He walked into the sports department one evening wet from the waist down. "What happened to you," I asked the teenage copy clerk with a smile as big as the Gulf of Mexico.
"Snook took me into some dock pilings," Jon West responded. "I had to go after it."
He had many names — mate, husband, fishing buddy, tournament angler, outdoors writer — but I think I liked Jonny Kingfish the best. That's how he'd often sign his e-mails, written late at night, detailing the excitement of that morning's catch.
Jon West was many things to many people. But the 45-year-old, who died Friday after a long battle with cancer, will most likely be remembered by friends and family as the King of Fishermen, for those who knew and loved him would agree that no one before or after was so deserving of the title.
"The thing you remember most about Jon was his smile," said Dave Mistretta, captain of the charter boat Jaws Too. "It was no ordinary grin. It was a big, juicy, red-apple biting smile, the kind that leaves juice dripping down your beard, for all the world to see, but Jon didn't care because he was happy, happy as a man can be."
As Jon often liked to say, he was "born and raised within a bike ride of Boca Ciega Bay." He began his writing career in 1989 at the St. Petersburg Times where his daily fishing reports dripped with action and adventure reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway on a good day.
His writing earned several awards from the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and he soon landed a job as the founding editor of Fishing the Florida Keys magazine. It didn't take long for Jon to find all the secret spots from Islamorada to Key West. So he bought a Volkswagen Westfalia and along with his wife, Christine, dog Marley and 13 fishing rods, drove the back roads all the way to Alaska.
"A year on the road, young and free, we did anything we wanted … it was magical," Christine said. "We did fit in a few rock concerts along the way as well because it was our love of music that bonded us. We always had concert tickets in hand. It was nothing for us to fly standby on a whim because a band was playing in Atlanta, L.A., Colorado or Costa Rica."
When Jon returned to the Tampa Bay area, he resumed his writing career, publishing in all of the major national sport fishing magazines. He also started manning the main deck for Mistretta, the hardest-working charter boat captain on the west coast of Florida.
"It was never about the money with Jon, it was always about the experience, whether we were pulling stone crab traps, running daily charters or fishing big-money kingfish tournaments," Mistretta said. "He just loved the excitement of it all, living life to its fullest, every minute of every day, always going all out, all the way."
Throwing a cast net on a cold, winter morning, Jon never wavered, never complained. As long as he was fishing, the smile stayed the same.
"There are people in life that you never forget and Jon West was one of them," said Jill Foraker of the Old Salt Fishing Foundation. "He could brighten your day even if you didn't want him too. His passion — be it for life, music, fishing, writing and of course his friends and family — was palpable. Simply put, he was a lover and a giver and the world will be forever touched by him."
Jon left the Jaws Too team to start a local fishing magazine, Saltwater Angler, with Paul Arcos, then ended up running the creative department of an international publishing company that produced books for the NFL and the U.S. military.
When West became ill, the Old Salts rallied to his side. They hosted a fundraiser and Jon tried to explain his passion for the sport: "Since I was a kid reading every fishing magazine I could get my hands on, my heroes have always been fishermen. … And now, as I enter a fight for my life, it is once again the fishermen and captains who are my heroes, helping me through this rough spot."
Mistretta said he hopes those who knew and loved his friend will follow West's example and live life to its fullest.
"Find yourself a big old juicy red apple and take a bite," he said. "Now when the juice starts running down your chin, resist the urge to wipe it off. Just smile … a big ol' apple eatin' grin and think of Jon."