Take a young man who is taught that the best things to do in life are in the outdoors, give him the smarts to excel at a major university such as Duke, a business acumen that would allow him to do well in any venture, and what do you end up with?
If you’re talking about Capt. Tom Roller, you get a highly successful fishing guide and award-winning conservationist.
Roller has been guiding anglers to catch everything that swims around the Carteret County area for 20 years. He has a unique outlook that has allowed him to follow his passion to protect and preserve our fisheries, and he has been involved with committees and meetings that have led him all the way to a seat on the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission.
First appointed to the commission by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2020, Roller, owner of WaterDog Guide Service of Beaufort, has been an avid fisher since he was little.
“My Dad says the best and worst thing he ever did was teach me to fish. I was absolutely obsessed since my very early childhood,” he told Coastal Review.
That obsession led him on countless quests to find the best fishing spots.
“When I was a kid, we moved around a lot. It drove me to fish every retention pond, creek, ditch and anywhere I could possibly get outside and explore,” he said.
The Roller family eventually settled in suburban Indianapolis, not exactly known as a fishing hot spot.
“I went to high school in Indiana and lived in the suburbs. When I was there, I bet I fished every single retention pond in a 20-mile radius,” said Roller.
Still, it was saltwater fishing that called to him during family vacations to the North Carolina coast, and it pulled him back.
“In the end, being away from the big water is what ultimately drove me to settle where I wanted to be, near the coast where I spent much of my childhood summers, so I could chase all those big fish I was always dreaming about,” he said. “I’ve lived here for more than 25 years, and I’ve been a full-time guide for 20.”
During that time, he’s developed a philosophy that drives him, and it’s based in sustainability.
“If I had a mission statement, it would simply be, ‘Healthy fisheries take care of their fishermen.’”
Most of Roller’s family share a similar outlook that’s reflected in how they choose to spend their free time.
“Most people in my life are outdoorsy, otherwise we’d never see each other!”
Roller also subscribes to Emerson’s notion of how to have a purposeful life in that he wants to be useful, honorable, compassionate, and to have made some difference. In that light, his passion for fish and fishing has led him to a second calling, that of being an activist and getting involved with preserving the very things that give him so much joy.
“I love our natural resources, and I love the North Carolina coast — and all outdoor places — so much that I have been hyperfocused on being involved in conservation and management, in an effort to hopefully conserve our fisheries and ecosystems for future generations,” Roller said.
That focus led Tom to serve on committees and get involved, where he’s not shy about his passion.
“I’ve served on federal advisory panels for bluefish, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel. In the state I’ve served on advisory committees for southern flounder and blue crab. Currently I am appointed to the main fisheries rule-making body in North Carolina, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission,” Roller said.
His tireless work has not gone unnoticed. He was presented the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s prestigious Governors Award for Marine Conservation in 2022.
“It was truly one of the great honors of my life,” he said.
With all the different types of fishing possible on the North Carolina coast, Roller said he can’t choose which one he likes best.
“My fishing is based on maximizing access to North Carolina’s super diverse inshore and nearshore fisheries,” he said, adding that there’s an amazing bag of different fish he can pursue on any given day. “I love fishing inshore for red drum, nearshore for false albacore and mackerel, and wreck and bottom fishing for flounder and grouper-snapper species.”
Roller has participated in tournaments from time to time as well.
“I have fished inshore tournaments for red drum but haven’t in a couple years. When I was fishing the local circuits, I did quite well, consistently placing pretty high and winning a couple,” he said.
And, as you might guess, he has a hard time pinning down where his favorite quarry is.
“If you had to ask me to pick something for late summer, I’d say flying to Alaska to fly fish for silver salmon and big rainbows or go offshore of North Carolina and deep drop for a swordfish,” he said, clarifying that it really just depends on the time of year. “If you ask me in the fall, I’ll probably tell you it’s fly fishing for false albacore off of Cape Lookout. In June, I’d tell you it was tossing topwaters for big trout.”
And with his characteristic sense of humor, he added, “Confused? Me too.”
There is lot that a longtime successful fishing captain can teach about having a good day on the water.
“It’s always important to note that the fish, unlike in a lake or river, are not always there. As they say in the Outer Banks, ‘Fish have tails and no homes.’”
How can we relate that to catching fish?
“Make sure your equipment is good, your knots and leaders are strong, your hooks are sharp and your boat and motor are in good working order,” he advised.
Finally, a thought for those who don’t get to fish as often as Roller: “If I was looking for a guide myself, I’d be looking for an older, more experienced professional or a young up-and-coming full-timer who is fishing their face off. Either one will likely give you a great experience,” he said. “Time and days spent, even in a smaller window of time, are invaluable to being a successful angler. In the long term, it’s experience. The accumulation of days simply makes you that much better.”