When it came to Florida Keys fishing, Jose "Spanish Fly" Wejebe was the ambassador.
The fishing community was still reeling Monday after the famed Summerland Key-based angler and TV personality known for his wide-ranging environmental efforts and passion for sharing the sea with newcomers died in a plane crash Friday.
"Disbelief," Stock Island-based fishing guide Capt. Steven Impallomeni said when he heard the news. Wejebe was Impallomeni's best man at his wedding. As a teenager, Impallomeni had washed Wejebe's boat after school.
"What he's done for us down here in the Keys is amazing," Impallomeni said. "He's brought so much attention to not just fishing here, but to the Keys in general."
Impallomeni is one of many Keys-based fishermen who has appeared with Wejebe on his fishing programs, which have appeared on ESPN, National Geographic Wild and, most recently, the Outdoor Channel.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating what caused Wejebe's small Comp Air 8 airplane to crash shortly after take-off at Everglades Airpark. Wejebe, 54, was alone in the plane that a witness said crashed on airport property about 5 p.m. and then caught fire, said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson. A full NTSB report is expected about 10 days after the incident, Knudson said.
"Jose was one-of-a-kind and throughout his decades of riveting fishing expeditions, he brought joyous adventures to millions of viewers around the world," Outdoor Channel President and CEO Tom Hornish said in a prepared statement.
"He was an important member of the Outdoor Channel family and he'll be missed. Outdoor Channel will strive to preserve his legacy and commitment to the outdoors and angling community."
Wejebe had been in the Everglades fishing and filming with fellow guide and friend Capt. Jeff Legutki of Naples. The weather had gone from good to bad with increasing winds Friday, Legutki said. He and a cameraman asked Wejebe if it was too windy for him to be flying, Legutki said. It was good-natured ribbing and Wejebe assured them he would be fine, Legutki said
"We hugged goodbye, went home to my couch and an hour or two later the phone rang," Legutki said. "It was surreal. I didn't believe it."
Wejebe was among the first anglers to bring South Florida saltwater fishing to TV, he recalled.
"He was my childhood hero and I avoided him at first because I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of him," Legutki said. "He just walked up to me as genuine, cool and as down-to-earth as anyone could be. We became dear friends."
So it was throughout the Keys. Sugarloaf Key-based guide and fellow filmmaker Capt. Will Benson also appeared on shows with Wejebe. Both helped develop fishing skiffs for Hell's Bay Boatworks.
"He really spoke to me about what it means to be a guide who cares about the ocean," Benson said. "The fundamental thing about Jose that was such an inspiration was that he didn't go out there and fish the tournaments to show how much better he was than you. He wanted to go out there and show you why he loved it so much. And he never fished tournaments later in his life. He was more interested in showing and teaching people something deeper, like how to care for the ocean. That was really his mission."
Summerland Key Capt. Jim Sharpe of Sea Boots Charters is one of the older guides who knew Wejebe when he was running a light tackle guide business on a center console boat out of Key West.
"I knew him then, 30 years ago, and I know now I can tell you he never changed," Sharpe said. "I always called him the ambassador of the Keys. He talked about the lifestyle, the sunsets, the fishing. He loved what the Keys were all about."
Wejebe is survived by his daughter, Kristin Wejebe, 28.
There will be a memorial for friends and family at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the International Game Fish Association headquarters at 300 Gulf Stream Way in Dania Beach. More information about that memorial will be posted this week online at http://www.igfa.org/Events/Jose-Wejebe-Memorial.aspx.