An Interview with Bob Hewes

Bob Hewes invented the boat that invented the sport. In this interesting Q&A; by Key West Citizen outdoor writer Ben Iannotta, Hewes credits FFSW editor-at-large Lefty Kreh with helping give him the inspiration for the first boat, as well as talking about his experiences during World War II and how the Hewes Boat Company got into shallow-water fishing. Visit the Key West Citizen at www.keysnews.com. Built to last: A veteran's reflections in the water Bob Hewes, 83, designed the first Hewes Bonefisher flats boat four decades ago not because he was a bonefisherman but because he was a boatman. He couldn't resist a challenge. Shallow-water anglers wanted a boat that would float shallow, make sharp turns without skidding, and give a reasonably dry ride. Today, the work of Bob Hewes can be seen directly and indirectly in the work of dozens of flats boat manufacturers. His father, Lew, began selling boats near Waukegan, Illinois, more than 80 years ago. When Bob Hewes returned from World War II, the family consolidated the business in Miami, where Lew Hewes had operated a shop in the winters. Before the Memorial Day weekend, I sat down with Bob Hewes and his wife Ida of 61 years at their part-time residence on Big Pine Key. Ida Hewes helped me communicate with her husband who is now almost completely deaf. We talked about boats, cochlear implants and Bob Hewes' place among the Greatest Generation. Q: I understand you fought in World War II. A: Yes. My second ship, the [escort aircraft carrier] Petrof Bay saw some of the bloodiest battles of World War II: Leyte Gulf; Luzon; Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It was unbelievable what we went up against with that ship. Q: What did you do aboard the Petrof Bay? A: When a plane would land on the wooden deck, sometimes it would bounce and dig up the deal. We'd repair those places with quarter-inch boilerplate. It took 10 people to carry one of these things and nail it into the deck. Q: How did you damage your hearing? A: A kamikaze had got the carrier along side of us, and they had dropped a 500-pound bomb along side our ship. The guy says, "Hewes, it's raining." I said, "You dumb sonuva--, have a look." The guy jumped on the gun. The plane was three or four miles out. He didn't fire in bursts as we were taught. He burned the barrel up. We had helmets on. We were all set. But no cotton in my ears. Three days later, I went to sickbay because I couldn't hear. The corpsman went down in my ear with a steel rod, and of course, messed up my ear. I could hear in the other ear, but not real good. Q: How did your Navy career end? A: I put in for advanced aviation machinist mate school at Great Lakes Illinois, which was 40 miles from Hewes Boat Company. On my second day, the snow fell, the ear was aching, and I went down to sickbay. The commander looked at me and said, "Son, you've had enough. Eight battles. We're sending you home." I was just 21 years old. Q: Do you have any medals? A: No. I had a couple rows of ribbons, and we got the Presidential Unit Citation. I was just tickled to death to be able to come home. You don't know how many people didn't. Hundreds were killed on those dives with the kamikazes. Q: Tell me the story of the Bonefisher, A: You're familiar with Lefty Kreh, the greatest fly fisherman in the world? Q: Right. A: Lefty was the manager of the Miami Met fishing tournament. They gave him a Boston Whaler and a 40-horsepower Johnson through our dealership. Lefty took Ida and I fishing out of Cudjoe Key, and we ended up back on the Contents. Lefty threaded a live shrimp on and said, "Go out on the flat, there's [bonefish] out there." I just started walking, and he said, "...you're going to spook every fish from here to Key West!" I tiptoed the flat and by the time I got there, they were in Key West. I could see then that this was an entirely different breed than the general fishing person. Q: So you decided to build a boat for that type of fishing? A: Yes, we had built fiberglass boats, runabouts, and we cut that down to a ski boat for my daughter [Lorrie Wiborg] who was a tournament water skier. She was the city champion; state champion; the nine- state overall champion; and the junior girls national jump champion. That boat was fantastic as far as turning and everything. I asked Lefty, "If you could have anything you want in a boat, how would you set it up?" He said put a 10-inch gunwale on it. I said I never saw a 10-inch gunwale. He said, "Are you asking me or are you telling me?" I shut up and started building the boats. I had a lot of help from Lefty and his neighbor, Bob Stearns, the writer and lecturer, and the best guide at the time, Bill Curtis. We took that ski boat and made it into the bonefish boat. Q: How did you know when you got the boat right? A: We used to take the boat down to Key West and run out to Cosgrove [Shoal] on it. One time the motor came loose. I kept going. I wanted to pound the transom. The way I used to demonstrate a boat, I would drive my wife half crazy, and she'd say you're scaring these people half to death. And I still like to run a boat hard. Q: I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you love boats. A: [Looks out the window.] That's the Robalo. That's Bob Hewe's last hoorah for a boat. I looked three years before I bought it. I don't know if you're familiar with the bottom, but the boat has 21 degrees on the center, then it steps down to 19, then it steps down to 17. Most boats you're familiar with, the big ones, are 24 degrees of V. They rock too much. Ben Iannotta is a freelance journalist and flats fishing guide. He can be reached at biannotta@aol.com.