President Bush had a secret hideaway in Florida. And it didn’t always treat him well

President George H. Bush fishing in the Keys C 1990. Gift Jeanette Gato.
President George H. Bush fishing in the Keys C 1990. Gift Jeanette Gato. / Miami Herald File

Most presidents have their favorite hideaways.

For Donald Trump, it’s Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. For George H.W. Bush, it was the waters of the Florida Keys, where he went bonefishing starting in the 1980s.

Bush loved the sport, but he didn’t always succeed — even in his own tournament. Sometimes he came up empty. Other times, the fish slipped away.

But he did finally catch one, and it was a presidential milestone moment.

With the death of the 41st president last week and his funeral this week, here is a look back from the Miami Herald archives at his adventures through the years in the waters off Islamorada.

Former President George Bush speaks on a cellular phone just after finishing the first day of angling at the George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2000, in the Florida Keys, near Islamorada, Fla. The event, which concludes Wednesday, will raise funds for The Nature Conservancy and Bush’s presidential library. (AP Photo/Andy Newman) ANDY NEWMAN AP File

Finally, Bush catches a fish

October, 1998: Former President George Bush finally broke his fishless streak Wednesday in the tournament named for him. For the first time in the five-year history of the George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament, the honoree caught and released a bonefish — a hefty 13-pounder.

The catch was good for second place in the general division finish in the two-day competition that began Tuesday. “It was a real saga and a great thrill,” Bush said. “Now I can go back to Texas, with head high.” Bush’s fish came during the tournament’s final hour and ties his largest previous Keys catch. He has been bonefishing in the Keys since the 1980s.

Former President George Bush retrieves his bait off Islamorada Key, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1997, during the first day of the George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament in the Florida Keys. Behind Bush is former treasury secretary Nicholas Brady and, at rear, George Hommell, a longtime Bush friend and Keys fishing guide. Bush was unsuccessful in catching a bonefish Wednesday but predicted that the final day of the tournament, Thursday, would provide better results. The contest which has attracted 56 anglers serves as a fund-raiser for The Nature Conservancy and Bush’s forthcoming library center. (AP Photo/Florida Keys Tourism Bureau, Andy Newman) ANDY NEWMAN AP File

Gone fishin’ — but where are the fish?

October 1997: Five years after his re-election bid failed, former President George Bush is dividing his time between being statesman and fisherman.

Bush, 73, spent this week combining both pastimes: He held a bonefish tournament at Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge Wednesday and Thursday to raise money for his library/museum/research center due to open Nov. 6 at Texas A&M.

Bush went fishless in both days of the tournament.

“We saw fish all day,” he said Thursday. “We just couldn’t get them on the line.” On Wednesday, Bush hooked two bonefish, but lost both.

His fishing partner, former treasury secretary Nicholas Brady, also was shut out. They were guided by captain George Hommell. John Langes of Ann Arbor, Mich., caught the largest bonefish in the George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament — 12 pounds, 6 ounces — with captain Ken Knudsen. Former Olympic skier Andy Mill, husband of tennis great Chris Evert, got the largest bonefish on fly rod — a 12-pounder. Mill was guided by captain Bob Branham. Tom Schaf of Chicago caught the largest fish overall -- a permit weighing 28 pounds, 6 ounces. His guide was captain John Sutter. A total of 53 anglers competed.

Bush has been fishing in the Keys nearly every year since 1980 with Brady. “I love coming to the Keys. I like bonefishing,” Bush said Wednesday.

Since leaving the White House, the former president has taken up fly fishing with grandson Jebbie, 13, whose dad Jeb is running for Florida governor. “He’s an excellent fly caster,” Bush said of his grandson.

“Watching him catch fish is a big thrill.” Bush has caught Arctic char, striped bass, redfish, bluefish and trout on fly. But he has yet to get a bonefish using the long rod.

“I never tried to catch a bonefish on fly,” Bush said. “Hommell prefers spincasting. One day I will. I’d love to do it.” His largest bonefish -- caught using shrimp for bait at Islamorada — weighed 12 pounds. He also has caught permit and tarpon on bait in the Keys.

Bush took up fishing at age 5 in Kennebunkport, Maine. “We’d fish for mackerel using a silver jig with a piece of shirttail,” Bush recalled. “Now there’s a huge stock of striped bass. I can walk out of our house and onto the rocks and catch a nice striped bass with a 9- or 10-weight [rod] and a streamer fly.

Former President Bush, right, light tackle fishing guide George Hommell, left, and the president’s grandson, Jeb Bush, get ready to release two live permit fish that the president and his grandson caught Tuesday, Aug. 22, 1995 while competing in the George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament in the Florida Keys. ANDY NEWMAN AP File

An escape before taking office

The weekend before perhaps the biggest day of his life, President-elect George Bush will be fishing in the Florida Keys. Bush, who will be sworn in as the nation’s 41st president Jan. 20, will arrive in Islamorada on Jan. 13 for three days of fishing and relaxation before returning to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15, White House officials said Tuesday.

At the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, General Manager Herbert Spiegel confirmed that a block of 65 rooms has been reserved by Bush’s office for the Martin Luther King birthday holiday weekend.

Bush, however, probably will stay at the private residence of friends. The 65 rooms will be used by Secret Service agents and members of the news media, according to the White House.

Boca Cheeca officials refused to comment on how much the rooms would cost.

Kristin Taylor, spokeswoman for the president-elect, said Bush plans to make occasional recreational trips to Florida during his presidency. “He loves it down there. He thrives on it. He enjoys the open air and sunshine and waves; and fishing is his favorite outdoor activity,” Taylor said.

Bush has visited Islamorada at least five times and he has stayed at three places. During his last visit to Islamorada in April, Bush stayed at the Tarpon Flats, a condominium on the bay side of the island.

Bush quickly is earning a reputation as an all-around sports enthusiast and is especially well-known as an angler. Many of his trips as vice president and president-elect have involved fishing. Just after his election, Bush relaxed in the Palm Beach County community of Ocean Ridge, where he spent hours waist-deep in water with a fishing pole.

And last week he went bass fishing in Pintlala, Ala., after a quail hunt in Texas. Islamorada resident and long-time Bush friend George Hommell said the president-elect likes to fish for tarpon, a fish that can weigh more than 100 pounds. He also likes to catch bonefish, a much smaller fish that weighs 10 to 15 pounds but is a nasty fighter.

“He’s not only good, he’s lucky,’ said Hommell, 61, owner of Wild World Sportsman in Islamorada. “He’s a sportsman. When he comes down here, we talk about fishing. Politics stays home.”