODGE

Not too long ago, Flip Pallot reached for the microphone and addressed dozens of eager anglers during a Bonefish & Tarpon Trust banquet. His message, delivered in a labored, raspy voice, was short and sweet and to the point.

“There’s something wrong with our water.”

Anyone who has ever slung a fly in the Keys and its nearby waters would not disagree. The Keys, by all accounts, is a world-class fishery. For tarpon. For permit. For redfish. Bonefish? Not anymore.  Countless theories why have percolated from local docks and into cyberspace. Truth is, no one really knows, at least at this point, what happened to the majestic flats speedster, which is a big reason why BTT started the Florida Keys Initiative, a series of studies and programs designed to protect what’s left of this treasured resource and restore it to previous glory.

Approaching its fourth year, the Initiative has chipped away to identify threats to the Keys’ bonefish and other popular flats species.  Nevertheless, no one knows why the bonefish population declined, but more people than ever know there is something wrong with our water.  To solve any problem, you must first acknowledge that there is a problem and a reason to do something about the problem. This past summer BTT released a study evaluating the economic value of flats fishing in the Keys. The bottom line:  Keys flats fishing annually creates an economic impact of $465 million.

And money talks.

“That gives us a seat at the table,” said Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT’s Director of Operations. “What typically happens is you have a discussion with fisheries management and people will give testimony with their opinions, which is all necessary, but they’re only given so much weight. When we can step up and show the economic impact of a fishery, that typically raises eyebrows. It gives us some leverage. It allows us to make sure that flats fishing is part of the discussion and not considered an afterthought.”  Once the economic barometer was announced, it wasn’t long before more folks got involved, everyone from Keys’ business owners to local guides.  And a sense of teamwork has emerged.

“It is our home pool so to speak,” BTT board member Bill Stroh said. “Through that focus, what we’ve done over the past year or so has resonated with really well with the guides associations and the other constituents down there. I think we’ve become more relevant. The more relevant we become the better work we can do and the better support we’re going to get for that work. I’m really excited about it. I think that is going to go a long, long way into realizing our dream of what we’d like to see happen down there. The most positive thing to come out of this is we have brought people together. And it’s not us and them. It’s all of us together.”

With encouragement from BTT, a handful of Keys’ flats guides have outlined maps of their fishing areas to prevent possible restriction in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which is in the process of implementing a management plan. No boundaries have been decided, but BTT – and the guides — got their say.  “It’s put BTT in a category where I didn’t have it before,” John O’Hearn, president of the Lower Keys Guides’ Association, said. “Before I just sort of thought of it as a fundraising arm with marine science. Now it’s become a flats fishing advocate.”

Perhaps the biggest victory of the summer came in Lakeland, Fla. when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, with input from BTT and its supporters, designated bonefish and tarpon as catch and release. The FWC eliminated the harvest of tarpon except in the pursuit of an International Game Fish Association world record.  Two months later, tarpon received even more protection when the FWC voted to eliminate the Boca Grande jig, a device often used by tournament fishermen in Boca Grande Pass.  Conservationists now hope that the no-snagging rule will allow tarpon to resume their pre-spawn ritual, which may have been in disrupted by jigging and excessive pressure on the popular fish.

“During the last 10 years the Boca Grande jig became popular and extensively used, the behavior of the tarpon in the Boca Grande/Charlotte Harbor area definitely changed,” Adams said. “Fishing, more importantly catching, wasn’t as good with each passing year. The thought was the way the jig was fished vertically and using fish finders to stay over the fish didn’t really give them any down time, and that affects their behavior.”  While Boca Grande tarpon can rest more easily, so too can the Keys’ tarpon. Earlier this fall, Keys residents voted to reject a study exploring the dredging of Key West’s main shipping channel to accommodate bigger cruise ships, a move BTT opposed because tarpon use the water as a refuge.  “It’s all part of the bigger picture,” Adams said. “I think having the (economic) data helped change that conservation as well. It wasn’t just a few crazy guides out there. It was of economic importance.”

Even with those accomplishments, still looming is the decline of the Keys’ bonefish, an issue that BTT has addressed with several studies, one of which focused on bonefish prey. However, that research recently revealed that the amount of prey is a marginal factor.  “There’s no obvious smoking gun,” Adams said. “At least for the moment, we can check off that box and put our efforts into other things.”  O’Hearn, for one, believes the bonefish decline in part can be attributed to the freeze of 2010, which sent many a snook and other gamefish scurrying for cover after a stretch of record cold swept through South Florida.  “Since the winter of 2010, the bonefishing hasn’t been a shadow of what it was,” O’Hearn said. “I’d say a third to a half of the population died that winter.”

