I just got done fishing with a remarkable young man by the name of Jonathan Nitch. I met Jonathan through the efforts of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an awesome charity that grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Make-A-Wish had contacted ESPN and they put Jonathan’s family and myself together. We worked together for about six months trying to find a time that would work for him given his treatment schedule. He went through periods of chemotherapy, hospitalization and periods at home in which he would work out trying to get strong for the trip.
Finally things came together and we met in Key West. The weather had been marginal for the last week with one hurricane blowing by and dumping lots of rain, as well as sending some pretty dramatic squalls through the area. We decided to stay in close and fish the protected, calm waters of Key West Harbor for Tarpon.
I really had no idea of Jonathan’s physical capabilities before this, so naturally I was concerned, as fighting Tarpon in deep water can be pretty demanding. As luck would have it, the first Tarpon bit both Jon’s and my bait so that we ended up with the same fish on key west tarpon fishing both our lines (a kind of unusual occurrence). It turned out to be a good thing as we both fought the fish and when John seemed strong, I would slack up a little and let him fight it himself. Then when he got tired, I would help a little. The fish ended up being about 130lbs. My friend and fellow captain, Steve Impallemeni, helped with the boat and grabbing the fish.
Then, Jonathan went on to catch two more Tarpon by himself with the biggest being about 100lbs. One of those fish had gotten us in an area I call “the mine field”, because there are sailboats, other boats and obstacles all anchored up. Usually if a fish gets in there, you can kiss it goodbye, as it will head for the nearest anchor line. To get a fish out of that situation takes a lot of Jose Wejebe and Make a Wish Foundation
strength and patience. Jonathan was amazing in that he never gave up! Even when you could tell he was getting tired, he held on to the rod and pressured the fish when he had to get them away from some obstruction. He never complained and the whole time he just concentrated on fighting the fish. It was pretty amazing considering his condition.
The next day was marginal, as we had to weave our way through some weather. We managed to catch some Jacks, which we later used for bait to catch a Black Tip Shark of about 80lbs. We went from there to fish a wreck and managed to catch some small Barracuda and a small Permit. Right about the time things were starting to happen, a huge squall moved in and we had to pick up and run full throttle back to the marina. The squall chased us all the way home (we were 30 miles out) and we barely got the boat docked when it hit full force. It was blowing about 50 knots and just pouring rain. While this cut short our fishing, it still made for an exciting and dramatic run. I think you can more fully enjoy the fury and force of nature back on land than being caught in it on a boat.
Finally the weather broke on the last day and we made a long run to a far off wreck near the Dry Tortugas. It was here that we had the most action of the trip. We were hooking Permit literally one after the other. There were not three minutes that our lines were in the water without a bite…however… usually when these big schools of Permit show up on a spot they are closely followed by…BULL SHARKS!!! At the start of the tide, a number of those sharks set up station under the boat and soon it became a race between angler and sharks. We would hook a Permit and try to get him to the boat as soon as possible. It would seem that everything was all right until the fish got near the boat, and then two or more sharks would come up and rip the fish to pieces.
We finally were able to catch a few on that slow tide by dropping off the anchor and chasing the fish with the boat. Jonathan would hook up and the fish would make a long run…. no doubt fleeing for his life. Jon would let the fish run out and I would drop off the anchor line (it was tied with a buoy at the end). Chasing the fish this way, we were able to get away from the mass of sharks that had gathered under our anchored boat.
Luckily most of the sharks scattered after the tide got rolling. We went on to catch another nine Permit- the biggest of which went about 28lbs.
It was after Jonathan and I just didn’t want to catch any more fish that the real comedy played out. Wes Miller and Brian Mason, the camera guys, came on board and they started fishing. While they are exceptional camera dudes, they basically suck at fishing. It was pretty funny as I took the role of being the cameraman, Wes and Brian took the role of anglers and Jonathan took over as Captain. Wes and Brian hooked up with a double header of Permit and got all tangled up at the stern. Jonathan did a perfect “Jose imitation” as he was barking out orders left and right to the two tangled up buffoons. We were all laughing our butts off. It was a great way to end the day!
Later that night, I had dinner with the whole Nitch clan, his brother Jason, mother Desi and father Mike. It was wonderful and heartwarming to see a whole family wrap itself around each other. It seems like it would be would be an even more difficult battle for Jonathan without that kind of support. From my (an outsider’s) point of view, it seems like the whole family is affected- not just one individual. Their strength and kindness to each other was inspiring. It certainly is humbling to have someone like Jonathan aboard. I think the most that I got out of the experience was a simple smile. After a good fish or a funny joke, Jonathan would smile that big grin of his and you couldn’t help but smile back. It would just make you happy inside.
I think being on the water kind of takes you away from all the tensions and worries on land, even if it is for just a little while. I think that was what I was hoping for the most- the distraction of a few good fish, some funny moments and lots of smiles.
Special thanks needs to go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation; these are great folks who give hope and happiness to people who need it most.
Capt. Jose Wejebe