Captain “Wild” Bill Wichrowski on life behind the scenes of Deadliest Catch
Wichrowski, right, with son Zack
Wichrowski, right, with son Zack

Captain “Wild” Bill Wichrowski on life behind the scenes of Deadliest Catch

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Now in its tenth season, Deadliest Catch has become one of the Discovery Channel’s best and most respected reality series. Currently airing in over 200 countries, the show follows (and everyone should already know this, because everyone’s seen Deadliest Catch) a number of different fishing boat captains and their crews as they hit the Bering Sea in search of both Alaskan King and Opilio Crab, as well as the occasional Bairdi.

A featured captain since season six, “Wild” Bill Wichrowski has piloted two boats on the show, including his current Cape Caution. With his prominent mane of white hair and occasionally fiery relationship with his deckhand and son Zack Larson, Wichrowski has become one of the show’s most beloved curmudgeons. The A.V. Club talked to him about the show’s filming process, life at sea, and the difficulties of landing a good greenhorn.

The A.V. Club: How did you get involved in the show? Weren’t you retired from crabbing?

Bill Wichrowski: We were all kind of skeptical in the beginning about hooking up [with Discovery] except for a few. Sig [Hansen] jumped right on the bandwagon and Keith [Colburn] was not far behind. Then a few other guys got on the bandwagon, but just didn’t hold interest. But as time went on, I stayed in touch with my buddies up there since I was working out of Costa Rica and Mexico. I could see how this thing was growing and the notoriety was growing and when the economy took a dip, I decided to get a hold of Discovery to see if they had room for me.

AVC: How many boats are there out there fishing? The show follows five or six boats, but how many crews are there fishing crab?

BW: Originally, there were upward of 300 boats, but they changed the format of the season from a derby to a quota system. It’s kind of a lengthy explanation, but they gave everybody a percentage of the catch over the history of your performance and now the quota that’s given to you can be transferred to other boats so you can stack it up. So now, you’ve gone from over 300 boats with five or six guys on each boat to... we’re down to under 100 boats. I think last season there might have been 78 boats that participated. Don’t quote me on that number, but it’s less than 100.

AVC: And quotas are set by Fish And Game?

BW: Yeah. The state takes your catch history because it’s all documented over the years and then they arbitrarily pick a certain number of years, like this time they did seven. Then, out of that, you could take your five best years and that’s how they developed the percentile for the quotas. Your percentile is applied against the quota and that’s what you get to catch. But in my case, one year I was on a boat that sank so I lost out on my quota years, so I only ended up with four years. It’s all scientific, mathematic, and controlled by the government.

AVC: And you fish for King Crab in October and Opilio in January?

BW: Right. Last year we didn’t get to fish blue king, all we got was red king. There’s also a brown king fishery that doesn’t get a lot of press, but that runs a lot longer than the red or the blue king, but that’s just a small number of boats that participate in that and it’s not on the show.

We also got to fish some Bairdi. It’s a fishery where the numbers aren’t that great, and we’ve been out of production for a while, because we exploited the industry a few years ago and, consequently, the season was closed for quite a few years and the market kind of went away. So it’s like an Opilio on steroids. A big Bairdi can be two and a half pounds, but a big Opilio is about 1.1 pounds, so it’s twice the size and you get a lot more bang for your buck. It’s actually one of my favorite crabs to eat.

Anyway, in October we do King Crab, and at the same time, Bairdi is open so you can elect to do your Bairdi before King Crab or after. The same is true with the Bairdi in the second half of the season. It’s open at the same as the Opis, but a lot of the guys get the Opis out of the way and get the Bairdi at the end.

The last couple of years with the ice situation, we ended up fishing a lot longer than we ever had. Last year, on our particular boat we basically went from the end of September until the beginning of October, took a short break for the holidays and Christmas, and then we finished up in the beginning of March.

AVC: Then what do you do at the beginning of March? Do you go back and do charters, do you do salmon fishing, what are you doing?

BW: I have a home in Mexico, but I’ve slept in my bed 12 days since Christmas.

AVC: Why?

