John Jacob Whitmer was a commercial fisherman before he became very well known as a charter captain who was famous for NOT having a clean shiny boat like a Rybovich or a Merritt.
For a short while, in all the many years I knew him, he had a twin engine charter boat.
Most of the time he had boats with a single diesel engine, one propeller, one prop shaft and one rudder in the center of the wooden hull. He caught a lot of fish and won more than his share of sailfish and marlin tournaments.
When we went to Merritt’s boat yard to get the bottom painted we were in and out FAST, sometimes the same day. John would race around the cockpit and use his pocket knife to pry dried out mullet scales loose. A quick scratch around with some coarse sand paper was followed by a quick wipe down with some volatile solvent and cheap paint was applied. On a hot, rain free day, we might be back in our Hillsboro inlet slip before dark.
When tuna towers sprouted on all the fancy expensive boats from Palm Beach that were fishing for Bluefin tuna in Bimini and Cat Cay (WE never called it anything but “Cat Key”), Whitmer recognized a good idea and had one put on his boat. Whitmer’s tower was aluminum but not anodized and IT WAS HIGH by standards at the time. He caught some tuna but could not compete with the big guns with unlimited funds on private boats.
One year, I cost him his best chance to ever win the Bimini Tuna Tournament. I hung on a little too hard and broke the .035 piano wire leader on what would have been our third fish for the day (I was playing hooky from grad school). We wound up in second place. These were the days when you had to actually weigh your fish and got a point a pound. You got ZERO points for merely touching or breaking the leader.
Riding in the tower with Whitmer on weekends when I was in graduate school (at what is now called the Rosenstiel School), let me have enough cash money to own a beat up old car and and rent a small apartment near the Orange Bowl.
We did not troll for cobia. We spotted them, from the tower, following the giant sting rays swimming in shallow water near the beach. His customers knew it was worth running the beach, only dropping a baited hook when we spotted cobia or a sting ray.
When the charter customers had all the fillets they wanted we sold the remaining fish to the crowds that visited the charter docks at Hillsboro Inlet. At Whitmer’s loud call of “Fresh Fish! Really Fresh” the crowds hurried to get the fillets before we ran out.
If we had an exceptionally great catch the local seafood restaurants would take all we could supply, always making sure we kept some for our own dinners.
From our high tower we could also keep track of a school of dolphin moving along under a line of sargasso weed way better than anyone who lacked the advantage of a tower. I cannot over emphasize the degree to which our tower enhanced our ability to see the fish deep down in the water.
Back then, I could never have guessed that I would eventually have stepped on every continent and fished in every ocean, spending most of my working days high up in what I still call a “tuna tower”.
I had to wash down the boat when the Miss Jeanne came in from fishing but it was only with a blast of the fresh water hose over the boat and a quick swabbing of the fish box with a rag wet with detergent and Pine Sol. “Don’t get her too clean” he often admonished me with a glass of Canadian whiskey in one hand and the barely rinsed off rods and reels in the other, as he stuffed them on a bunk down bellow. “If they can’t smell fish the tourists walking by our boat don’t know we're catching anything!”
I had no way of knowing it at the time, but learning to handle a single engine boat in the fast running currents of Hillsboro inlet and especially when fishing with Whitmer for giant tuna in the Bahamas, would eventually lead me to catch more marlin over 1,000 pounds than any captain in history. It also led to the honor of being being inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame.
I will never forget the first time I, with a brand new captain’s license, actually took the Miss Jeanne 7 out to sea with one of Whitmer’s charter parties on board. When I crossed the edge of the Gulf Stream into blue water I quickly realized I had made a big mistake! The current pushing against a strong wind from the north was creating monster seas. I could not turn down sea for fear of broaching! I crabbed my way back into the calmer green water and managed to catch a few king fish.
Entering our boat slip, even with a hard outgoing tide trying to push the single engine vessel into the A1A bridge, was a piece of cake compared to my problems earlier in the day!
I’m not sure what made me think of “JJ” (as another legend, Robin Thorn, first called him) but yesterday, totally out of the blue, I really missed him!
There will be more memories of John Whitmer in future blogs and maybe eventually a book.