PANAMA CITY, Fla. — A white scar carved across Carl Roby’s hand tells the story of the time a tuna, a creature he has spent decades harvesting, almost won.
It was late. He and his crew were pulling in the miles’ worth of line they strung out earlier that day with hundreds of hooks. It’s methodical work, pulling the line in hand-over-hand and raveling it back onto the spools. The bright spot is when a yellowfin tuna, sleek, strong and worth hundreds, glimmers just under the water.
Roby had been fishing for decades at this point. He started as a teenager in the 1970s when regulations weren’t as confining, spending summers working on charter boats out of Captain Anderson’s Marina. He liked it, and eventually he moved on to bigger fish — yellowfin tuna.
“I like catching big fish,” he said, while chain smoking. “I couldn’t give a s— less about catching a red snapper. I like catching big fish, and I don’t like being too close to land.”
Tuna are a prize fish. A top tier tuna, with bright red, nicely marbled meat, is worth thousands on the sushi market. A tier two fish — most of what Roby and his crew on the Cynthia Renee docked at the St. Andrews Marina pull in — makes a nice steak and is worth hundreds. And tier three fish, while still good eating, are worth less, and Roby said he doesn’t catch many of them.
Normally when a tuna is reeled in mates come running over. They gaffe the fish — one hook on each side — and pull the hundred-pound animal over the side of the boat and quickly slaughter it before it can hurt them.
But the day Roby got his scar — at this point fishing in South America — something went wrong. His hand was wrapped in a loop in the line, and the fish, almost sensing its opportunity, dove. Roby, pulled from his boat, had no choice but to go along for the ride.
“It got cold quick. Real quick,” Roby said.
Blood, Roby said, was pouring from his hand — which was cut “to the bone” — obscuring his vision as he tried to watch the fish swim. The fish pulled Roby to almost the end of the line, while the crew on board scrambled to reel.
Finally, after just enough time for Roby to contemplate his own death, his crew got the upper hand. Initially, though, that wasn’t much better.
“Now, these guys on the boat are pulling, and I am about to drown from them,” he said, recalling how the water swelled up around him. “I’m yelling and swearing.”
But eventually they landed him on the boat — saving his life — and leaving him to fish again.
“I believe him,” said Lark Napier, who wasn’t there but has been fishing with Roby for eight years. “He wouldn’t make it up.”
Things like this happen, said Napier, who remembered the time a fish nearly pulled him in. And then, he said, there are other flukes, like the time a 22-foot shark, longer than the boat, was reeled in as bycatch. Luckily, Napier said, the shark was docile, and Roby said bycatch has become increasingly rare with increased regulations.
Even with the risks and the regulations that have knocked many commercial fishermen out of the game, Roby has simply always loved his job, spending weeks on the water with his crew looking for fish. Sometimes the pay is good and everyone makes a $1,000 or so; other times the fishing is bad and the crew makes a meager $9 each for their work, as happened recently. Sometimes he’s in the tropics buying a bigger boat; other times he’s selling and downsizing because fuel prices rose and he needs to make ends meet. Sometimes he’s in trouble with the federal government; sometimes he’s a piloting a new program.
But he’s always on the water, and he’s always fishing.
“Why do I do it? To catch fish. And there’s pretty damn nice sunrises and sunsets. You haven’t seen once til you’ve been offshore,” he said. “Out there, there’s nothing in your way.”
“With a good crew, I will gentleman fish,” he continued, chucking to himself. “I will just gentleman fish.”
Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com