America’s Deadliest Job
A Bay Weekly conversation with the captains of Deadliest Catch, Sig Hansen and brothers Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand
For six seasons, the Discovery Channel’s reality show Deadliest Catch has followed Bering Sea crab boats on their quest to find king and opilio crab. The conditions are dangerous: Freezing temperatures adding dangerously heavy ice to over-laden boats, mountainous waves careening across the decks and heavy machinery swinging overhead. This is a job where men are men and women are nearly non-existent.
The perilous profession is ranked the deadliest job in America. The show is ranked as Discovery Channel’s most popular program. A recent episode of Deadliest Catch surpassed even the cable network’s expectations, drawing more viewers than any other program on television.
Now, three of the show’s star captains — the Northwestern’s Sig Hansen and the Time Bandit’s co-captain brothers Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand — are taking their part of the show on the road. In off-season, the crabbers are traversing the country on a captains’ tour, offering tales about life on the deadly Bering Sea and answering questions from the growing throng of fans.
The captains took time before their September 8 visit to Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House to tell Bay Weekly about their new jobs as television stars and to share a few fish stories.
Editor’s note: Read on, and you’ll encounter an occasional swear word.
Bay Weekly Did you ever imagine you’d be a television star?
JOHN It’s just overwhelming what’s happened. It’s crazy how much people want to shake your hand. I went to a ballgame the other day, and all I did was shake hands and take pictures.
SIG My family can’t go through an airport without someone running after us. If we aspired to be popular, it wouldn’t have been such a big surprise.
ANDY Everything in life is an opportunity, whether I’m fishing or on TV. You get ahead because you just work your ass off.
JOHN Discovery Channel needs to give us some damn money. Rat bastards. I’m not supposed to talk about that. But that’s why they like me. I speak my mind.
Bay Weekly Has your job changed because of the TV show?
JOHN Yeah. It’s a lot of pressure to do your job with the camera rolling. If someone was watching you do your job with a camera, would you like it?
SIG If you can’t take the good with the bad, get the hell off the boat.
ANDY Before there were cameras, we’d never talk about how bad we hurt, never talk about how your girlfriend just left you. Everyone would call you a wimp. Now we talk about it because the TV show wants us to. Now we’re nice because we don’t want to humiliate any of the guys on TV.
SIG People see what you’re like at work; they don’t see what you’re like at home. They only know the working Sig. When I’m home it’s different. Every once in a while, I get to smile.
Bay Weekly Who’s in charge on the boat, you or the filming crew?
ANDY We’re the captains. The camera crews follow the story line and ask questions. They have to tell a story, but they can’t direct us. It’s too unnatural.
SIG In the beginning, I think they thought that we would be happy to have them, but we’ve kicked them off a couple times. We are in control, plain and simple, but I think there’s a mutual respect.
JOHN We’ve had them turn the camera off. They’re sneaky, though. They just try to catch whatever they can catch. They get orders from town; they try to make a story of something that’s not a story. They’re going to try to make it bigger.
Bay Weekly Did you always know you were going to be a crab fisherman?
SIG That’s all I ever thought about, period.
ANDY I tried other stuff, but always knew.
JOHN I always wanted to fish like my dad.
Bay Weekly What did you have to do to become a captain?
ANDY My dad wouldn’t let us run the boat until we knew everything about it, the engine, everything. Started out as bait boy. Then onto deckhands. Eventually you start running the crane and hydro and throwing the hook.
You have to know everything. You have to want to know everything and be willing to learn.
JOHN We started out at the bait station. That’s pretty much a safe place; you’re not going to get hit by a pot. Once you become a master-baiter, you can try other stuff.
SIG I cooked for a while and engineered. The captain had to go home. They needed an alternate, and the crew requested that I get a shot. I was the youngest captain in the crab fleet. I was 22.
Bay Weekly How would I get a job on a crab boat?
ANDY A good place to start is to work at a cannery. They house you, feed you and you get to know everyone. Like a lot of other jobs, it’s who you know.
