He’s a customer service agent at the Monterey Regional Airport from 9am to 5pm weekdays, but on the weekend, he’s a legend among fishermen. His name is Johnny Cuello Jr., but Monterey’s sportfishing captains and deckhands know him as Johnny Rockcod.
Cuello’s fishing hobby began while he was growing up in the Philippines, using nothing but a handline, catching small reef fish from the shore or from small boats. After moving to Salinas in 2009, Cuello learned from local fishermen about the bigger fish he could catch on deep-sea fishing trips. He got his first fishing license, signed up for a sportfishing trip, and never looked back. Now, Cuello enjoys looking out at the horizon between reeling up gnashing lingcod and gorgeous vermillion rockfish – two of his signature catches.
Cuello first came to the United States from a coastal neighborhood on Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, when he was 3 years old. His family lived in Bakersfield for two years, then returned to the Philippines after his sister was born.
Today, 11 years after their final pilgrimage to California, Cuello and his wife, Mary Grace, live in Salinas with their four bubbly young boys and Cuello’s mother-in-law. “Salinas is where my life is now,” he says, “and I’m close to Monterey, where my favorite hobby is – I love fishing.”
Over a home-cooked dinner of various grilled meats and Filipino-style egg rolls called lumpia, Cuello spoke to the Weekly about how food, family and fishing define his life outside of his day job.
Weekly: Where did you get the name “Johnny Rockcod”?
Cuello: I tried fishing with J&M [Sport Fishing] and that’s where I met their deckhand, Monty [Truitt]. I liked this guy a lot, he taught me a lot about deep sea fishing. So I’ve been going fishing [with J&M] almost every month for the last two years. One day Monty said, “Come on, Johnny, catch me a big one!” and that day I caught a big ol’ vermillion [rockfish]. And after that, with Monty and J.J. [Rasler] – who is my favorite captain – every time I’d go with them I’d catch big vermillions. Vermillions, always. Every time, big vermillions, huge ones! And I think J.J. is a fan of the red rockfish. [JJ and Monty] came out one day saying “Johnny! You’re a rock cod killer!” and they started calling me Johnny Rockcod.
What is your wildest experience on the water in Monterey Bay?
In Santa Cruz, I got a big ol’ fish. It was dragging the boat with me and my friend in it. I thought it was a rock, but then all of the sudden the line was going crazy, and this fish was just pulling us and I was like “holy cow!” I was just screaming. I was still learning with deep sea fishing, so I ended up losing the fish. I think maybe it was a shark or a sunfish. It was a slow and steady pull, and it broke my 80-pound test line.
Who gets to eat the fish you catch?
My mother-in-law. She only eats fish. She doesn’t eat chicken, pork or beef. Just fish. The twins like it too.
Why do you fish? Is it for the food or the fun?
It’s about being out there. Plus it was meant to be: I love fishing and at the same time, my family loves to eat fish. I provide, but I’m also enjoying myself. My wife goes to work in the evenings, I pretty much take care of the kids, I cook them dinner, I prepare them for showers, get them ready for bed. On my day off I go fishing and that’s the time when I relax myself. That’s where I forget all the stress and problems. Out there I don’t care if I’m catching anything. I’m just looking at the horizon.
What do you serve with lingcod?
We are Filipino, so you see the rice all the time on our menu. But for a side dish, I’d say a spicy and sweet soy sauce with shallots, honey and sesame oil. I grill lingcod, but with the head we make a sour soup with tamarind powder. I also like it with pickles, mango and jicama mixed together.
What are you doing when you’re not fishing or working?
Playing drums in my garage. And traveling. Hawaii is [my family’s] favorite destination. We’ve been to all the islands.