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Hooked on Big Game Fishing

February 3, 2017


Until 1928 Ernest Hemingway was a writer who loved fresh water fishing. In high school he wrote for the school newspaper and the yearbook. His fishing experiences were from summers spent in the lake area of northern Michigan. He fished for anything that swam in the lakes, but particularly liked trout. Born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, he was the second of six children born to his doctor father and music teacher mother. The family spent every summer vacation at the summer cottage near Lake Michigan.


Hemingway took a job as a reporter for a local newspaper after high school graduation, went on to become a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I and received a silver medal from the Italian government for saving the life of an Italian soldier. He then became the Paris correspondent for a Canadian newspaper. He fished for trout in Canada, France and Spain. 


Hemingway’s newspaper writing experience defined his writing style – he wrote in the short sentence and powerful, action verb style that grabs a newspaper reader’s attention quickly. He had the gift of being a good listener. He would take away enough from a conversation to replicate the way people in his stories really spoke – it’s what gives writers credibility, and he had it.  Hemingway’s fishing style was to catch the fish faster, he used to say “Never give them a rest and never take one yourself. If you do they get the equivalent of five minutes for every one minute you take.” Not so different from his writing style, he was all action and power. He saw the need to dominate the fish.


By 1928 Hemingway and his wife had moved to Key West. It was there that Hemingway met Charles Thompson, who ran the local hardware store. Charles Thompson introduced Hemingway to big game fishing. Hemingway made other friends who all liked to fish and together, they would go out for days and weeks fishing for giant tuna and marlin in the Dry Tortugas, Bimini and Cuba. They called themselves “The Mob.”


In 1933 Hemingway landed a 468 pound marlin. In 1934 he bought the Wheeler Playmate that would be his only boat. With an advance from his “Esquire” Editor for future articles, Hemingway left the magazine office in Manhattan and headed for Coney Island. At the Wheeler Shipyard in Brooklyn he ordered a customized 38’ Wheeler Playmate. The order called for a black hull, a fish well, larger fuel tanks, 2400 pounds of ice capacity and 300 gallons of water. It would have two engines – a 75hp. Chrysler Crown for traveling and a 40hp. Lycoming for trolling. The aft cockpit would be cut down for fishing and a roller set up on the stern to maneuver the heavy fish into the boat. It cost $7,495 in 1934. In today’s dollars it would cost $135,000. Later a flying bridge with controls and a car steering wheel, a fighting chair and outriggers would be added.


Hemingway called her “Pilar,” also the name he used for the heroine in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and what he called his wife Pauline. The boat was delivered to Miami by rail and taken to Key West by Hemingway. After using the boat, Hemingway wrote his “Esquire” Editor and told him he could troll for ten hours a day on less than 20 gallons of gas. 


Although his boat, built and outfitted in the 1930s, was dated and he could have easily afforded a new Rybovich or other current boat, Hemingway loved “Pilar.” He loved running her himself and fishing from her. She was the one constant in his life as jobs, homes and wives changed. He discovered the peace you find out in the ocean. It’s more than loving fishing. It’s the boat, the water and the freedom you feel as you watch the shoreline disappear. On their way out to the Gulfstream Hemingway sat in the cockpit, looked over the side and told a reporter sent to interview him, “I need this.”


In 1935 Hemingway won every tournament in the Key West – Havana – Bimini triangle. In 1938 he caught a world record seven marlin in one day. His personal bests were caught in Bimini, a 542 lb Blue marlin and a 786 lb Mako shark.  


Hemingway felt strongly about the need to keep track of fishing records and his discussions with Michael Lerner about starting an organization to do that led to the founding by Lerner of the International Game Fishing Association. In 1940 Hemingway became one of the early Vice Presidents of IGFA and proudly retained that title until he died even though as an officer, he was not eligible to hold fishing records. He was inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame in January 2000. 


In 1950 Hemingway’s boat represented the International Yacht Club of Havana, one of 36 boats participating in the first International Billfishing Tournament, sailing out of Havana Harbor, Cuba. After Hemingway won the cup for the first three tournaments, a group of fishermen proposed renaming the tournament the “Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament.


Hemingway lived across from the Key West Lighthouse until 1939. As Key West became more popular as a vacation destination and Hemingway’s writing became more famous, tourists would look for him. Hemingway needed space, a more peaceful place to work and relax and by 1940 he had moved to Cuba. During the time Hemingway lived in Key West he met a ship captain with a six-toed cat. Hemingway loved animals. Before the captain’s next trip he decided Snow White would have a better home with Hemingway on Key West. There are now multiple generations of polydactyl cats in Key West and Havana.


During World War II Hemingway became a war correspondent for “Collier’s” magazine. When he wasn’t traveling for Collier’s, he had outfitted “Pilar” with guns to hunt German submarines and would cruise around off the coast of Cuba. Although he never found or shot any Germans or their submarines, he was awarded the Bronze Star in 1947.


Hemingway was known to get even with sharks that damaged his catch. He kept a Thompson submachine gun on “Pilar” and used it to get rid of sharks that threatened his fish.


In 1961 when revolutionaries took over the government in Cuba and took possession of his house, Hemingway left Cuba. It must have been hard to leave – he loved Cuba and had written seven of his books there. The Cuban people loved him and still do. He was not in good health, suffering from depression and alcoholism. He had injuries from World War I and two plane crashes, a ruptured kidney, a cracked skull, compressed and cracked vertebra, burns, head wounds and shrapnel in his legs and a shot-off kneecap. After moving from Cuba to Idaho, Hemingway shot himself. He was given a Catholic burial as the Church judged him not to have been in his right mind when it happened.


In 2013 Papa’s PILAR Rum, a super-premium rum, was developed in conjunction with the Ernest Hemingway Estate. The estate donates 100% of their royalty rights to adventure, conservation and literacy organizations. By the end of 2013 the family had donated $30,000 to IGFA.


At the Islamorada Bass Pro Shop there is a Sister Ship to “Pilar” on display. The original “Pilar” was donated by Hemingway’s widow to its former captain, Gregorio Fuentes. It currently sits on the tennis courts at Hemingway’s house in Cuba. The Hemingway villa, Finca Vigia, was donated by Hemingway’s widow after his death to the Cuban people. Over a million dollars has been spent by the Cuban government to rehab the villa and restore the boat and grounds to their original condition. Now a museum, Finca Vigia is the most popular museum in Cuba.


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