JOHN At the canneries, you work 18 hours a day. That’s a pretty bad-ass job. If you’re not an idiot or a drunk, you get to know the captains. If someone gets hurt or goes home, you’ll get a try.
SIG It’s harder these days. There’s only 70 boats versus the 250 that we had.
JOHN You can still get on a salmon boat in Bristol Bay and make $15 or $20 grand doing that. You can get to know captains that way.
SIG I’ve got more applications from all over the world than I could shake a stick at.
JOHN Usually they only want to be on the boats featured in the show.
Bay Weekly Why aren’t there more women working on crab boats?
ANDY I know this isn’t politically correct, but we tend to stay away from females on the boat. You can imagine, it’s not a good thing to have a woman on board with all these guys. Except that my brother would love it. He’s single.
JOHN If it worked out, I would hire some women. It’s because of the wives and stuff. The guys are always thinking about the women.
SIG There’ve been women captains in the past, and there are a few women that have done pretty well. They’re pretty husky.
Bay Weekly How long is your average workday on the boat?
ANDY Average is 20 hours. But it’s all about delivery dates and beating the icepack. We do what we have to do.
SIG There is no typical workday because you’ve got the weather. It also depends on how far you’ve got your gear spread out. If you can work a 16- to 20-hour day, that’s great. The guys have gone on working for three days. It’s just one of those things.
If someone has a bad attitude, it hurts everyone. That’s why I took off last season, I was going to be talking about my arms and my back hurting. The guys don’t need to hear that. Everybody’s back hurts.
- Capt. John Hillstrand
Bay Weekly How do you break the monotony?
SIG You’re always doing something, your mind is always working. Every string tells a story, it’s a suspense, you’re always looking for the next one.
ANDY We do our job, we all work hard, but we also have fun. All the practical jokes we play on each other are a way to laugh and let off steam.
Bay Weekly How many hats do you wear on the job?
ANDY I’m the captain and owner. No more deckhand hats for me, though. I got hit from a 25-foot wave last season, and said enough is enough. I don’t want to get hurt.
JOHN Andy can do whatever he wants. I can’t do the deck anymore like I used to. I’m too old; I just turned 48. My back hurts, my arms and shoulders hurt. Someone’s got to be the general and start the army. You do that or you fade away.
SIG I’m responsible for time management, and that’s got to coincide with the fishing. At the same time, I’ve got to worry about the guys and keep them in the game, which isn’t always easy.
Bay Weekly Is crabbing in Alaska affected by environmental degradation and overfishing?
SIG Number one, we hate the term overfishing. I can go into that for hours, but I won’t. The last thing a crab fisherman wants to do is overfish anything.
ANDY We can’t control Mother Nature; we know that firsthand. When the water warms up, there is more bloom. And the crab numbers just explode. Back in the 1980s, we had years when we had no season; there were no crabs. And the water was cold. So we say bring on global warming!
SIG The difference is our environment. There’s a lot of predators around that eat the crab when they’re small and soft.
ANDY We never take females in Alaska. But that’s still a problem with the sea otters. You know those cute cuddly little things? They’d bite off your hand. They love the females!
SIG We’re more about keeping the balance. We used to take 45 percent of the mature males off the grounds. Now we’re taking 15 percent. You take a little out of a population and it still declines. It’s the natural cycle of things.
What bugs a fisherman to death is seeing crabs grow old and die on the ground when they could have been harvested. Science, politics and fishing have to mix together. By the time that these guys get their finger out of their ass, it’s too late.
Bay Weekly How do you find the crabs?
SIG I’ve been asked that question 100 times; I still don’t have the right answer. It’s a chase. If there was a trick to finding crab, it would be easy.
ANDY We have certain spots you like and our secret honey holes. But you can always find crabs; it just costs you more money in bait and time.
SIG It’s a game of chance. You gotta lay out your gear. All of a sudden the crabs are gone, and you’re sitting there with your thumb up your ass not knowing where to go.
JOHN I set my gear wherever I think they’re going to be. If they’re there, they’re there. If they’re not, then they’re not. If you say you’ve got it figured out, you should get your ass kicked.
Bay Weekly When you’re not on the boat are you still working?
