December 5, 2018

KEVIN WADLOW photo
President George Bush presents an award to a tournament angler at the George Bush-Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament hosted by Curt Gowdy, left.

KEVIN WADLOW photo President George Bush presents an award to a tournament angler at the George Bush-Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament hosted by Curt Gowdy, left.

ISLAMORADA — In Islamorada, former President George Herbert Walker Bush will always be the First Angler.

Days before being sworn into office as president in January 1989, the president-elect flew into the Marathon airport and headed to Islamorada to squeeze in two days on the water.

“I’m one of the classic fishing conservationists,” Bush told gathered reporters. “We’re going to prove that over the next eight years by going fishing, demonstrating a keen personal interest in going after the wily bonefish or the elusive tarpon or the redfish or the snook.”

President Bush, who died Nov. 30 at age 94, spent most of his Keys trips being guided by the late George Hommell. A catch-and-release sportsman, Bush’s crowning moment on the Keys water was reeling in a 13-pound bonefish. Some were dubious of the released fish’s size until the photos were revealed.

Gary Ellis, an Islamorada fishing guide who founded the Redbone tournament series, remembers a national reporter peppering Bush with questions on issues during one of the president’s many trips to the Keys.

“He was a gentleman’s gentleman and quite a guy,” Ellis recounted. “President Bush told her, ‘I appreciate you being here, but I came here to go fishing. If you want to talk about fishing, I’ll talk about fishing.’ He didn’t want to talk about politics.”

Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge hosted the George Bush-Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament for a decade.

Bush was the guest of honor when Cheeca in 1999 dedicated its Curt Gowdy Lounge to the esteemed broadcaster. Susan Ellis wanted daughter Nicole to attend to meet the 41st president, but Nicole protested she had to study for a history test the next day.

Nicole attended the event. Hearing her story about the pending history test, Bush grabbed a napkin and dashed off a note to the teacher: “Liberate Nicole!” [signed] George Bush.”

Coral Shores High School athletic director and former baseball coach Rich Russell was invited to a dinner during one of President Bush’s several Islamorada sojourns.

“He was one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet,” Russell said. “We spent a lot of time talking baseball. People forget he was captain of the Yale baseball team.”

Wednesday, Dec. 5, has been declared a national day of mourning for President Bush, with American flags flying at half-staff for a month.

Following three days of lying in state at the U.S. Capitol and a funeral at the Washington National Cathedral, he will be returned to Texas for burial at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

kwadlow@keysnews.com