The crews on board the legendary ships of the Discovery Channel’s hit TV reality show Deadliest Catch work in the brutal world of the Bering Sea crab fleet in Alaska. The show’s first episode aired on April 12, 2005. Season one of Deadliest Catch was the last season for Derby fishing. That’s the kind of fishing where the vessels raced into the sea, attempting to haul in as much crab as they could before the season ended. Hard work and luck resulted in huge hauls for the luckiest and best in the Derby days. Deadliest Catch entered Alaskan crab fishing history at precisely the time when crab fishing regulations would change the industry forever.
The Crab Rationalization Bill passed in Congress in 2005. For the vessels featured in Deadliest Catch, it brought fishing quotas for each boat, and a jumble of rules and regulations which diminished the number of vessels actively fishing in the fleet from about 250 to about 80. Of those, about 65 or so are crab boats which are not featured on the series, and some question the equity of this. The Deadliest Catch features some of the most successful and legendary vessels in the industry. These top captains, boat owners and crew have survived in the competitive, dangerous environment of crab fishing long before Discovery Channel began to subsidize their seasons.
The shift away from Derby fishing to crab quotas plays out in the reality series episodes. Top hauls were reported in several of the earlier episodes. By Season 13, which began airing in April 2017, the show has grown to focus on the volatile work, lives and relationships shared by the cast members. The series, with all its rough brawls, treacherous seas, equipment failures, grinding schedules, arctic storms, illness, painful injuries, and deaths at sea, is an epic saga of life. It’s not surprising that viewers live vicariously through these adventures and cheer successful hauls.
The top five catches recorded go to some of the fiercest vessels and captains in the Alaskan crab fishing fleet:
Season 4, Series Episode 38: $1.9 Million – Captain Rick Fehst: Early Dawn
While the Northwestern was struggling with a storm front in rough seas, Captain Rick Fehst was struggling with completing his brown king crab pots. He had intended to switch to red king crab as soon as the Early Dawn was loaded with brown king crab. As he piloted the Early Dawn through the end of the season, the other vessels were occupied with some shenanigans. The Time Bandit crew pranked the Cornelia Marie crew by putting a junk trunk on their pot line in place of a pot. The Cornelia Marie crew pulled up the trunk, laughed, and dumped it overboard. Captain Phil of the Cornelia Marie radioed Captain Hillstrand of the Time Bandit to let him know the prank was “A+”. The Wizard crew ended up working with an additional 150 pots, while the Northwestern moved to old family fishing grounds to try for better hauls. All in all, the Early Dawn delivered 784,000 pounds of brown king crab, which brought in $1.9 million.
Season 6, Series Episode 89: $1.8 Million – Captain Keith Colburn: Wizard
It’s the end of the opilio crab season in 2010. The weather had been unusually cold. Miserable, in fact.
In previous episodes about the opilio season, the weather had been so bad that Captain Keith remembered an earlier year when a rogue wave nearly took his entire crew. The Wizard had ground through the northerly crab grounds, battling ice to pull pots. There had been bad fishing, freezing spray and ice. Things were so bad that Captain Keith started up with his chewing tobacco, even though he had promised his family to give it up. In the midst of it all, Captain Phil had suffered a stroke while piloting the Cornelia Marie. He had been taken to the hospital, but ultimately passed away due to complications after surgery lasting twelve hours. Captain Keith finished up the previous crab season with a memorial to Captain Phil Harris. The Wizard’s crew loaded a full crab pot and buoyed it so it would remain anchored to the ocean bottom. The sailor’s lore says that lost sailor’s spirits should always be able to return to a full pot. The pot, thrown overboard, brought Captain Keith to tears. But he must push through the painful season to the end.
In the current episode, Captain Keith is concerned that his crew remain cautious, but his main goal is to meet his quota with full tanks. At season’s end, the Wizard’s crew pulls in a haul of $1.8 million, establishing a record delivery.
Season 5, Series Episode 60: $1.7 Million – Captain Johnathan Hillstrand: Time Bandit
The Time Bandit crew had struggled over three days of lackluster pot numbers. Their pulls had not been good. Captain Johnathan Hillstrand pointed the Time Bandit toward the last string set for the season. It had a good start, an empty third pot, and then success with the end of the string. The crew finally pulled their quota. With 270, 000 pounds of crab in the hold, Captain Hillstrand pilots the Time Bandit to Dutch Harbor. The catch is offloaded, and the crew has pulled more than $1.7 million in king crab. They decide to celebrate their successful season, and the opilio crab season to come. Andy Hillstrand, will captain the next season, so they smash celebratory cream pies in his face.
Season 6, Series Episode 89: $1.6 million – Captain “Wild Bill” Wichrowski: Kodiak
The Kodiak returned to crabbing after being away from Alaska for five years. Captain Bill hits bad weather and fishing, and the crew’s morale is low throughout the crab season. The Kodiak is forced to endure extra trips, suffers deadloss of red king crab and short offload at port. The opilio crab season begins with the Kodiak behind the other leading vessels. But Captain Bill makes the decision to fish through the ice packs, and the last set of 30 pots brings in the crab he needs to finish well. His gamble brings in an amazing $1.6 million in opilio profit by the end of Episode 89.
Season 2, Series Episode 28: over $1 Million – Captain Sig Hansen: Northwestern
This huge haul took place at the end of the king crab season. Captain Sig Hansen joined the boats in the rush to meet their processing plant delivery deadlines. The Northwestern’s tanks were full, meeting its quota for the season. Hansen knew that the price for his load of king crag would drop by the next day, so he pushed The Northwestern at top speed to deliver in Akutan. The captains had been competing for the entire season to see which vessel would reach 100,000 pounds pulled by the least number of pots. The Time Bandit ultimately won the bet, with an average of 70 pots pulled in each of their pots. Captain Johnathan Hillstrand ultimately donated his winnings to the Seafarer’s Memorial and Keith Colburn, the Wizard’s captain, matched the amount placed in the fund. The fleet captains celebrated the season’s end and the results of their competition at the UniSea Bar.
Crabbing brings in high profits when things are going well. It’s common for the top captains to earn an average of $200,000 in profit for a full year of fishing. The king crab season alone will bring monthly compensation for the crew members of anywhere from $15 to $50 thousand a month. That’s just for three months. If they fish the rest of the year, they can earn more. Deadliest Catch draws viewers into the unimaginable conditions endured by its fleet. What is that worth? Probably every penny.