George Hommell Jr. grew up in Haines Falls, N.Y. and enlisted in the Navy at 18. Rank Gunners Mate 3rd Class Hommell served during World War II and was honorably discharged for the first time in 1945.
After the military, Hommell moved to Islamorada where his father worked as a deputy sheriff. George Jr. arrived in 1946 and spent his early years learning the nooks and crannies of the channels and seagrass flats surrounding Florida's keys.
His first official job in Islamorada was part-time work at Theater of the Sea, where he caught fish for their display pools. Theater of the Sea, the second oldest marine mammal park in the world, opened in 1946. The park's first performing Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin was delivered by none other the Grassy Key legend Milton Santini, the man who captured and trained the star of television and silver screen, Flipper (Flipper's real name was Mitzi).
Shortly after moving to the Keys, Hommell joined the Air Force Reserve. During the Korean War he was called to active duty in 1950 and served as a Rank Staff Sergeant Flight Engineer. George was honorably discharged for the second time in October 1952, and less than one month after returning home to Islamorada, George officially declared himself a professional fishing guide.
Hommell was fortunate in that, like local fishing legend Jimmie Albright, many of his clients were referred to him by the Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club, a prestigious fishing club established on Hibiscus Island in the early 1930s. Guides, in those days, earned $30 a day and were lucky if they managed to book three days of work in a week. However, perhaps what separated George from the other guides was that he understood that being a fishing guide was about more than landing clients fish.
Simply pushing away from the dock and navigating the usual fishing holes was not enough. George was one of the first guides who took the time to trailer his skiff and drive to where conditions were likely to be the most favorable. Hommell also understood that being a fishing guide meant respecting those operating in similar capacities around him; it also meant respecting the environment.
George Hommell, Jr. set the bar for the decorum and professionalism recognized by Islamorada fishing guides today. For anyone who ever fished with Captain Hommell, his friendly nature was not the sole attribute that attracted clients. Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams used to say that George had the biggest heart in the business. Hommell also had some of the best eyes. Even in a group of fishing guides, Hommell was likely to be the first to spot a bonefish, tarpon or permit.
George helped to redefine the techniques used to fish these complex waters and was one of the first to design a fly equipped with an eye <\#209> a bead eye. He called it the Hommell Evil Eye.
More than a fisherman, Hommell also established the World Wide Sportsman, a travel company that specialized in delivering fisherman to exotic fishing locales. The doors opened in October 1967, but might not have without the backing of friends like fellow fishing guide Billy Pate, who fronted the money while Hommell provided the sweat equity. Vic Dunaway, outdoor editor at the Miami Herald, also helped out as a travel consultant at World Wide Sportsman.
George Hommell, Jr. attracted an impressive list of notable clients in addition to the aforementioned Ted Williams, clients that included legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus and the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush. While officially retiring from work as an active fishing guide in 1988, Hommell continued to guide President Bush whenever he visited Islamorada.
Hommell also served as chairman of President Bush's INTERCOM Committee, formed as an advisory board for the Fish and Wildlife Department regarding water quality. It was while working with INTERCOM that Hommell first met Johnny Morris. Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, purchased the World Wide Sportsman from George in 1995. Hommell was also a founding member of the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, whose mission it is to conserve and enhance global bonefish, tarpon and permit fisheries and their environment.
As for fish tales, George is the benefactor of a doozey. During a two-day fishing tournament in the Bahamas called the Bonefish Bonanza, one unverified account claims that after Captain Hommell was skunked on the first day of the tournament, the next day he landed 110 bonefish. The catch allegedly won the tournament. The numbers dictate that in order to accomplish such a feat, during the eight hour tournament day, he would have had to reel in one bonefish every four minutes!
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.