Tyler McLaughlin is on the young side for his occupation, but the captain of the tuna boat Pin Wheel on National Geographic Television's reality show "Wicked Tuna" doesn't shrink from the competition.
"I may only be 25, but I can fish as good as the 50-year-olds do," McLaughlin said in a recent interview.
McLaughlin and his two first mates, Alex Whitney, 24, and Adam Moser, 25, are the newest additions to the reality show that follows the adventures of several tuna boats out of Gloucester. It's the show's second season, and McLaughlin's first.
But the three young college grads from New Hampshire are giving the seasoned tuna fishermen from Gloucester a run for their money. The crew of the Pin Wheel, which sails out of Rye Harbor, N.H., is currently in second place on the leader board, with 11 tuna worth just over $60,000, close behind first place FV-Tuna.Com, captained by Dave Carraro, who has caught 12 tuna, worth around $74,000. McLaughlin and Carraro have been battling for the top spot all season, swapping first and second place. And with the two top boats running neck and neck the competition to be number one is likely to go down to the wire before the season ends on May 12.
"Me and 'dot-com' go at each other's throats," said McLaughlin. "He's the most talented tuna fisherman on the show besides me. He's textbook, but I'm more versatile. I can stay with him though. He's got nothing on me."
And it's McLaughlin's confidence and competitive spirit that have brought him success — and some criticism from the other captains. It's clear from watching the show and listening to the stream of expletives that the other crews regard him as a cocky upstart and, being from New Hampshire, an outsider in the Bay State's fishing capital.
Asked if the competition with the veteran tuna fishermen is real, Moser said, "Absolutely. Tyler lets them know he's coming after them. Some of the older men might not be so happy with him, but that's the way it is."
And the competition seems to extend to "Wicked Tuna" fans as well, with some expressing admiration for the young captain, but with other viewers posting some pretty nasty comments about McLaughlin on the National Geographic blog site. "Preppy, smart-mouthed punk," "punk kid," "rich kid who's [sic] daddy gives him anything he wants."
McLaughlin says the postings don't really bother him. But, he adds, "Say what you want. Do you really know me? Just because I'm on TV doesn't mean you know me."
In fact, McLaughlin said he's worked hard for what he's got. "I fished my way through college. I paid a lot of my college off by fishing for tuna."
McLaughlin earned a degree in business management at Nichols College in 2011, but said there weren't a lot of good jobs when he graduated. So, he took out a loan, bought a boat, and went back to what he loved best: tuna fishing.
"I was good at tuna fishing," said McLaughlin. "I've done it all my life."
McLaughlin started fishing with his dad when he was a kid, and caught his first bluefin tuna at the age of 7.
"I was a skinny kid fishing on a tuna boat when I was younger, but I could reel in tuna faster than anyone."
And he's still going strong.
"I like the challenge," he said. "Tuna are the hardest fish to catch. There's not a smarter, badder, or harder-fighting fish."
McLaughlin also loves the ocean.
"The sea is really my home," he said. "When I'm on the ocean I'm the most comfortable, most relaxed, and happiest I can be."
McLaughlin said there are a lot of expenses associated with tuna fishing — fuel, equipment, etc. — so he tries to stay out until he catches a fish, sometimes traveling up to 170 miles offshore, and staying at sea for 9 or 10 days at a stretch.
"I never take time off," said McLaughlin. "I'm tough on the crew. I run them into the ground. These guys look forward to getting back to shore to see their girlfriends and stuff. I could care less. I just want to fish."
Whitney said McLaughlin is very serious about what he does.
"Tyler's one of the hardest-working people I know," said Whitney. "His success is a direct reflection of that."
Moser adds that McLaughlin is fun, but tough.
"He's a good friend, but he's also a hard boss — he's the captain. He wants to make sure everyone's doing what he's saying. He can be hard, but we're all having a good time, so it works out."
"We have a lot more fun on our boat than the other guys do," said McLaughlin. "Dot.com is miserable alley."
The three shipmates are also very much a team: close friends and super competitive, which they all said stems in part from playing college sports — rugby at Temple University for Moser, lacrosse at Franklin Pierce University for Whitney, and tennis at Nichols for McLaughlin.
"I played tennis in college for all four years," said McLaughlin. "Suddenly, I was no longer playing tennis, so that competitive energy just spilled over into fishing."
McLaughlin said even their cameraman is a team member. They went through several before they found someone who could hang with them. The other tuna boats typically go out in the morning and come back to Gloucester each night, and the National Geographic cameramen thought the Pin Wheel would do the same. But, McLaughlin's boat often stays out more than a week at a time. They finally hooked up with cameraman Rob Pollard.
"Rob roughs it," said Whitney. "He sleeps in his jeans for five days at a time [when we're at sea], and works harder than all the other cameramen. He's crazy, been all over the world."
McLaughlin's television debut came about through a chance encounter one day last year in Kennebunkport, when the crew of the Pin Wheel was unloading tuna and approached by a National Geographic film crew who were scouting for the show.
"I had no clue they were casting," said McLaughlin. "I was in Kennebunkport and some guy asked for an interview. We talked for about three hours, until about 10 at night. We were one boat out of about 300 that were interviewed."
And how does McLaughlin feel about his newfound celebrity on reality television? "It's cool," he said. "It's nice to show people what we do."
Whitney adds that while tuna fishing is great, it can also be incredibly boring at times, so TV as a side project makes it exciting. "It's also validating to our parents," he added, "because sometimes they wonder what we're doing out there. Now they can see for themselves."
Don Lyman can be reached at email@example.com.