BW: I’m on the road. I’ve been doing fundraisers, NASCAR events, fishing tournaments. I just did a Wounded Warrior thing. We took 14 wounded warriors from the Phoenix area and took them swordfishing. Now I’m on my way to Daytona Beach tomorrow for a NASCAR event and I’ve got a few other fishing tournaments coming up. I hand out the big cardboard checks sometimes, and sometimes I fish.

AVC: Do the other captains fish for other seasons? Sig Hansen used to fish for salmon, right?

BW: There are other fisheries involved. There’s herring tendering where you take the boat and go around to the seiners and the gill netters and you collect their herring and weigh it and keep it cold so it stays fresh and then you take it to a processor. They do the same thing with salmon.

Last year was my 36th or 37th year on the boat. For 30 years, I did all of it for nine or 10 months; some years I did it for 10 and a half months. I’m kind of over that. I don’t need to do that supplemental stuff. I’m trying to live life a little more, but I am sick of airports. I think I’ve been in 15 cities since March and it’s wearing a guy out.

AVC: What’s the process with Discovery? How many camera crew guys are on the boat?

BW: It’s hard enough on deck without a camera. You see our guys getting bounced around on deck and they have their full peripheral vision and they’re supposed to be trained professionals. Then you put these film crew guys on there and they’re stumbling around looking through a view finder and it’s amazing that these guys don’t get banged up more.

There are two guys here shooting. There’s one on the deck, in addition to the four crew members there, and then there’s also a guy in the wheelhouse 100 percent of the time. The guy in the wheelhouse has a better vision of what’s happening on deck and he’s usually the senior guy so he orchestrates how things go with his deck shooter. There are also up to four fixed cameras in the wheelhouse and two to three fixed cameras on the deck. Every shooter carries a camera with them and then there are the GoPros. These guys have gotten so creative and innovative and that’s how the bar for the show has been raised—because they use this portable little camera to get some pretty amazing shots: hook shots, shots going over the side, inside the crab tanks. The camera guys have really stepped up and I think that’s why the interest in the show is still so high.

AVC: So are they up when you’re up?

BW: Everybody’s different. Some of these guys refuse to sleep when you’re awake and then there are other ones that like their sleep.

We have six cameras, so there’s going to be some record of what happened. There’s a camera focused on me all of the time, there’s a camera focused on areas on the deck at all times, and those cameras are rolling, so there’s going to be some recollection. But there’s something to be said for having that guy there that knows what he’s looking at and is going to get the right angles and the right lighting and ask questions and get right in the heat of it.

Over the years I’ve had guys that are just there 100 percent of the time and I’ve had some that weren’t. Everybody is different and everybody has a different level of how seriously they do it. It varies. A lot of boats get a lot of airtime and part of it is material and part of it is the drive of the camera guy. The last few seasons we’ve had great guys.

AVC: Is Discovery Channel paying you rent for the bunk space and for the food these guys eat?

BW: They basically participate with us. They eat with us, they sleep with us. We’re not uncivil, so we’ll ask if anyone has any kind of strict meds or can’t eat certain things. We check it out just as we would with our own crew.

Many of them have flexibility to where they can go down and make themselves something quick in between when our guys do. If you watch the show, especially on my boat, eating is of a high priority, though it comes few and far between. A lot of times the camera guys will make themselves something real quick. I’ve had guys that make meals or they’ve made sandwiches and took them out on deck.

AVC: Is the guy in the wheelhouse asking you questions or is he just hanging out?

BW: He’s always asking what’s going on. If an event is happening on deck, he’ll obviously see my reaction and he’ll ask questions and it can be tied into the show.

In the first season it’s strange, because there’s never anybody in the wheelhouse. And actually, after the last season, I’ve really gotten to enjoy having somebody up there. I’d say 85 percent of the guys I had ended up being buddies. The guy we had last season has been trying to get down to Mexico so we can swordfish and we stay in touch all the time. We actually spend more time with the cameramen on the boat than we do with our own families, if you think about it. You’re with them 24/7 essentially for five or five and a half months and you don’t see your own family that much. So you either grow to really like these guys or not; it’s one way or the other.

AVC: The past few seasons, Discovery will also have somebody with the Coast Guard. When something goes down with the Coast Guard that the show is going to cover, the captains will oftentimes be listening in on the radio. Are you told to do that?

