Born in Havana, Cuba in 1958, Jose Wejebe grew up in a politically tumultuous time. Fidel Castro leading the Cuban revolution had just seized power and was imposing communist ways on the country. The new government then began taking land, money and property from some of the families with claims that the property now belongs to the ”revolution”. His father and grandfather were imprisoned for speaking out against the Castro regime. Jose, his mother and sister fled to the Swedish embassy for safety and stayed there until papers were set for asylum in the US. After turning over most everything they owned to the Cuban government including all their land in Cuba, Jose’s father and grandfather were released from prison. Completely broke and destitute, the family escaped.
The beginning years in America were not easy for Wejebe family. With a total of 10 family members living in a two-bedroom house and barely enough money to get by, life was challenging during Jose’s younger years. However, growing up in Miami, Florida, the tropical locale was a integral turning point for the beginning of Jose’s marine based career and life. At age eight, his father first took him out on the waters of Biscayne Bay and taught him to fish. His mother purchased him a mask and fins. What he saw underwater changed his life and perspective on the world forever. There was a whole new world for him to discover and since then, he never stopped exploring.
At ages 12-14, Jose read everything he could get his hands on that had to do with fishing. He meticulously studied his heroes such as fishing legends Stu Apt, Flip Pallot and Lefty Kreh. He would write to them and send them handmade flies he tied himself. Coincidentally, Flip Pallot, who was then a South Florida banker, financed Jose’s first professional guide boat at age eighteen.
Jose, even at an early age, began to create lifetime relationships with others that would benefit many. Stu Apt taught young Jose to pole, Flip Pallot taught him the fine art of bonefishing and Lefty Kreh introduced him to the perfect fly cast. “They were my inspiration and my heroes. They showed me that you can turn your passion for fishing into a successful career,” Jose said.
In his early teens, Jose purchased his first boat with the money he earned working at a gas station. The small Crosby skiff prompted him to leave the land behind and combine his love of the water into a weekend business spear fishing and diving for tropical fish for extra money. During this time he was able to log many hours on the water and work towards his Captain’s license, which he received at age eighteen. This is when he began his career as an inshore charter captain.
For several years he worked full-time at the Miami Seaquarium, starting as a diver, then moved up to working with and training marine mammals. His time working “hand and fin” with dolphins and sea lions only increased his fascination and desire to learn more about the world under the water. On his days off he would guide the local waters of South Florida.
His true passion was being on the water everyday, so Jose decided to fulfill his dream and became a full-time guide. He navigated and fished his backyard waters of Biscayne Bay with ventures to Florida Bay, Everglades City and the Florida Keys. “The best thing about fishing for me was exploring and finding new spots,” explains Jose. “At the time, there were still relatively unfished areas and if you worked hard enough, you could find a few secret spots of your own.”
In the late 70’s, Stu Apt recruited him for a job working on an offshore boat in northwest Bahia Pez Vela, Costa Rica. Stu had recognized Jose’s talents as an extraordinary fisherman, his skill for speaking two languages and his friendly candor and universal appeal. The native fishermen were good, but none had been exposed to some of the new styles of light tackle and fly-fishing that the American tourists were wanting.
After continuing his travels to other hot fishing destinations such as Venezuela and Cabos San Lucas, Jose absorbed the locals’ knowledge and techniques as well as gaining experience and time running the larger offshore boats. Each place he fished, he would exchange information and bring back new ideas to his local Florida waters. He learned different ways to fish each species and tried out-of-the-box techniques that often proved quite productive. With his open mind and new techniques, he got results and people were starting to notice.
A few years later, Jose purchased his first offshore boat and began to fish both inshore and offshore year round. He would impress his clients with new creative and interactive ways of fishing and used many methods to catch the same species. “At the time, being a guide was not as prestigious as it is today,” Jose explained. “There wasn’t as much business, so the way to build repeat clients, you really had to show them some unusual and exciting ways of fishing.”
At the time, the popularity of fishing and tournament activity was on the rise in the Keys. “The tournaments made you a better fisherman in a shorter period of time. You had to know your waters, you had to know your fish and you had to know your angler’s capabilities.”
