Folio Weekly: What do you do for a living?
Chuck Chambliss: Commercial spearfisherman.
What kind of fish do you go after?
We target bottom fish, which are grouper, hogfish and snapper. That’s our target fish. We shoot amberjacks also. They don’t pay as much, but they fill the bucket up.
What does each different fish bring in?
Grouper is like $5 a pound and better. Snapper’s $5 a pound, hogfish is $3.50 a pound, mango snapper’s right around $3.50 a pound — you know, it all varies. Jacks are like $1.50 to $1.75 a pound. But you can get a 100-pound jack. You can get a 100-pound grouper, but there’re more 100-pound jacks out there. Lobster sells for $18 a pound for tails only. They sell for $30 a pound in the supermarket.
And you kill them with a spear gun underwater.
You gotta scuba dive, anywhere from 80 feet to 180 feet. We would like to stay shallow, but the fish here tend to be bigger, not quite as spooky — meaning the fish know what’s up; if they see a diver with a spear gun in his hand, they know to get the hell away from him — because of all the recreational stuff going on around here. We go out to where the fish have never seen a diver before. Sometimes we have to go into deep, deep, deep water.
How many fish do you catch?
I try to shoot 1,000 pounds of fish every four to six days. Ten boxes. A box is 100 pounds in fishermen’s terms. Good fish. A thousand pounds of jack ain’t a good paycheck. A thousand pounds of grouper? That’s a good payday.
You work long days?
All day long. I mean, I don’t get into the water until 9 a.m. because the sun has to come up a little bit [for us to] get some visibility. I’ll work ’til the sun goes down. Then we’ll sit down and fish for little fish at night, until about 11 p.m. I mean, if you’re out there, you might as well make money. If you don’t have bait in the water, you’re not making money. It’s not hard work.
How are spear-caught fish different?
Spear-caught fish die instantly. When you shoot ’em, they’re dead. There’s no lactic acid that builds up when the fish fights. People say that acid makes the fish taste not as good. It deteriorates the meat faster, and it doesn’t taste as sweet. The problem with long-line grouper is that it might have sat on the hook in the water dead. So you figure, sitting in 80 degree water, all day long, dead. That’s not good. The minute the blood quits pumping, the meat starts deteriorating. So it could have been sitting on the hook for 24 hours. Now all the upper-end restaurants in Miami and Tampa are selling this spear-caught fish deal, advertising that’s all they serve.
Do you get to take home some of your catch?
I gotta pay the boat the market price, but I shave a few pounds off. A 10-pound grouper might actually weigh 15 pounds. [Laughs.] I like hogfish. It can only be speared; they don’t eat the hook.
You’re also on TV?
I am on TV. I was asked to be on a reality TV show; they contacted me probably about three years ago.
When does your reality TV show air?
It’s called Catching Hell, it’s on the Weather Channel Sundays at 9 p.m. Those are when the new episodes are. They got reruns, too. It’s about commercial spearfishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
How did you end up on the show?
[The producers] came over here and they interviewed five guys, and they picked me and one other person to do the show. I thought about it a little while and thought, “Well, why not?”
What kind of questions did they ask you?
Oh gosh, I can’t remember. Sharks, have I ever seen ’em? Do sharks bother me? Tell me your most dangerous moment. Blah blah blah.
But it’s not filmed in Jacksonville?
We film down in Hudson, Florida. North of Tarpon Springs.
So a crew just followed you around?
They’ve got a chase boat, a nice-ass sportsman boat that follows us around with a camera crew. They’ve got about six or seven people on that boat. That boat had a captain, first mate, a producer, two underwater cameramen, a dive master, an above-water camera guy.
Plus a cameraman on your boat?
We’ve got a cameraman on our boat at all times. Three crewmembers and a cameraman who lives on the boat. Every time I go underwater, a cameraperson would be filming me and a dive master would be in the water for liability insurance. I had signed a no-risk waiver, so I took the whole risk on myself. But the camera people, being union, they had to have a dive master.
And they just followed you around? They didn’t start any trouble?
Oh, they involved themselves, all right. The cameraman’s got a bug in his ear, he’s wired, I’m wired, everybody’s wired on the boat, and the executive producer on the chase boat hears what we’re talking about, and he can talk to the cameraman. When he hears a good storyline being developed, he’ll tell the cameraman to prod us a little bit. “Tell us about that fish you missed down there, Chuck.” If we’re having a conflict between crewmembers, they’ll come in and aggravate that a little bit.
So the cameraman comes in pretending to be your fake friend?
There was this one cameraman who totally did not want to be our friend at all. He says, “That is not professional. I’m filming you and you’re not even supposed to have any idea that I’m there.”
Was he a dick?
No, he was actually a cool dude. He was all right. We got along good.
What about the other cameraman?
Oh, Zach, he actually worked on The Deadliest Catch for a few seasons. They had some really good production guys. Really good cameramen.
Do they ever tell you the show’s ratings or how many people are watching?
Well, the show just started two weeks ago. The ratings are good, The Weather Channel likes the ratings, but we’re only on the third episode.
The first episode aired June 1, but the show’s producers first contacted you three years ago?
Yeah, but we filmed last year. All these new episodes are from last fall.
So what happened in those two years?
They had to sell it. The production company [wasn’t] going to start making the show until they had somebody that wanted to buy the show. So finally The Weather Channel said they wanted to buy it.
Have you seen yourself on TV?
Yeah. It’s strange. They swear up and down they’re gonna make me look good — but I don’t know.
Do you get to see the episodes before they air?
No. They don’t even mail me a DVD disc to see it a day ahead of time.
Does what you see on TV measure up with what you actually experienced in real life?
There might not be that much drama. You gotta throw some of that drama in. They pick and prod to get us started.
You think they purposely made you angry?
They had a cast call of 9 a.m., and nobody starts filming until noon. So you sit in the hot-ass sun for three hours and you’re ready to cuss somebody out. So I dunno if they did that on purpose, but I think it was a game they learned in college somewhere.
Do you feel like a TV star?
Not yet. I’m not getting paid yet. When they pay me like a TV star, I’ll feel like a TV star. I probably would have made just as much money fishing as I did [on] the TV show.
Was it fun?
Oh yeah, it was real fun. Once I realized I was making reality TV and I wasn’t really a commercial fisherman anymore, I knew I had to switch it up just a little bit because I couldn’t actually just go down there like normal. They told me, “If you’re down there doing your job and a cameraman isn’t down there filming you, then you’re not doing your job.” So I ended up catching maybe half of what I normally catch. But every week I got a paycheck, which is kind of cool. Every week in commercial fishing, you don’t get a paycheck. You get a check at the end of the trip.
Do you ever see sharks in the water?
Every day. Just about every day.
Are you afraid of sharks?
No. Not until they start biting on me.