Reeling in $5,000 fish is just a small part of life on the water.
If you add it all up, the days and nights on the water, Captain TJ Ott has probably spent most of his 37 years on a boat.
The captain of the 39-foot Hot Tuna is a bear of a man with a scraggly beard who loves the Grateful Dead, and he'll be the first one to tell you without equivocation that his life as a commercial fisherman is a profession, but also a kind of addiction. All of it—the wind across the deck; the solitude of being out at a spot like Jeffreys Ledge in the Gulf of Maine; settled behind the wheel with a pair of Rottweilers named Reba and Ripple lounging at his heels, scanning the sonar screen—for a guy who grew up in the fishing community of Broad Channel, New York, it doesn't get any better than this.
But all that—that's just the waiting. When the action, happens, it's all of a sudden. One of the several rods they've set out will bend, and the crew bolts over to it, in a chaotic, adrenaline-fueled ballet they've executed hundreds of time. Hopefully, they've snagged the biggest prize—a bluefin tuna.
TJ was 12 years old when he caught his first bluefin. Catching one—the culmination of an epic man-vs.-nature battle that calls for baiting, harpooning and slinging a tail rope around one of these thousand-pounders—is what excites the captain of the Hot Tuna to keep getting out on the water. To spend maybe three nights on the boat searching, hoping, fighting to get that bite.
"It's like, in the fishing world, the equivalent of winning the Stanley Cup in hockey," TJ muses. "There's no greater fish in the ocean."
The right one can certainly fetch a princely sum. There's plenty of news stories about bluefin selling for crazy high prices in Japan. TJ throws out $5,000, just as a sample of what the fish can go for. Sometimes much higher.
"Pound for pound, they're probably the strongest fish in the ocean," he says. "They're super-beautiful. And very mysterious. You'll never quite figure them out."
Trolling the water for them certainly makes for good TV. The National Geographic Channel's Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks—a spinoff of NatGeo's hit series Wicked Tuna—chronicles that thrill of the chase for TJ, one of two Gloucester captains shown fishing for bluefin against some of their counterparts from the South. Currently in its fourth season, the spinoff has the fishermen down in the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina.
Granted, this is reality TV. Fishing is made as dramatic as possible. The fisherman are shown racing to catch the biggest and best fish, which they then haul back to shore to sell. The winner is whoever ends up pulling in the most dough from their catch.
The real-life version, of course, isn't so tidy as to fit within the confines of TV show.
Most anything we enjoy—a plate of food, a music performance —is the product of a lot of unseen tedium and stress and the grind that went into making it. A typical fishing day for TJ, as opposed to the abbreviated version seen on TV, is a little like that.
"What we normally do is, we'll get ice and fuel, and we'll anticipate being out three, four days," he explains. "Say we're running 60 miles. I'd leave around 2 o'clock in the afternoon and go about 10 knots, hoping to get to my destination right around sunset."
They'll deploy the anchor and let the big lights on the roof of the boat attract the herring and mackerel they'll collect to use as bait. Then start deploying the bait around sunrise.
"We're just on the anchor waiting for fish to kind of come to us and eat one of our baits," TJ says. "So, basically, it's a lot of sitting around, waiting to see if we're marking fish."
Once they get a fish close to the surface, they'll harpoon it. You don't have to, but they do it for safety reasons. These are big fish, wild and strong. Rope them, then take them to a fish hole on the boat with about 4,000 pounds of ice to cool them down.
There's a lot of managing the good and bad thoughts that take over during the down time. "I'm at peace out there," TJ says. "I'm calm. It's almost relaxing for me." He can also get anxious. Especially when he's not getting a bite. What am I doing wrong? Do I have the wrong bait out? The mind games kick in.
Stay calm, he has to remind himself. The rod's gonna bend. Don't fall in that trap of changing things up just to change them up. And be focused when the time comes. You fish for hours and finally get a bite and then lose it—"that's an even worse feeling," obviously, than the not knowing.
When it's all over, it's still not over. A good captain has to turn into something of a CFO. TJ might make, say, $100,000 in a given year. You pay the mates off the top. Expenses—insurance, fuel, ice, groceries, tackle, upkeep on the engine—that's about $30,000. You're left with maybe $52,000, not all of which is profit. You've also got to anticipate startup money needed for the next season.
"You've got to pinch pennies in this industry," he says. "It's a tough industry. There's nothing easy about it.
"I think NatGeo has it pretty well covered. They've done a good job showing the hardships. What people maybe don't see is the hours. You see some seasons are great, some are a struggle. It's not an easy racket."