“Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”
Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”
At 62, Frank Wilem is still far from retirement especially in spirit.
Consultant, motivational speaker, author, fisherman, diver and filmmaker are just some of the many titles that Wilem proudly wears as the co-owner and executive producer of “Gulf South Outdoors,” an award-winning fishing show based in Gulfport.
Along with TV producer veteran Barry Foster, Wilem is making sure everyone that tunes in learns something about one of Mississippi’s best kept secrets: deep sea fishing.
“I’ve loved the water my whole life,” the Chicago native says. “My parents are from Chesapeake Bay, Va. and my fondest memories are fishing there.”
Started in 2002 by the Addy and Telly award-winning Foster, the show has racked up 12 seasons worth of footage from expeditions throughout the Gulf Coast. Beginning mostly with inland fishing, Foster teamed up with Wilem in 2004 to add more deep sea content to the show.
Shooting is done with a small crew and handheld “reality TV” cameras aboard Wilem’s 56-foot Viking boat Vixen. “We have cameras installed on the outriggers and in the center,” Wilem says. “It’s set up to where you can operate them by remote.”
“Gulf South Outdoors” airs on local Fox affiliates in Gulfport, Columbus and Macon, Ga., and statewide on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. It has also been picked up nationally by the Pursuit Channel and have many of its expedition video blogs posted on YouTube. The show’s website includes dozens of “fish stories,” recipes and charter boat and fishing tournament information.
“We’re active with the Coastal Conservation Association and help with the sustainability of fishing down here,” Wilem says. A former commissioner with the Mississippi State Port Authority and chairman with the Gulfport Harbor Redevelopment, one of Wilem’s main civic goals is to leave the natural resources of the Gulf in better shape for his children and grandchildren and for future generations wanting to enjoy boating and fishing.
“The thing I like is the diversity,” Wilem says. “We’ll go out on the Vixen and spend a few days off shore and we’ll catch tuna, wahoo, billfish, marlin. Then the next day you come inland and can catch trout, redfish and flounder.”
Frank Wilem came to Mississippi in 1978 to work for the Computer Science Corp. at Stennis Space Center after earning degrees in electrical and ocean engineering and working in R&D for Texas Instruments and Chrysler. With $1,500 of seed money he founded Triton Systems Inc. in 1981 and grew the company from a startup to the largest ATM manufacturer in the country.
“One of the things I always wanted to do was have a boat to go blue water fishing and marlin fishing in,” Wilem says.
Wilem achieved his dream of landing Triton Systems on the coveted Inc. magazine “Inc. 500” within three years and pioneered efforts to make ATMs more readily available and cost-efficient for commercial markets like convenience stores, restaurants and casinos. The company grew to $100 million in sales and 400 employees before it was sold to Dover Industries in 2000.
His corporate days behind him, Wilem bought his boat and was soon fishing in the Gulf every chance he could get. Wilem and his crew can take Vixen from Gulfport as far out as 200 miles to a place in the Gulf called the Green Canyon.
As Hurricane Katrina approached in 2005, Wilem had to find a “hurricane hole” to leave Vixen in. “People tie their boats up alongside each other in a lake and run lines and lock them all together,” Wilem says. While Vixen didn’t get a scratch, the first floor of Wilem’s home was destroyed by a six-foot storm surge, and neighbors who stayed to ride out the storm had to swim from their homes. “It was pretty horrific,” Wilem says.
While Katrina was disruptive to infrastructure and shore life, the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and subsequent oil spill was a catastrophe for the Gulf’s fishing community. Wilem had fished around the Transocean-owned rig before but after the spill the whole area was shut down.
“We are working with people to understand that the fishing is as good as ever and the seafood is good to eat,” Wilem says.
Plans for the show this year include involvement in tournament partnerships like the Mississippi Gulf Coast Big Game Fishing Club and its 2013 Miller Lite Tournament Series and the Mississippi Bowfish Classic.
You can catch “Gulf South Outdoors” every Thursday at 7 p.m. on MPB.