The saltwater fishing world, and especially those who worked with Jose Wejebe, lost a great friend on Friday.
Wejebe, host of Outdoor Channel’s Spanish Fly, died when the single engine plane he was piloting crashed shortly after taking off from Everglades Airpark around 5 p.m. ET.
Friends were the first to announce the tragedy on Facebook, and there has been a steady outpouring of mourning, many noting the tremendous loss to the outdoor world. Jerry McKinnis, who first approached Wejebe to do a show in 1995, said, “It was so hard waking up this morning and not having Jose in the world. I think I lost a brother.”
Mike McKinnis, executive producer at JM Associates who worked closely with Wejebe on his shows, became choked several times speaking of the loss.
“In some way or another, whether on the shoots or as an editor, we were all close to Jose,” he said. “I lost a friend. We did 18 years of his show, and 20 years of one thing or another with him.”
Wejebe was living a true rags-to-riches life. Born in Cuba in 1958, Wejebe’s family escaped Fidel Castro’s revolution by immigrating to Miami. He plied South Florida waters as a youth, but really found his calling after moving to the Keys. His first experience snorkeling set him further on his path to a life and career in marine environs.
“He basically quit high school to become a captain, to become who he was,” Mike McKinnis said. “He knew who he was going to be when he was young. He worked toward learning how to fish, getting a boat and becoming a captain. He was a captain pretty young.”
Wejebe learned the intricacies of saltwater fishing from the best, including Stu Apt, Flip Pallot and Lefty Kreh. His travels and passion for learning new fishing and rigging techniques took him all over the world where he learned new and non-traditional methods.
Jerry McKinnis covered Wejebe out of the blue at a saltwater tournament, but the longtime Fishin’ Hole host left so impressed he contacted Wejebe when ESPN2 asked his production company to come up with a block of outdoors programming.
“We were looking for a saltwater show, and Jerry had met him a couple years before,” Mike McKinnis said. “Jerry calls him up and asks him if he’d like to do a show with us. Within days, we were down there shooting a show … and never stopped. And we’ve never missed a show.”
The Spanish Fly traveled much of the globe, from the Seychelles off the eastern coast of Africa where crew members where fearful of pirates, to the Coral Sea 300 miles off Australia, to Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, the Bahamas, the West Coast.
What made Spanish Fly so successful was Wejebe was the whole package.
“It’s passion for what you do. He had it like nobody else in everything -- fishing, photography, underwater photography, flying an airplane, if you can believe that. He’s got a passion,” Mike McKinnis said. “He reminds me of dad because he has the knack of being charismatic and entertaining, but really down home. That’s an interesting combination that not many people have – star power but to be and feel humble on TV.”
Wejebe and his team had just finished a shoot out of Everglades City, and he was the sole occupant of a Comp Air 8. Wejebe had said the eight-seat aircraft would open opportunities for the show.
“It’s definitely a punch in the gut,” Mike McKinnis said. “He had a lot more in him. There was so much more to do. You think about Jerry, he didn’t quit until he was 70, and Jose was heading in that direction, too.”
The loss was felt around the fishing world. Thousands have been commenting on the tremendous loss. Among them was the University of Miami, which honored Wejebe with a fish tag. Others were left simply stunned.
“He was just my friend,” said Mike McKinnis, struggling to compose himself. “ He was just a good friend.”
Wejebe was 54.