His brief stint of fishing tournaments around the Keys proved highly successful. He took first place in the Fishing International Tarpon tournament two years in a row with angler Del Brown, first place in the Islamorada Bonefish Tourney with angler Bill Levy and placed in many other tournaments around the Keys.
During the early and mid 80’s, the fishing industry was on the cusp of a development boom of light-tackle techniques. According to Jose, “We were just catching a lot of big fish on light lines” and that brought the attention of the sponsors. At this time, he worked hard to build relationships with industry leaders such as Shimano, Mercury and different boat manufacturers. He immersed himself in all aspects of fishing including field-testing tackle, working boat shows and writing reports and articles on his research and findings. By being proactive and paying his dues in time and hard work, Jose earned the respect of the industry.
At this time, long-time friend and mentor, Flip Pallot, had the award winning show, The Walker’s Cay Chronicles, and invited Jose to fish with him. Because of Jose’s extensive travels, unique way of interactive fishing and his natural ability on camera, it made for perfect TV. “You can’t fake that kind of camaraderie. You have two people in a boat catching fish and having fun; it comes across to the folks watching.” They filmed approximately twelve great shows together.
Eight years later, Jerry McKinnis one of ESPN’s top producers introduced him to the concept of the new, upcoming network of ESPN2. Jerry who had previously filmed several tournaments with Jose in the Keys, felt he would be a perfect host for the new network. Jerry’s intuition was that with Jose’s interactive style of fishing and the colorful personality, it would be the perfect match for television. Excited with the ultimate opportunity, in 1995, the first Spanish Fly episode was aired. Both the show and the network’s popularity exploded.
The show, named after his boat, was an opportunity and a porthole to show viewers what he had learned around the world. With Jose’s soft-spoken and articulate onscreen presence, Spanish Fly created the perfect mix of technique, entertainment value, breath taking scenery and a type of story telling communicated in Jose’s signature laid-back style. “I have always found it easier to show people what the coolest things about fishing are, rather than just tell them another fish story.”
Still approaching fishing as an adventure and exploration, the series visited both exotic and domestic locations and always kept an eye towards new and cutting edge techniques in both fishing and the filming. Coupled with spectacular cinematography and the unforgettable flamenco guitar soundtrack, Spanish Fly quickly became the number one rated fishing show.
“The biggest credit goes to the crew. Mike McKinnis, Shannon Nardi, Tim Schick, and Wes Miller all added the unique color, look and flair to the production. If ever there is a team effort sport, this is it,” says Jose. ”I am completely thankful to the producers, editors and camera crew for the success of the show.”
Jose had the ability to demonstrate to people why he fishes and unique situations anglers can encounter on the unpredictable and exciting salt waters. He would often show viewers how to fish for the same species on different tackle and use the same tackle for different species, with the end result to always increase fun factor.
He felt by teaching viewers by example and bringing more people into the sport of fishing, they would take better care of the environment in which they enjoy. The light-tackle saltwater guru is always encouraged the message of conservation.
Added in 2001, Jose created a series of short vignettes called Vida Del Mar that ran in between other outdoor shows on ESPN2. It is a 2-4 minute chronicle of breathtaking underwater footage of marine life. It reflected an interesting perspective on how life below the surface can make us all better fishermen.
Filled with the right combination of stunning footage and story telling, Vida Del Mar quickly became another huge success.
While Jose was not filming Spanish Fly, Jose found time to work for several charities including Make a Wish Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis and Big Brothers and Big Sisters. He felt strongly the importance to take the time to fish with kids and teach the next generation of anglers.
His personable character, and genuine compassion made him an inspiration to many. Jose lived life, and there were few things that he wanted to learn and didn’t peruse. Becoming a private piolet was one of them. The freedom offered by flying, was comparable to being on the water. On April 6, 2012 friends, family, and fans were shocked to hear the tragic news. Shortly after take off Jose’s plane crashed in Everglades City. Jose was the only person in the plane, and did not survive.
The loss of a man like Jose was tragic. Fans felt moved and connected to Jose. Friends’ loss a brother. As family man Jose was the best son, brother, and father one could ever ask for. We were all inspired by Jose no matter what your relationship was with him. Spanish Fly was not Jose, it is a lifestyle. He shared his lifestyle with everyone who watched. No matter your location, or job if you shared the same passions as he did you have the Spanish Fly with in you.