BW: It depends. If it’s a dangerous situation with another boat, we’re always monitoring to see if we can give some assistance. We also want to know if there’s anyone around here, because you’re going to want them to look out for you. So 90 percent of the time, we’re already aware of it. But every once in a while, we’ll get the news through the phones or communications or the Internet that, say, there’s a boat way out west and it’s on fire. And it’s something that the public wants to see and it’s an additional danger on the ocean so what they’ll do is alert us of it and once they alert us of it, we’re aware of it.

AVC: You’ve had notoriously bad luck with greenhorns, even though some of the guys have come from other commercial fishermen jobs. Do you think the show has made it so that more people want to fish crab or has shown how real it is and that it’s actually dangerous?

BW: That’s probably one of the best questions we’ve had so far. You would think with the realism of the show that people would realize this is a job that 90 percent of guys fail at. But I had one guy from down South that bothered me for two years for a job, said he was an ex-Marine, said he was an ex-commercial fisherman in the Gulf, and both things should have been perfect intros to being a good deckhand. He worked on sport boats, as have I, which means he should pay attention to detail, because sport boats are valuable vessels and you have to keep them clean and shined up and perfect. So I thought this guy would be perfect and potentially could have been one of the best guys we ever had, but he ended up actually being one of the worst.

What the show has done is created an effect where people come up to me and say, “Oh, I want to just try this once.” Well, we’re not looking for someone to buy a ticket and go for a ride for 20 minutes and get off and say, “I rode that ride.” We want guys that are going to stick it out. One of the questions I always ask is when someone will ask me for a job, I’ll say, “I don’t have a job on my boat, but I have some buddies that aren’t on the show that have boats. Would you be interested?” And if they turn their noses up, I’ll know right then that the only thing they want to do is be on a damn TV show, and I won’t give them the time of day. Someone really needs to have the motivation and the drive to do this and to want to come up. If someone wants us to give them a ticket and take the ride so they can say they did this one year, we don’t want anything to do with those guys.

AVC: You want guys that’ll fish cod as much as they’ll fish crab on TV.

BW: Exactly. You want someone who wants to have it as a career.

What’s funny is the best guys are the ones that are really on their last legs; guys that don’t have a family business to go back to. If a guy is engaged to be married, he’s the worst one to get, because he’s going to be sad and he’s going to be lonely from leaving his girl at home. The question I ask is if they’re happily married; if they say yes, I say, “Stay that way. Don’t go fishing.” If you have a girlfriend and you’re like, “Yeah, we’re talking about getting married,” well go find something else to do. Don’t come up here; stay away.

The other thing is if they’re part of a family business. Because if someone has something else to fall back on, as soon as this job gets to be too much to handle, they know they have something to fall back on and they’re out the door and ready to leave. So I always try to find out if they have something to go back to, like if their dad has a concrete business or are they carpenters or something, because if they have an out, they’ll take it. Basically, you want to find a guy that’s desperate and he’s going to get through this no matter what it takes. They’re so hard to find.

The allure of being on the show has made it really crazy. I’m on the road all the time. Like I said, I’ve done 15 cities since March and I get the greenhorn question everywhere I go. And I spend time in the south where it’s warm and the southeast and the southwest, too, and those are the worst guys, because they’ve never been around the cold. I tell them to go sit in a meatpacking plant for two days straight and have someone come in there about every 20 minutes and throw a glass of ice water in their face and then call me. And they’ll say, “Well that sounds silly” and I’ll tell them it’s not far from what we do. You’ve never seen snow and you’re telling me you’re going to go out on the boat in the cold and have your beard freeze into your mustache and your nostrils freeze together when you inhale? And people get mad, too. They’re like, “How do you know I’m not going to make it?” Well, I’ve only done it for 37 years and it’s about a 10 percent success rate. I think I’ve got about a 90 percent chance that you’re not going to make it, ding-a-ling.

AVC: The show obviously documents the rough conditions, but it doesn’t show the length of it all—the show can’t realistically document a 30-hour grind or the pain that comes from the repetitive motion of bending over and picking up bait all day; it can’t convey that stuff, really.