SIG When I’m not working, I’m working doing interviews. Because of our notoriety — we’ve managed to capitalize on it — we have fish sticks and tarter sauce and beer and video games and an app. It’s pretty time consuming.
ANDY The boat works 10 months out of the year. Now we let younger guys do it. But we’re always talking. It’s a business, and we’re always running it. It doesn’t stop when you’re not on the boat.
Bay Weekly When you’re not working, what do you do?
SIG This year we managed two weeks vacation in Norway. This is about the fourth time I’ve been home for a summer since I was 12. We opened up a fish festival and visited family.
ANDY I train quarter horses, using natural horsemanship, or horse whispering. I’ve been doing it for 15 years.
JOHN I give my brother crap for that. I can turn my horse off; I got a key. I don’t have to feed him every day.
Bay Weekly How do you resolve squabbles on a family-owned boat?
ANDY There used to be five brothers who owned the boat. But our youngest brother clashed with the older, so the youngest got off the boat. Then the oldest left. So now it’s the three of us: Johnathon, Neal and me. We are best friends. We’ve been together 20 years. I wouldn’t do it if we were fighting all the time.
JOHN We just never get mad at each other. It’s your blood, man. In the end that’s what you got left, your family.
SIG Well, these days I try to talk to [my brothers] as little as possible. That’s how I resolve conflicts.
JOHN I told Sig, just take Edgar [Sig’s brother] like [my brother] Andy and bring him inside. You just share the money with your family. If someone has a bad attitude, it hurts everyone. That’s why I took off last season, I was going to be like Edgar, talking about my arms and my back hurt. The guys don’t need to hear that. Everybody’s back hurts.
SIG As we get older, it gets harder to communicate. Being on the boat, it’s like you turn a switch. It’s not family any more; it’s work.
JOHN And we make sure we eat good.
Bay Weekly Why do you think Deadliest Catch is such a success?
ANDY I have no idea. We’re just a group of hard-working guys, and maybe the show is popular because you don’t see much of hardworking guys. We’re not like other reality shows with all the scripted drama. We don’t need a script. We have plenty of natural drama.
JOHN I think it’s good values. I see the Northwestern, the way those guys were working: That put a smile on my face. It’s just good values.
SIG In the beginning, it was all about the crab and the weather, and I think that people were amazed at the work ethic. Now I think people are impressed by the people on the show. It’s turned into a fisherman’s soap opera.
We’re just a group of hard-working guys, and maybe the show is popular because you don’t see much of hardworking guys. We’re not like other reality shows with all the scripted drama. We don’t need a script. We have plenty of natural drama. - Andy
- Capt. Andy Hillstrand
Bay Weekly What is your craziest fan story?
SIG I’m going to be careful because I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. But sometimes they’ll just start tearing at you, ripping your shirt off and stuff. It’s bizarre.
JOHN I actually had a guy that kept getting in my face. The guy was belligerent drunk. But Andy stopped it. We’re good guys; we’ll take pictures with everyone we see and we sign things.
ANDY Most of our fans have been cool. We just treat them the way we want to be treated. We’re no better than them. I appreciate all the people who watch the show. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Bay Weekly What’s next?
JOHN I don’t need much. I’m stuck here trying to pay the mortgage on this place. We had to take a second loan on the boat to buy one of my brothers out, so I don’t see retirement real soon. I appreciate all the good vibes everyone sends. It did wonders for Phil [Harris, the fourth main captain, who died this season after a stroke]. I don’t think he would have lasted for 10 days without the fan prayers.
SIG You fish and you try to sock money away for your retirement. And you fish till you get old and you can’t fish anymore. With all this notoriety, there’s all this opportunity. Maybe someday I’ll do something else, but for now I’m just going to fish.
ANDY The boat will keep running. Maybe we’ll just go sport fishing around the world. People are always surprised that when we’re not on the boat, we want to fish. But we love to catch fish. I caught my first salmon when I was seven years old. I just love to fish.
Someday we might be with Mike Rowe [Baltimore-born host and star of Dirty Jobs] on the Home Shopping Network [where Rowe got his start].