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Deadliest Catch returns and Wizard Captain Keith Colburn talks about the challenging new season

It’s USA versus Russia in a War for Crab as Deadliest Catch returns to Discovery this coming Tuesday.

And for Captain Keith Colburn of the F/V Wizard, the stakes have never been higher with the pressures not just from competing with his fellow Dutch Harbor peers, but from Russian fishermen, who are playing loose and fast with the ethical fishing rule book.

This season is a return of old familiar faces too in Johnathan Hillstrand and others who disappeared for a spell. It also sees Monte Colburn and his son fishing alongside Keith on the Wizard.

Josh Harris and Casey McManus pair up again as co-captains with the two starring in Deadliest Catch: Bloodline right after the original Deadliest Catch airs.

But for one captain of the F/V Wizard, there’s some bad blood and tricky politics ahead.

This season on Deadliest Catch

Captain Keith and his brother Monte have had quite a bit of back and forth on the series, but we learn that Keith truly appreciates his brother’s work ethic and feels strongly about his crew this season 16.

But make no mistake, Colburn is definitely not a fan of Captain Steve “Harley” Davidson of the Southern Wind. Still.

For Colburn, his expertise and his bigger boat can weather anything that Southern Wind brings to the chase for the King or opilio crab.

Fans know Colburn is a hard worker, a self-made man, and suffers no fools. The Wizard is back this coming Tuesday, but what about all the wildcards?

We chatted with Captain Keith Colburn in Boise, Idaho, about Season 16.

Captain Keith Colburn of Deadliest Catch
Captain Keith Colburn has had a long successful run and has no plans to retire anytime soon. Pic credit: Discovery

Keith Colburn interview

Monsters & Critics: First and foremost, how’s your health? Any complications from that back issue in 2018, are you fully healed? Is everything good?

Keith Colburn: Everything is good. I had a few osteomyelitis attacks, two vertebrae, a little bit, and one disc. But for the most part, I’m totally active.

I’ve been skiing, ride my bike, lifting a little bit of weight. I’m feeling pretty good.  I feel a heck of a lot better today than I did two years ago, I’ll tell you that.

M&C: Is Monte back with you on the Wizard?

Keith Colburn:  Let’s just put it this way. My brother’s my right-hand man. We do argue… but my brother’s back on board, and to be honest, I can’t do it without him. He really is a great fisherman, great captain, and a great pain in my a**.

M&C: Who else is working for you, and who are we going to see on the Wizard this season?

Keith Colburn: The Wizard crew is really solid and stable. I’ve got my first mate, Gary Soper. Soper has been with me for years. He’s a crusty old dude with a beard, and he usually has a smoke hanging out of his mouth.

He doesn’t say a lot but is he is the rock star for me on deck. I worked with Soper..[since] 30 years ago on deck together. We’ve been together, well he, Monte and myself now for 30 years on the Wizard.

There’s Roger, my engineer now who’s been with the Wizard for I think going on about 10 years and has worked his way from being the deckhand to not only be the deckhand but also an engineer now as well.

I’ve got Tyler, who’s a total badass, uh, that is, you know, basically my stack man and super deckhand.  Tyler’s brother Todd, who I still kind of consider a greenhorn.

I’ve got basically three guys who have been with me for a couple of years now.  I’ve got OJ, my little Filipino guy who’s just the hardest worker on the planet, but, you know, he really doesn’t have the physique to be a crab fisherman, but somehow he manages to make it happen.

And Monte’s son, Gregory, is with us as well. So it’s a good crew. We have got a little bit of an experience problem with about half of the guys on deck, which is going to make things and had made and is making things challenging for the boat.

But overall, we’re getting through it, and we’re doing pretty well.  Then, we have a brand new greenhorn that people will see, he’s never fished crab before, his name’s Luke. You won’t see him till the very end of opilio fishing.

M&C: This season, the Russians are going to be a factor. Talk about that if you would.

Keith Colburn: Well, we’ve been battling the Russians for over two decades. And in effect, it’s price wars. The Russians have been flooding our markets with illegally caught crab, with putting crab to market in the United States.

Shipping it through Asian countries then back in the U.S.A., then repackaging it and putting on shelves.

And the consumer thinks that they’re eating Alaskan Bering Sea crab from us and they haven’t been. And some of the quality standards are not there. So they’ve impacted our price for years.

The difference this year is that they’re trying to clean up their act.  If they do it or not, who knows. But their fisheries and managers are finally starting to get it and crackdown on the overharvesting illegal fisheries, illegal, fishing, and everything.

But it’s delayed the start started their season a little bit. Which really is helping us. So instead of flooding our market with King crab in August and September, that Russian crab won’t make it to the States until with any luck, our crab gets to the market first.

And if that is the case, we’re going to have the best price without a doubt.

M&C: So the retailers have no real way of verifying where the crab comes from?

Keith Colburn:  It’s something we’ve fought, and I fought back in Washington DC, for 20 years and, it’s unfortunate because we are a processed product and frozen products. It’s not like USA pork, beef, chicken, whatever.

And so it can be shipped in, and there’s lots of people that ship it in, repackage it, put it in a red, white and blue box and send it to stores and casinos and everybody else under the premise that it’s Alaskan King crab, Alaskan opilio crab.