BW: That’s what I tell people. They’re like, “Is it as bad as it looks?” and I tell them, “No, it’s worse.” You can’t show cold on TV. It looks cold, but you can’t feel how cold that is. You don’t see the 30 hours where all we did was haul pots. Discovery shows really bad pots and really good pots, but they don’t show the middle-of-the-road stuff, because who cares about average? They want to see someone be a zero or a hero. So if you’re just on so-so fishing and nothing’s going on, it goes on for hours and hours and days and days and you’re not going to see them. They don’t get that part of it; all they see are these exciting moments on the show and all this craziness and they think that it’s always this pinnacle of activity and, a lot of times, it’s just a hard grind in lousy conditions.

What do the Hillstrands say? “It’s like being in jail with a chance of drowning.”

AVC: Did you know guys like the Hillstrands going in to the show? Have you gotten closer to the other captains?

BW: Oh, I’ve known all of these guys. I’ve been fishing longer than anyone on the show, I think. Johnathan [Hillstrand] started really early at like 14 or 15, and I think he’s within a year of me, but as far as the guys on the show, I’ve got more years experience than all of them.

Andy [Hillstrand] and I were fishing partners. We did tinder herring together. It was a really aggressive form of tendering and we had the best equipment, so he and I made a ton of money and had a great time and we set up our boats quicker than anybody. We’d raft up and harpoon for days at a time and barbecue and shoot clay pigeons and it was a lot of fun.

I’ve known Sig for years. Sig’s been Sig, he’s a hardcore guy and my hat’s off to him; he’s a great guy.

AVC: Deadliest Catch shows you making a ton of money, but crab fishing isn’t cheap. You can answer this to the extent you want, but how much is a crab boat and how much are you spending a season? Like how much is a gallon of gas? Is marine gas more expensive and how much gas do you use?

BW: I’ll put it this way: I started 35 or 37 years ago or whatever it was, and I made more money on the deck than I do in the wheelhouse now. The government is coming in. I think 27 percent of it is taxes and fees off the top. The cost of fuel has gone up astronomically, the cost of insurance is through the roof, the cost of steel to make the pots is higher, the lines are more, the bait is more—they used to be in the teens, now they’re 65 cents, squid is 90 cents. The cost of crab hasn’t come up to the same level as all the things it takes to catch it.

So is it still a good job? Yeah. Is it the same job it was in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s? No. We were rock stars making rock star money back then. I was a kid from Pennsylvania with no ties, and one year I made $300,000 in seven months. And that was in 1988 or ’89 and you could buy a new Lincoln Continental for $6,000 and you could buy a house in Seattle for $60,000. We were living large and that’s where all the mystique of this thing came in, and it’s carried on in the years.

Do I have the skills to do anything else? Yeah, sort of. I’m good around boats and electricity and things like that, but do I want to work on some shipyard 12 months a year and not have time to travel? So it’s still a decent avenue to make a buck, but it’s nowhere near what it was years ago.

AVC: What’s it like working with your son? Has it made you closer?

BW: Well originally, as with a lot of us in commercial fishing, I was a divorced parent and I didn’t really know him that well. His mom did a great job raising him, Christian high school, Christian college, but as with a lot of kids, he put four years into school and was not even close to getting a degree. He was doing next to nothing and college was expensive and so I was like, “Nuh uh. You’re going to come up to Alaska, you’re going to hate this and you’re going to finish your degree and move on.” And, contrary to popular belief, he ended up liking it and falling in love with it and is taking it over as a career.

To be honest, he was a pain to deal with; he would back-talk and smart-mouth and I was doing everything I could to elevate him through the ranks as any father would and he was fighting me about it. At some point last season, I expressed to him that I was tired of arguing with him about teaching him what I’ve learned over 37 years in a short period of time and if he didn’t get his act together, he can find another boat. And with that conversation, he turned around and has been growing by leaps and bounds. His knowledge has grown exponentially and he’s paying attention. He’s listening and figuring out he doesn’t necessarily have to use all of my techniques, but he listens to what they are and makes his own judgment from there. So we’ve become a lot closer in a lot of ways and he’s grown tremendously from us being together on the boat.

AVC: Do you think he’s going to end up being a captain?

BW: You know, that’s a big step. Up in Alaska we’re trying to work on the boat so he can gain more of a mechanical background. You see these young kids and for some reason, all of a sudden, someone says, “Okay, you’re the captain” and well, they’re not. You have people’s lives at stake. Politically, I don’t want to get involved in this one, but it takes years of being an expert before entering the wheelhouse and a lot of them shouldn’t.

