…which, to be fair, I kind of did.
It’s 4:30 AM as I walk toward him, cold enough to see the steam rising from his coffee at a dozen paces. Less than two years out of office, George Herbert Walker Bush doesn’t need to introduce himself of course. That would inevitably come off as condescending, and that’s not his style. (He does however introduce me to the member of his security contingent who’d be accompanying me. “This is Keith” was about the sum of it.)
I’m just saying that when 41 extends his hand and smiles, and his first words to you are, “Ready to go fishing?” — your heart skips a beat as you second guess yourself about how firm is firmly enough to shake his hand, and you smile back and say, “Yes sir, Mr. President. I sure am.”
And you try not to smile too big. You don’t want to look like a starstruck idiot. Sure, he was the leader of the free world just 20 months ago, but here, now, two hours before sunrise, you’re just a couple of guys going fishing. Except one of you is the 41st President Of The United States, and it ain’t you.
It turns out that being president isn’t conducive to good fishing, and now that he’s off the clock, the first President Bush has a score to settle with some bonefish.
President Bush first fished Islamorada (eye-la-mo-RAH-da) in the Florida Keys when he was still Vice President Bush. His fishing companion at the time was George Hommell, owner of World Wide Sportsman, one of Islamorada’s retail shrines to backcountry fishing. This is a very different enterprise than high-powered bass fishing with its floating equivalents of NASCAR rockets running at 100mph and 100 decibels.
A backcountry fishing boat has enough juice to get quickly into the flats and back to the dock, but as it approaches the fishing ground, the engine comes out of the water, and the guide goes up on a platform on the back of the boat, poling the boat into position. The loaded boat might ride only 10″ down into the water, yet still come within an inch or two of the bay bottom.
Bonefish thrive in water this shallow, even shallower, and no deeper than a couple of feet tops. They prowl the bay’s sea grass beds for pretty much anything that moves, and a good number of things that don’t move much at all. In Fly-fishing for Bone Fish, Chico Fernandez and Aaron Adams cite a study which found 127 different species in the bellies of 385 bonefish!
Not that they’ll bite on just anything. Weighing as much as 19 pounds, just shy of a meter long, these predators are constantly aware of everything. An unexpected shadow or ripple of a breeze, a reflection off mirrored sunglasses, a voice much louder than a whisper, and they’re gone. If any of these disturbances occurs even once, you might be done, not a fish to be found the rest of the day.
As a result, you’ll find sources referring to bonefishes as The Phantom of the Flats and gray ghosts, which is exactly as credible as it sounds. C’mon. That’s ridiculous. Nobody calls them that. They call ’em “bonefish,” except when they call ’em something worse. Even if you’re lucky enough to get within striking distance, and even if the bonefish bites, pound for pound, there may not be a stronger or faster fish. The odds of you hanging on long enough to boat one and take a picture before you release it back into the wild are slender. Many’s the bonefish tournament where nobody catches much of anything.
You may be getting the picture. A fish that can see and sense virtually everything in an incredibly cramped environment, and that will disappear faster than you can blink if someone farts a quarter-mile away.
Now imagine trying to catch such a fish with a couple of helicopters overhead, a couple of Florida Marine Patrol boats on either side, and a couple of Secret Service divers below. Yeah, they’re keeping the presidential fisherman safe from harm, but they’re also keeping the fish safe from the president. Throw in a couple of press boats trailing behind, and easily-spooked fish become spooked, easily.
I imagine that every American president is almost pathologically competitive — I respectively submit that well-adjusted people don’t even think about applying for this job — and a much-decorated WWII fighter pilot perhaps the most competitive among them. He’d caught a 9-pounder on his first trip in 1980, and a couple of times since, but it had been a while. Getting beat by another candidate? It happens. Getting beat by a fish? Again? No sir. Not this time.
“This time” was the first year of the catch-and-release George Bush-Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament in the fall of 1994. He was once again beside George Hommell and their guide, and I wasn’t far behind in a boat with Keith, and our guide. Hopefully far enough behind…but really? “Close enough to protect the president” was almost sure to work out better for the fish yet again.
