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Robert Johns, known as "The Net Master," feels perfectly at home out on the water.
Published Jun. 29, 2010

They call him "The Net Master" and it's a nickname that has stuck.

Robert Johns, 77, is a commercial fisherman who was born in Clearwater and lives in St. Petersburg.

The nickname came about 10 years ago when Johns was making fishing nets for a man in Tarpon Springs.

He thought the name was alright, so he kept it. He figured he'd also include it in his cell phone's voicemail greeting, because most people who call him are fishermen.

"I don't have no outside girlfriends calling me, outside friends calling me, other than in the fishing business," he said.

During a recent fishing trip on the edge of the city's Salt Creek Marine District, Johns' phone rang several times.

He gets calls from people in other parts of the state - North Florida, Pensacola, Homosassa. They ask him about boats and motors for sale. They want to know how many fish he's caught, where he is.

It doesn't bother Johns - he's used to it.

"I've been doing this since I had a telephone here," he said. "It's alright."

Johns grew up around fishing in Pinellas County. His grandfather owned a fish house on Indian Rocks Beach and his uncle was a fisherman. He has a cousin who fishes in Clearwater.

"You do what your forefathers have done," he said.

Johns' grandfather introduced him to fishing when he was 6. In those days, he said, many fishing boats didn't have motors - fishermen had to push their boats along the water with a pole.

"I started pushing the boat and then my grandfather bought me a net and said, 'Well you're going to learn to be a fisherman, you got to have a net to fish with,' " he said.

Johns began making money at 9 years old, catching mullet. He'd sell the fish at 88 cents per hundred pounds - less than a penny per pound. Now, he sometimes gets 50 cents per pound, 75 cents if he's lucky.

Back then, Johns didn't worry about the sun.

"Them days, the sun didn't bother you for some reason or another," he said. "It'd make your skin black and all that, you'd get a good suntan, but I never did worry about it."

By 16, Johns was catching shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico for a living. He and his crew would stay on the boat a month at a time before returning home for a week or two.

He later moved to Central America to work for a shrimp company there and settled in Honduras. He was married twice and has six children and 20 grandchildren.

Johns returned to the United States in 1981 after learning his mother was very sick.

Once he resettled in Florida - first in Tampa, then Indian Rocks Beach, Clearwater, Largo and, ultimately, St. Petersburg - Johns began wearing sunscreen. By then, it was too late.

Last month, Johns was diagnosed with skin cancer on his right ear. He had known something was wrong for a long time.

The cancer is treatable and he began undergoing daily radiation treatment. After treatment, Johns goes fishing. He gives away most of the fish he catches these days.

"The way it is now, you have to work all day to make any money cause ain't no money made," he said.

At the price of fish, Johns said, he'd rather go out and give the fish he catches to churches and to those who need it.

Daniel Glanzer, 20, met Johns about two years ago when Johns was living on a shrimp boat. The two fish together often.

"He loves what he does," Glanzer said.

Glanzer, also of St. Petersburg, takes Johns around town for shopping and doctor's appointments. Johns taught him how to find schools of fish and what to look for with different kinds of fish.

Glanzer noticed the toll the treatment has had on Johns physically. They don't spend as much time fishing as before.

Before he fishes now, Johns lathers on sunscreen lotion. He keeps two bottles of sunscreen on his boat. He wears sunglasses and a camouflage hat.

Other people probably think of him as an old, wore-out man, Johns said.

"But I ain't wore out yet," he said.

When he isn't fishing, Johns cooks and watches television. He feeds his cat, Stormy, thinks about old times. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke.

He can still dance.

"Mamba, ramba, zamba, jitter-bug," Johns said.

He doesn't like hip-hop though, just the regular two-step.

Johns' radiation treatment ended Wednesday, which makes him feel good.

"That way," he said, "I get more fishing time in."