We have Elliott [Neese] who is a young captain but has years of experience—not all of it good—but to see what’s happening with him, I’m amazed he doesn’t have more problems with insurance companies. Josh [Harris], he’s happy-go-lucky, not a real knowledge of anything mechanical on the boat. And what happens is that if something goes wrong on the boat, you can have the best engineer on the boat with you, but all in all, if things really hit the fan and you’re looking at loss of vessel and loss of life, everyone’s looking at the wheelhouse. You need to be able to make that decision to save these guys and a lot of these guys are so far from that point, it’s unbelievable. And they want to jump up and down and call themselves captain and it’s kind of scary, really. I wonder what’s going to happen to the industry down the road.

AVC: If you look at someone like Edgar Hansen on the Northwestern, he knows that boat backward and forward. It makes a huge difference.

BW: Edgar is one of my pals. I was doing a NASCAR event and they asked me if I wanted to invite any other captains and I said, “No, but I want to invite Edgar.” Edgar is Edgar; he’s not pretentious, he doesn’t have an attitude, doesn’t have an ego. Sig would probably want too much money, but I wouldn’t mind hanging out with him so I gave them Edgar’s number.

AVC: Do you have any sense of how long the show will go on and how long you think you’d stay with it? It sort of seems like Discovery Channel
could just keep it rolling with new captains coming in and out every few years.

BW: Well, I don’t think just any group of guys can make this happen. Phil [Harris] was one of the original guys and we lost Phil and Phil’s still as much a part of the show as some of the guys on the show. Sig’s been on for 10 years or since conception. You lose Sig, you lose Time Bandit and you’re not going to keep this fan base. These guys have developed a fan base and these people can relate to these guys like they’re family. To think you’re just going to bring in some new boat and it’s going to fill the slot, that’s crazy. That’s not going to happen.

This a critical year, because a lot of those boats are up for contracts, because they thought 10 years was going to be the extent of this whole thing, myself included. This is my contract year.

As far as how long I think it’ll go: I’d certainly like to be on the show the last year it was on, but do I want to do another five years of crab fishing? No. But I do want to have something else going when this thing is over, because when you’re on television, if you’re not on a show anymore, two years later you’re Gary Coleman; nobody knows who you are. So I’ve been pursuing a couple of other avenues to try and sidestep into something.

But I’ve got a couple more years in me. I’m seriously trying to get Zach into the wheelhouse and that’s going to take a little time. So we’ll see what happens.

AVC: Maybe you could have a sport fishing spinoff.

BW: Those are a dime a dozen. I’ve actually been talking to Discovery about a travel show to seaports around the world. It’s a little bit like Anthony Bourdain. His vocabulary is pretty tough to compete with, but it’s kind of the same thing. Travel around and whether it’s a sailing port or a sport fishing port or a yachting port—that’d be the show that I’d like to do, because that’s pretty much what I do with my life anyway. I just need someone to come along with a fricking camera.

AVC: So you’ve gotten the TV bug?

BW: I hate this quote, but they’re the ones that said it—when I signed on with Discovery, I went to Silver Springs to look through my contract. One of the guys upstairs said, “Captain Bill, you’re not going to get rich doing this show.” And they hate it when I quote them on that, because he didn’t lie to me there, but he said “you’re going to have a voice that people listen to,” and it was true. I go to NASCAR events and I get up on stage and do a Q&A and it’s overwhelming, it brings a tear to your eye. I do this Wounded Warrior thing and I get people to donate just because I’m on the show. What he said was absolutely true: to have a voice that people listen to is pretty rewarding and, down the road, it might be rewarding financially. I’m looking for sponsorship and I’ve been working with a couple of different companies trying to get some stuff together, but it does open doors. I go sport fishing all around the world and I just got invited to fish in the Dominican Republic by Marlin Magazine. They flew me in and paid me to fish in the D.R., because I’m on the show.

It’s pretty cool stuff. I spent a weekend at Dale [Earnhardt] Jr.’s house, because he likes the show. We were barbecuing and drinking beers and telling stories, because he likes the show. It’s a pretty cool byproduct.

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