Anything that wasn’t getting the president closer to his goal wasn’t getting me closer to mine either, I was there to record for posterity, and Miami’s 5PM newscasts, the 41st President of the United States catching a bonefish in the inaugural tournament bearing his name.
It was a long morning, and a long pole.
(Pole being used as a noun referring to the activity of poling, not to the pole.)
No fish. None. For hours and hours. And hours. The cool morning had long given way to a blistering, blinding morning, and I was already exhausted.
I kept 25 pounds of camera, lens and battery on my shoulder the whole time, one hand on the trigger (sorry, Keith — I won’t say that again) and one hand on the polarizing filter, constantly adjusting as our boats moved relative to the sun and to each other. A shot with glare coming straight into the lens would be useless, and, depending on our orientation, could leave the president backlit — every bit as useless.
A sidebar for the shooters among us. (Sorry again, Keith. I should probably find better words to use around the president than “trigger” and “shooting,” but I really can’t think of any.) Shooting boat-to-boat is a nightmare. You have to account for two vectors of steadiness, neither of them having anything to do with the horizon. You have to be on your feet to isolate yourself from the motion of your own boat, while keeping the subject in the other boat framed properly in its own context.
It’s a reminder that camerapeople are better served by core strength and overall balance than big “movie muscles” (arms and chest). If you don’t work out often enough and thoroughly enough to keep improving your core and balance, consider looking for another job. I noticed this morning that Petsmart and Office Depot are both hiring.
As is the case for most nature shooting, tape and battery management are critical. You need to roll a lot more often than not, because if you miss the shot, it’s gone forever. It’s extremely likely that if you miss your best shot, your second-best shot won’t be anywhere near as good, and may not even be usable. This is when “once in a lifetime” isn’t an exaggeration. It’s a dire warning. It’s a threat.
We’ve been on the water seven hours already. President Bush appears to be having a little more fun than the rest of us. He surely can’t get out on the water more than a couple of times a year, but “a little more fun” is definitely relative. He also wants a fish more than anybody else, not only in our merry-ish band, but in the entire tournament.
And then it happens. Excited pointing, excited whispers — they see a bonefish, and I finally see my shot. Some flicks of clearly expert wrist, and the 41st President of the United States is reeling in a bonefish! As he pulls the fish from the water, it’s not the 30 inches long of a fully-mature specimen. It’s not 20 inches long. In fact, it’s barely more than five. Good-natured laughs all around as he gently slides the young bonefish back into the water.
As we watch it swim away (recorded with crystal clarity thanks to the polarizing filter and — listen up kids — core strength and balance), I’m thinking to myself, “Holy fish, this is even BETTER than a shot of him landing a real catch! I’ve got the 41st President of the United States in his own tournament, with a fish that could fit in the palm of his hand! No matter what else is on the news, THIS shot is going to be teased all afternoon, and probably replayed in the late night news. Gold!”
Not that President Bush was going to settle for this, and not that it wouldn’t be nice to get something more dramatic than comic. I had until 3PM to shoot, then I’d have to hustle back to shore. I needed to get to the office (nicely enough, not a mile from the dock), and in less than an hour, cut up the segment, and lay it to tape with color bars, slate and countdown for six different stations. A helicopter was standing by to courier the tapes to the mainland, where six different trucks would head in six different directions to hit the air by 5 o’clock.
The level of intensity went up in our two boats, but it’s not like we could move any faster and have a prayer of the president catching anything. My 3PM deadline arrived, and my cute little shot of President Bush and his cute little fish, hahahaha, was all I had to show for my 10 hours on the water. He got to keep fishing, but I waved my good-byes and took off for shore.