But a lot of times it’s not. Now they do have to put some kind of signage that says ‘product from Russia’ on the box. But more times than not, it such fine print that you can’t hardly read it.

Even the guys at the retail store or let’s see stores. I’ve done a lot of crab promotions throughout the United States with various companies like Kroger stores all over the United States, Publix stores, all over the United States, both of which have great seafood counters.

It is educating those folks as well because they get a red, white and blue box and they watch Deadliest Catch and they just make the assumption that it’s coming from us,  when in fact it’s been repackaged input into the supply chain to look like it came from us.

So it’s really deceiving, and the deception has been so good that over the course of the last 23 years or more, the Bering Sea crabbers have lost over $1 billion in revenue to this.

So I just say, [when purchasing crab] everybody has to ask, ‘where is this from?’  Because our crabs are better, our crabs go through better control standards. We’ve got better management and sustainability standards. We don’t over-harvest. We do everything the right way.

And I’m proud of that as a fisherman that we are…and there’s times we wish the managers would give us more to catch. But you know what? If we are catching crab and in 40 years, my grandkids are catching crab?  I’ll be a happy guy.

M&C: Can you talk about Johnathan Hillstrand coming back on the series? Is he going to be on the Time Bandit, or was that ship sold? How was Johnathan going to be worked back into the cast and dealing with you as a competitor?

Keith Colburn: To be honest, it was a surprise to all of us. I mean, we generally know what’s going on and after the season, but, and Johnathan is actually a very good friend of mine.

I’m in Boise, Idaho and my girlfriend, Hillary, we were doing a FaceTime cocktail hour with Johnathan and his wife Heather right when the recent 6.3 earthquake hit. Oh yeah, so Jonathan’s on the phone, saying: ‘I can see stuff moving in the background!’

M&C: How is Johnathan? Has he worked into the season? Is he, does he have a ship, a boat? Does he ride with someone else?

Keith Colburn: So you want me to spoil this! [laughs] Well, I’ll just put it this way. Johnathan surprised all of us.

He came back and worked with another boat that is on the show and came in as not only a mentor but with the very complex crab regulations we have… Johnathan, being an owner of crab, needed to get back and catch some crab. And so he ends up going out on another boat.

And to be honest, I can’t wait to see Johnathan Hillstrand drive this kid absolutely crazy.

[laughing] On another note? The coyote and the Roadrunner started working again this year, [still laughing], but he’s back and Johnathan drove [bleep… unnamed captain] absolutely nuts!

M&C: So last season, big drama was between you and Harley Davidson, You guys have a lot of history, and they kind of ginned it up a little bit. What’s the reality with Harley and you this season?

Keith Colburn: There is definitely old bad blood being harvested. And it is very much a very real thing. This year, you know what? I am going to be honest. I don’t like the guy, okay?

I would imagine some point, me and Harley are yelling… yes. So whatever.

M&C: Josh Harris’s spinoff Bloodline and I wanted your opinion about that. Phil’s charts and the Kona coast for fishing?

Keith Colburn: Well, Josh has always been a huge part of the show ever since Phil [Capt. Phil Harris]  passed away without question. And a lot of it’s just been Josh’s learning curve.

I mean, he [Josh] didn’t take it serious. He wasn’t even closely professional, in any manner whatsoever. The last few years he’s finally turned the corner, and he has started to do that.

I’m really curious to see what this Bloodline shows about because I can guarantee you, you take Josh and Casey and have them go fishing some tropical waters.

I just call it two knuckleheads, [laughing] two knuckleheads who try to go deepsea fishing there!

I would have to think it’s going to be entertaining, and, uh, I don’t know. We just have to wait and see. But I’m interested to see the show and how it all plays out.

M&C: I ask you every time we speak, how long do you think you’re going to be fishing in the Bering sea and part of the show?

Keith Colburn: Well, I own my boat. I own my business. I do really well, and that’s not going away. When the show ends, my boat will still be catching crab.

Will my brother Monte be running it full time, and I’ll just be managing the boat from Seattle? Just call me captain beach commander?

But I talk to him every day when he’s fishing. He’s been fishing recently without me to finish up opilio season. He’s calling me for advice. He’s calling me for ideas, he’s throwing things at me and offer me whatever.

And, so the boat’s going to keep working regardless of whether the shows on TV or not or whether the show is on and the Wizard’s not on it. Regardless.

I don’t see myself hanging it up anytime soon, but I’m definitely going to take a reduced role here and give my brother more time at the wheel and running in the boat.

I don’t know. Eventually, I’ll slowly phase myself out. But I’ll be honest, I love fishing. I love everything that goes into it from trying to track the weather, to keeping track of where the crab are and have a strategy involved. The competition with other boats.

There’s just so much in it and even when we’ve been battling the weather…I love all of those things. I’m not going to just step away from it.

But you know what, but I’m definitely going to start taking a reduced role, and there’s no question about that.

Deadliest Catch is returning for its 16th season on Tuesday, April 14 at 8 PM ET/PT followed by the kickoff of Deadliest Catch: Bloodline at 9 PM ET/PT. 

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