For more than 10 hours, Captain Johnny Johnson Jr. battled the 1,236-pound tuna as it pulled his boat, the Subdivider, more than 12 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
It is his largest catch to date.
“This is hardcore work. It’s very intense. You are in very serious water, fighting an animal that will take your life,” Johnson said with a gravelly Southern twang. “This is dangerous work, but it’s my passion. When that rod bends over I still get butterflies in my stomach just like I’m a kid.”
Johnson, a Decatur native, will share that passion with a TV audience in the Discovery Channel’s new series “All on the Line.”
The reality show described by Johnson as “a day in the life of a tuna fisherman” premieres Friday at 8 p.m. and follows two crews in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Filming took place last August.
For Johnson, the show represents the next chapter in a lifelong fishing tale, which started on the Tennessee River and included stops in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii and the Atlantic Ocean near Massachusetts.
As a child, Johnson watched his father, Johnny Johnson Sr., land two world records — an 87.8-pound catfish on a 12-pound test line and a 68.7-pound catfish on an 8-pound test line.
“After my dad caught those I was hooked on big fish,” Johnson said. “He took me fishing all the time. After my parents divorced, I begged my mom (June Hall) to take me fishing when I was with her too. I said, ‘If you’ll take me fishing, I’ll bait your hook and take your fish off for you.’ It was my favorite thing to do.”
While Johnson loved to fish, not until he visited Hawaii as part of the Grateful Dead’s road crew did he consider becoming a professional angler.
“In Hawaii, I caught a 228-pound yellowfin tuna. Once I caught that big tuna, I knew it was something I was going to do for the rest of my life,” said Johnson.
Instead of returning to Alabama to finish up his architecture degree at Auburn University, Johnson held a garage sale at his Decatur home to raise money to move to Hawaii.
He packed his van full of necessary items, drove to Los Angeles and sailed, van and all, to Hawaii. That was more than three decades ago and Johnson’s been chasing big fish since.
“The second day I went fishing in Hawaii, the captain broke his back. The boat owner asked me if I could run the boat. I was young and foolish and said, ‘Of course I can.’ I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I grew up on the Tennessee River and there I was in Hawaii. But I learned,” Johnson said.
During his 23 years in Hawaii, Johnson started the Hawaii Tuna Company and shipped tuna all over the United States, Mexico and South America. While in Hawaii chasing yellowfin tuna, Johnson learned of the larger and rarer bluefin tuna in the Atlantic Ocean, which can bring in $20,000 per catch.
An adventure-lover fueled by the hunt, Johnson booked a trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts. On the second day of his trip, Johnson hooked an 847-pound bluefin tuna.
“I came home and I said, ‘Mom, déjà vu. I’m having a garage sale and moving to Gloucester,’” said Johnson, who moved to Massachusetts a decade ago and founded the Gloucester Charter Connection.
As a commercial fisherman, Johnson serves as a guide for amateur anglers.
During a typical Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing season, which runs from June 1 to late November, Johnson works 24 hours a day, seven days a week and leads 140 fishing trips.
“When the fish come you have to catch as many as you can because you only have six months to make your living for the whole year,” Johnson said. “Bluefin tuna fishing is not like fishing in the Tennessee River. You don’t just drop your line in and get a bite. This is a hunt.”
In the 2½ minutes after the tuna bites the bait — a period Johnson describes as “controlled chaos” — he has to clear his other lines, drop the anchor and start chasing the fish. If not, the fish, which is traveling up to 60 mph when it hits the line, will strip the reel’s 1,500 yards of line — equivalent to 15 football fields.
“My 1,236 pounder took me 10 hours and 37 minutes to get to the top of the water. The smaller fish, the 600 and 700 pounds, can take two to four hours to get to the top of the water. It is a battle, an intense battle,” Johnson said.
A couple of years ago, a person connected with Raw TV chartered Johnson’s boat and caught a bluefin tuna weighing over 1,100 pounds.
“He called Raw TV and told them about me. They asked if I would be interested in traveling all over the world and going after different species of fish trying to break the world record. I told them that if they really wanted to see true, hardcore fishing, they needed to come to Gloucester,” Johnson said.
After seeing the pilot filmed by Raw TV, the Discovery Channel — the station behind “Deadliest Catch,” “Gold Rush,” “Moonshiners” and “Alaskan Bush People" — picked up the show.
During the 2019 fishing season, a producer, sound man and cameraman spent seven-and-a-half weeks on the Subdivider with Johnson and two mates. The crew also filmed on the Julia Nicole with fourth-generation fisherman 18-year-old Danny Smith and his father Dan Smith Sr. The boats work together to locate schools of bluefin tuna.
Through the show, Johnson hopes to spread awareness about the conservation efforts surrounding bluefin tuna, which, years ago, bordered on the edge of extinction because of overfishing.
“People were catching entire schools of fish with nets. When you do that, there are none left to spawn. Congress passed legislation that prohibited net boats. In the last 10-12 years, the tuna population has grown,” Johnson said. “People need to see the importance of taking care of our planet and oceans and building a sustainable bluefin industry.”
Along with raising awareness, an inner competition fuels Johnson, who, like his father, dreams of setting a world record.
“The world record for bluefin tuna is 1,496. I know I’m going to break it one day. I’ve had the world record on my line twice. I will land him and I will catch him. It will be a battle,” Johnson said.
For more on the show and Johnson, visit facebook.com/crewsofALLONTHELINE.