My client was Newman Communications, and their Senior VP Andy Newman was anxiously waiting for me back at the dock. “How’d it go???” It was a loaded question, asked as much for his longtime client, the Florida Keys Chamber of Commerce, as it was for Miami TV and Newman PR. “I have a GREAT shot of the president…” — Andy starts to grin — “…with this teeny little fish…..” — the blood drains from Andy’s face — “but it LOOKS great. The water was perfect, and everybody looked like they were having fun. I guarantee you that every one of these stations is going to run this clip more than once.”
As soon as we were back at the shop and Andy saw it, he agreed. Catching a grown-up fish would have been better for everyone, but there was no chance that anyone would pass on this story.
And that’s just how it happened. Every station we sent it to ran it. Ten hours on the water and another hour in the edit suite is a nice day at the office, especially when it turns out so well.
Now, the thing with tournaments like this, part of the satisfaction is the banquet dinner. Cheeca Lodge & Spa is justly famous for their luxurious spreads, fully befitting a joint venture with the 41st President of the United States, and fully worthy of the hefty entry fee for the tournament.
(I confess I don’t remember the amount, but, for reference, Cheeca’s All American Backcountry Fishing Tournament in September 2012 had an entry fee of $2000, and unlike the tournament described here, didn’t include casual social time with 41. A significant portion of the fees for his tournament went to charity, raising tens of thousands of dollars before the annual event came to an end in 2003.)
As soon as I got cleaned up, I headed over to Cheeca to shoot a little bit of the reception before the grown-ups went in to dinner.
Another tip for young shooters, or anyone in the any aspect of banquet AV production: always dress like a grown-up. You don’t want to be the best-dressed person in the room, or they’ll mistake you for the maître d’. (The camera should be a clue, but you’d be surprised.)
You don’t want to look like a tourist, either. A reasonable target is somewhere in the upper 25% of the room. For example, a fishing banquet won’t have ties, but nice slacks (not khakis), dress shoes, a pressed long-sleeved shirt with buttons and a smart blazer will do the trick. It’s just not good enough to dress like most of the people in the room, and if you ever show up to shoot indoors wearing shorts or sandals, I’ll personally see to it that not even Petsmart or Office Depot will hire you.
The reception is in some ways more fun than the banquet. Drinks in hand, hearty laughs, well-told tales of “shakeaways and breakaways” even more entertaining than stories of successes.
Having taken my own advice and shown up looking sharp, I started to make a quick turn through the room to greet the guides who were my friends and neighbors, our hosts at Cheeca Lodge, assorted local dignitaries….
…when I heard 41 before I saw him. “YOU!!! I’ve been looking for you!”
I looked around the room like everyone else did, wondering who he was talking about — until I saw him headed straight for me.
“Where were you? I won! And you made me look bad on TV!”
The 41st President of The United States was raising his voice at me! This was profoundly uncomfortable, to say the least. I quickly realized that he was only mock outraged, but it still rattled me hard. A little more pleased than most tournament winners I suspect, he told me that an hour and a half after I left, he caught and released a bonefish weighing 13 pounds, 4 ounces — enough to win the tournament by 2 ounces.
Now, before you think, “Of COURSE he won by 2 ounces,” let me assure you that no reputable guide would even consider lying about weights, not even for the president. That’s not how this thing works. Presidents come and go, but guides have to work with each other every day, and they’re plenty competitive. I’m also certain that a competitor as fierce as the president himself would have been furious if there was even a hint of exaggeration on his guide’s part. This ain’t T-ball, man. People get to strike out, and if there are going to be actual winners, there are going to be actual losers, and every single person in the room knew it, President Bush more than any of them.
There was plenty of good-natured joshing (“Sure thing, Mr. President! Two ounces! Bwaw haw haw!”), but, no kidding, the name on the tournament didn’t mean a thing when the numbers were called. If the numbers said that the president came up 2 ounces on top, that’s how it happened.
(Indeed, he caught quite a few other impressive fish in repeated trips to Islamorada, including a 2-meter long, 135 pound tarpon, but never placed higher than second in his own tournament again.)
When he told me he won, I should have said, “Congratulations, Mr. President!”
What I actually said was, “You’re kidding!”
