"I have something to say to all your frat 'Bros' who think they can come up to Alaska and fish for crab: Sit down and have another beer." I chuckle a little bit. Even far, far away from the Bering Sea on a sunny, 70-degree day in New York, a serious smile strikes Captain Keith Colburn's face. "I'm not joking. There’s nothing coddling about crabfishing."
On the heels of a brutal and icy fishing season, I met the legendary crab captain of "The Wizard" for a burger and a beer to discuss the upcoming season of "Deadliest Catch." The day before, Capt. Keith paid a visit to Manhattan's legendary MOMA. A week earlier, he hit up WrestleMania XXIV in Miami. It's hardly what you'd expect from a captain notorious for his temper. "People are shocked to see me because they just think I’m constantly fishing. So they sit there and they’re like, 'what are you doing in New York?' I’m going on a talk show. I’m going over to the Museum of Modern Art to hang out. And they’re like, 'What? But aren’t you always on a boat?' No, we don’t work 12 months a year."
Keith is both a savvy seafood businessman and a hardworking, blue-collar badass. Thanks to publicity from the the show, he's inked a nationwide crab-distribution deal with Kroger's grocery stores. "It's an amazing opportunity. And the cool thing is, it’s my crab. It’s not someone else’s crab that’s coming from the Bering Sea. This crab was caught on my boat. Literally, you’re going to see my guys catching it on TV and then you can eat it yourself." On the afternoon of our lunch, he's amicable and all smiles, throwing in a dip after finishing his burger. "This year I had more 'Oh sh*t' moments than I would normally get in about four years of fishing."
Below are 10 tales from our conversation about crabfishing in the Bering Sea, all in Captain Keith's own words. Think you can do what he does? Just take his own advice, "Bro," and have another beer.
On work ethic and bad attitudes:
One time I was walking down the dock and there’s this guy who’s a good-sized guy, relatively fit, looks like he’s pushing 28-30 years old. And he walks straight up to me, in my face, and goes “Hey, I’m looking for work” and I’m like “Ok, cool. I have a full crew…” and he goes, “Any of your crybaby crew wanna get off the boat? I’ll take their spot right now.” So I’m, like, going “Ummm…. Yeah, that’s what I need -- a headcase on my boat.” I guarantee you with that attitude, he’d be the first one to fold up their tent, man, and just crumble horribly.
I think work ethic is suffering right now in the younger generation. I don’t think there’s any question. I’m in my late 40s now, and, you know, I’ve seen a lot of kids -- or guys in their 20s -- try to take a shot at crabfishing, and that’s all they can do: take a shot at it. It’s miserable, disgusting, hard work. It’s the worst experience you will ever have, literally. And in some cases it's the best experience you will ever have. It’s really interesting because it takes more than just being an athlete and being young and fit and in good health. You need drive and determination. You need a big heart.
Most guys think that an empty wallet is enough motivation to do the job. I had a run of probably about five years straight where our crab quotas were way off, so we were only working three weeks to six weeks total and that’s all. I had a run five years in a row where I had greenhorns come on the boat that made 25-35,000 for the season. For three weeks to six weeks worth of work.
These are guys that I hired right before the season. They didn’t go the shipyard or do the gearwork, They did none of the stuff that goes along with the job leading up to it. They were basically guys I hired at the last second because someone else failed or quit. And five years running, all five of them… none of them came back. I’d get the call, “Yeah, I don’t really wanna work in the shipyard or is it okay if I don’t deliver the boa? I just want to fly in.” And I’m like, “NO.”
First off, you’re a greenhorn. you’re not some kind of all-star crabber to begin with. And now you’re telling me that you only want to just be there when we’re making money.
We’ve grossed close to a million bucks in four days before. And, when you see those kind of numbers, the return to the crew and the net are huge; we’re talking six figures sometimes. But those four days? There’s probably 14 weeks worth of work on the frontside and the backside leading up to being prepared to take advantage of the fishing situation. Those are the guys I want when you have that four-day opening to actually catch crab. I don’t want money fisherman. Money fisherman suck. That’s a guy who can haul all day long when you’ve got full pots. You know the guy I want? He sees the empty pot break the rail, and says, “Holy sh*t, I need to speed up because right now we need to get this gear out and crab.” That, to me, is a true money fisherman. You know, he understands the pots aren’t coming up with anything in them, we do all this work to get them in the water, bait them, and everything else and now we’re not making squat? Time to kick it into high gear.
On more and more money fishermen coming up to Alaska as a result of the popular success of “The Deadliest Catch”
I meet so many guys that say, “Yeah, I want to try and do that.” So many guys that just want to give it a shot and see what it’s like. You know what? This isn’t bungee jumping. This is crab fishing in the Bering Sea. And even though you’ve witnessed me probably go through more greenhorns than probably any other boat in the Deadliest Catch fleet, it’s not me that breaks them. It’s not my deck boss that breaks these guys. It’s the boat. “The Wizard” breaks them. It’s the workload, it’s the hours, it’s the lack of sleep, the fatigue, the pain, and all that misery that goes along with once we start that boat up and leave the dock. She never stops working.
And it doesn’t matter; If I go down, my brother steps in. If my brother goes down, [Wizard First Mate] Soper steps in. We just make sure we have the manpower there to keep things going. It’s a continuous round-the-clock operation, which makes it even more brutal. Although the guys are going 18 hours on, six hours off, six hours means you’re actually getting maybe four. But, if we start having to chip ice? That rotation is gone. Now we’re throwing more guys at it to try and get the ice off the boat and keep hauling gear. We have to run from the ice, we have to stack the gear – and boom -- there goes the rotation. Every man is out there.
So, when you have a guy fail, that’s the worst thing possible. Because they’re used to seeing the rotation die or suspended because of ice or because of weather or because of stacking gear or moving it, but when a crewman goes down and can’t physically do the job? That’s the worst, and you don’t want to be that guy. If somebody decides they’re not capable of doing this job and then they pull their diaper on and head in the house…. Look, the one thing the crew cherishes the most on the boat is their sleep. Because they don’t get much of it.