Is it weather? Is it water? Is it a combination? Adams and other researchers have pondered these questions for years with patience and perseverance.  “If it was that easy, we would have figured it out already,” Adams said. “That’s one of the challenges. The decline didn’t occur overnight. The recovery won’t occur overnight. It’s like gaining and losing weight. You don’t become overweight Monday through Friday. It takes a while.”

The biggest challenge is staying the course, even with a detour or two along the way.  “It’s a complex biological problem and identifying the controlling bottleneck will not be easy or a short analysis,” BTT Chairman Tom Davidson said. “We’re confident that we eventually will get there, and in the meantime through increased awareness and conservation and improved resource management, we should be able to sustain and hopefully improve the fishery.”  Stroh, who serves as BTT’s managing director for the Florida Keys, stressed the importance of a realistic, but positive approach to finding out what ails the Keys’ bonefish.

“We should all come away with a sense of optimism,” Stroh said. “The Florida Keys is still an amazing fishery. Fishing is still unbelievably good. Maybe the old-timers say you should have been here 20, 30, 40 years ago? But at the end of the day, people who are traveling (to the Keys) can still enjoy tremendous, high-quality fishing. What we’re trying to do is restore the fishery to what it was years ago and leave it that way for generations to come.”

To make a donation to the Florida Keys Initiative, please click here.

Mike Hodge is a freelance outdoor writer who lives and fishes in Florida.

 

A Gathering of Giants at Blackfly Lodge at Schooner Bay

From l to r - Pat Ford, Stu Apte, Joan Wulff, Chico Fernandez, Flip Pallot, Vaughn Cochran (photo by John Frazier)

In January at Blackfly Lodge, there was a gathering of giants.  The attendees included Stu Apte, Chico Fernandez, Flip Pallot, Joan Wulff, Pat Ford and Vaughn Cochran.  Angler Brett Martin was the winning bidder of a special opportunity to fish with the group and made a special donation to Bonefish & Tarpon Trust on behalf of Blackfly Lodge.  Brett joined the group for three days of fishing and what we can only imagine were some of the best fishing stories ever told.  BTT would like to thank everyone involved.  Read more about the great time they had on the Blackfly Outfitters site.

 

 

 

 

BTT NYC FUNDRAISER-COMING TOGETHER IN THE NAME OF BONEFISH AND TARPON

by Monty Burke

On a rain-swept evening in Manhattan, at one of those Upper East Side private clubs that prefers to remain unnamed, a host of fly-fishing luminaries came together to celebrate one of their own and help raise much-needed funds for the conservation of bonefish, tarpon, and permit, the three most important fish (both economically and as beguiling targets for recreational anglers) that haunt saltwater flats from Florida to the Bahamas to the far-flung Seychelles Islands.

The Event
The dinner and auction benefited the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, the world’s leading saltwater flats-fish conservation organization, whose small size belies its big impact on fish and habitat. BTT is a group on the rise, thanks to ultra-effective scientist-staffers and board members, like Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT’s director, and Dr. Jerry Ault, a marine biology and fisheries professor at the University of Miami’s Rosentiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. It’s well-heeled membership helps, too: The evening was underwritten by Bob RichPaul Tudor Jones II, Tony James, and Bob Rubin.

Read the rest of the Garden & Gun article here.

 

BTT Naples Fundraiser a Huge Success!

Thank you to all who attended our Naples Fundraiser this past Saturday, February 15th. The event was a huge success thanks to the hard work of our staff and many volunteers, particularly Keith Goodman. Nearly 150 people came out to enjoy food and drink, the great silent and live auctions, and incredible tarpon presentation by Andy Mill, just in time for tarpon season. In all, the event raised almost $30,000 for BTT. We are so grateful to all who attended and donated auction items. A huge thank you to artist Eric Estrada who came out and sold his amazing prints, donating 100% of proceeds to BTT. All in all, the event was a huge success. We hope to see you there next year.

 

Grand Prize Drawing Winner Announced

Congratulations to BTT member Neal Harris of Windermere, Florida. He is BTT’s 2013 Grand Prize drawing winner.  Neal and a guest will be heading to The Palometa Club in Ascension Bay, Mexico for a great fishing trip.  Thank you to all members for participating and to The Palometa Club for partnering with BTT on such a great trip.

Missed out on this great opportunity? For the remainder of the year, new and renewing members will be entered to win a trip with Bucs and Bones star Bill Klyn to El Pescador Lodge in Belize. Details below: