Getting whooped, back breaking, legs and fingers cramping up—those were the feelings Lance Thomas had standing up in a boat about 15 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.
He was fighting something big on his fishing rod. He just didn’t know how big.
It was the summer of 2013, after Thomas’ second NBA season and second with the Hornets, when he was deep-sea fishing for the first time. Along with locals and his friend, Kenjuan Nichols, who first introduced him to fishing in college, they were in the South Pass, the southern tip of the Mississippi River where water from there mixes with the Gulf.
Thomas couldn’t tell if what was biting the line on his six-foot rod was 30 pounds or 100 pounds. He just knew whatever it was hidden beneath the ocean surface was very strong. And all heads turned to him on the boat because he was the only one getting action. After about 50 minutes from the first nibble, he finally heaved it into the boat by himself: a 107.5-pound yellowfin tuna—his first-ever offshore catch.
My first Yellowfin Tuna I ever caught with Capt Peace from Venice Marina in Louisiana. Fought it so long I couldn't even pick it up for the picture lol. My man Marty Wilson in the pic is a marine artist and he painted this fish for me and it's on my wall at my place. 107lbs. #SaltLife #GulfOfMexico #louisianasportsman #Yellowfin #Tuna #ArmsBurning #BoutThatLife #StankFace #SoWhat #IwasTiredAsHell lol
While Thomas had first enjoyed fishing when he was at Duke, where Nichols took him to nearby lakes, this experience created a whole new world for the Knicks forward. For starters, marine artist Marty Wilson, who was on board, performed a style of art called gyotaku, where one side of a fish is painted with sumi ink and then is rolled on to a canvas. Thomas now has the creative piece of that tuna framed in his New York City apartment.
Later that evening, Thomas and his fishing group went to the Maple Leaf Bar for its Hook, Line & Dine event, which kicks off the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Every year, a tuna is featured, and this time it was Thomas’. The captain of his boat that day sliced up his catch in front of everyone at the venue and then served it raw.
“From then on, I was hooked,” Thomas told the NBPA. “It was well worth it once I brought it on the boat and got to take pictures with it and eventually eat it.”
With his “obsessive personality,” wanting to get better at something when he really likes it, Thomas sought mentorship from Nichols, New Orleans native Jared Parfaite and four different captains. He also carried his competitive nature from basketball, wanting to fill up an entire boat with fish. After hauling in that first tuna, he discovered more about how to catch them. That led to a 184-pounder in 2015 and a 141-pounder last summer.
“Tuna is more of a migratory species, so you’ve got to find them. And there’s different ways of getting them,” he said. “Sometimes they want cut bait. Sometimes they want live bait. Sometimes they want just to chew the bait up. Sometimes you have to give them a lure. When you’re on them and they’re not biting, you just have to know how to get them eating, so that was something I learned.”
Now, after basketball training mostly every week in NYC, he leads his own excursions in the Gulf almost every weekend during the offseason. “I’m down there pretty much if I check the offshore forecast and it’s fishable,” said Thomas, who sometimes navigates 15 to 30 miles out to oil rigs, because they attract fish, such as the Lena compliant guyed tower and Who Dat oil and gas field (named after the chant for the NFL Saints).
He also has his own vessel, a 36-foot Yellowfin boat, which he docks in Venice, La., to be as close to the Gulf as possible. “They nicknamed the city, ‘The End of the World,'” he said. “That’s as far south as you can go [in Louisiana].”
Thomas attached on three 300-horsepower Yamaha engines, in case he needs to quickly get out of a storm. After getting caught in a few, leading to some scary moments, he’s become comfortable in those situations.
“You just have to know wind direction,” he said. “And you have to be able to use your electronics. You have to be able to use your radar to see where the storms are going, what direction they’re heading. It’s just being calm, knowing how to approach waves, knowing how to angle the boat so that it’s a comfortable ride. When you’re driving the boat, you don’t really feel all that stuff. But you have to also take into account the other people on the boat who maybe have never been on the boat before, let alone in an ocean.”
Regardless of the weather, Thomas calls being out in the open water his “happy place.”
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “It’s just an amazing thing being out there, especially now that I know what I’m doing. Nobody can bother you. You have great days where the weather cooperates with you, and bad days where storms come out of nowhere and the waves get choppy. But I’m very comfortable out there, I’m very just in tuned with what’s going on out there and I always make it a memorable experience for everybody that comes with me.”
Thomas also has a command of his own fishing strategy, after learning from his mentors and doing his own research. While he’s 6’8″ and 235 pounds, he said it’s less about strength and more about technique.
“I think less is better as far as when you’re bringing up certain things. I like to deep drop,” he said. “I like to drop all the way to the bottom—a 1,000 feet of water and pick up really big grouper and things like that. I have spots where I know my grouper are going to be at.”
While he doesn’t mind taking a small slab of tuna and eating it raw, his favorite fish to enjoy are those deepwater grouper and tilefish. He prefers their taste and consistency, and their simplicity to cook. He’ll put salt and pepper on both sides, pour butter over the top, flip the fish, and he’s done after about four minutes.
Thomas doesn’t have the urge to go anywhere else than the Gulf of Mexico—”Everything I want is in there,” he said—but there’s only one fish he “definitely” wants to reel in: a roosterfish.
“It’s a beautiful fish. I really want to catch one and get a picture with one of those,” he said. “It’s a fish that people catch off the coast of Mexico, close to that side of the Gulf.”
So could Thomas one day see himself becoming a sport fisherman?
Right now, it’s just a serious hobby. The only big tackle, for now, continues to be basketball.
“It’s fun, it’s therapeutic, but I have bigger fish to fry with basketball in trying to win,” he said.