You’re kidding? What was I thinking? “You’re kidding?” As in, you’re 20 months past being the leader of the free world so why are you pulling my leg …or maybe as in, I didn’t think you had it in you? Or something equally short of acknowledging that he won. He definitely noticed, but he continued his mock outrage. “I can’t believe that all you got was that picture of me with that tiny fish!”
By now a crowd had gathered, and he was having a little gentle fun at my expense, as we all had had at his, but the fact is that George H.W. Bush had indeed won the first year of the tournament that bore his name — and I missed the catch. I 100% missed it…while the footage of him with a fish that could fit in the palm of his hand played over…and over…and over.
“Mr. President, I’m so sorry! I would have loved to stay with you for the rest of the day, but I had a deadline. I had to get this to Miami for the 5 o’clock news.”
Oops. I had stepped in it again.
He was still smiling, but something in the corner of his eyes told me how he felt about me missing his victory because of a TV deadline. The media. Again. And I was one of them.
My face was as red as the stripes on the flag, but the president shook my hand again, put his left hand on my shoulder, laughed, and assured me that it was all just fine. I’m sure it was by the end of the night, with victory outweighing yet another petty ignominy at the hands of the media.
I can only assume that he doesn’t remember this, and can only pray that neither he — nor Keith — remembers my name.
Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone.
If you’ve bothered to read my About page, you’ll see mention of my far left wing politics, and it’s true….but having turned 18 in an off year, my first real vote was for George H. W. Bush in the 1980 Texas Republican primary. Not because he was a homeboy (representing Texas’ 7th congressional district in the US House from 1967-1971), or because I was not yet inclined to vote lefty, but because I believe that he showed a bright light on one of the gravest dangers the republic yet faced.
He called it “voodoo economic policy,” the obviously, blatantly false premise propounded by Governor Reagan, that slashing taxes for the richest Americans would create jobs and prosperity. Mr. Bush was certain that there was no way that this could work, and called the Governor out for “a list of phony promises,” and tax cuts that he labeled “economic madness.”
Mr. Bush was of course correct.
While a number of prominent Republicans continue to cling to this oligarchic wet dream, it has been utterly discredited by economists of good faith — and common sense.
I was disappointed, but of course unsurprised, to see Bush’s critique vanish once he joined Reagan’s ticket. By the time his oldest son took office, I was even less surprised to see the son embrace this “economic madness” with even more vigor than Reagan had. We continue to pay the price for failing to heed Bush41’s warning, and may well continue to pay for another generation or more.
As I hope you can tell, I liked the guy. Even from the far left, I admire some things about his administration, too. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that I’ve mentioned doing TV for? He signed it into law in 1990. Its 2900 square nautical miles contain the nation’s only barrier reef. (Photo here courtesy NOAA.)
I was delighted to thank him for that, and to tell him that I cast my first vote for him in the 1980 primary, that his image of “voodoo economics” deeply moved me, and that I couldn’t be more pleased to spend the day with him. I meant it.
He’s taller and better looking than the TV cameras showed, and they never really got a chance to convey his warmth and playfulness while he was in office. I’d like to think that my goofy little clip did some of that. I certainly don’t think this story is disrespectful in the least, and hope you don’t either. I don’t think he would.
But I’m still not in a hurry for you to bring it up with him.
For an account of such goings-on by an actual professional writer on such topics, see this coverage by respected veteran reporter John Geiger.
Let’s agree to save the debate over the ethics of catch and release tournament fishing for another day. Until then, check out the research paper on the impact of hook retention among bonefish in catch and release fishing, courtesy the journal Abaco Scientist, administered by Craig Layman, who serves on the faculty of Florida International University. Here’s a summary at RollingHarbour.com which includes a link to the original paper.
I also wanted to include this picture of my wife Nora Williams, also the company president, with the 41st President of the United States at his tournament reception. She was clearly as pleased to meet him as I was, and she and I got a real kick talking about it just now. Thanks to Andy Newman for the picture.