On Land, “Deadliest Catch” Fishermen John And Andy Hillstrand Are Every Bit The Characters You Think They Are.
By Karl J. Paloucek
You know things have gotten wild in the world of television when Alaskan crab fishermen become TV stars. But as unlikely as it may be, it’s also undeniable: The captains of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch (Season 5 premieres April 14, part of Discovery Channel’s “Alaska Week”) have attained household-word status in many households across America. We recently caught up with Captains John and Andy Hillstrand while putting together a spread in our print edition of Channel Guide Magazine about the various manly personalities who have become the face of Discovery Channel. Many of the network’s hosts’ answers revealed pretty tough backgrounds, but the Hillstrand brothers’ took the cake … and crushed it to dust. But as tough as they are aboard the Time Bandit, they’re also pretty funny — when they’re not talking about the death that stalks them at sea.
Channel Guide Magazine: Deadliest Catch is heading into Season 5 now, but going back to the beginning, how did all of this begin for you guys?
John Hillstrand: They originally asked us and we said, “No, we’re too cool.” No one would let them on the boats. And then, the second year, we go, “We might as well, so we have a good documentary.” Because they have professional guys filming. We make little boat films all the time.
Andy Hillstrand: I’ve made boat films since the ’80s.
JH: But not a complete story of start, the whole trip, you know? So we go, “Well, we might as well do it, and then our grandkids will be able to see it, see what Gramps did.” And then the third year we come back —
AH: We saved that guy.
JH: And people start following us at the airport and stuff.
AH: The third year of the show took off big-time, because we saved a guy. And then, after that, it seemed like it exploded. After that, it just got even bigger.
JH: So I think this year’s going to be even more people talking about the show, because once you think you can’t get any more crazier, it gets crazier out there. Once you think you can’t do any more — last year was just crazy. … This year’s a pretty intense year. Coast Guard’s working overtime pulling guys out of the water this year. Usually we lose five or six guys a year. This year’ll triple. We’re used to that, and we’re never going to be that guy, so that’s why we come back out.
CGM: How did you get started crab fishing in the first place? I’m sure your father must have been a fisherman.
JH: Since I was this tall [demonstrates short stature], my dad used to sail off into the sunset like a cowboy at the end of a movie. Leave home, leave all your problems behind.
CGM: And his dad?
JH: His dad loved fishing, too.
AH: But he was a politician and a lawyer. State legislature of Alaska — House of Representatives.
JH: We’re from Sweden — we’re Swedish, from fishing families. So it goes way back in our blood.
CGM: What was childhood like for you guys, growing up? What were your favorite toys?
JH: Skiffs and motorcycles. Guns … knives.
AH: Pretty much guns. Then we had boats.
JH: [Laughing] I had a knife, like, half as long as my leg. We used to play chicken. Rocks.
AH: We didn’t have much money, so we’d take socks — we’d call ’em whammy socks. We’d fill them up. I guess they’re called slapjacks for real. We’d hit each other — sock fights, rock fights …
JH: [Laughing] I think we had ADD. They spanked it right out of us. They used to spank the ADD right out of you. After you’re like, about 12 years old and they go, “Johnathan!” and you have to turn around because you’re looking for where the fist or the foot or something’s coming in at.
CGM: What kinds of guns are we talking about?
AH: .22s, anything we can get our hands on. Our brother Neal would grab a BB gun, because he couldn’t have a real gun, and he’d put a shotgun shell on the end of it, taped to it, and blew it off. [Editor’s Note: Don’t try this at home, kids … or any of you adults who should know better.]
JH: He black-taped it — a 30-odd-six shell at the end of it — and shot a squirrel.
AH: Anything he could get his hands on, basically.
JH: He was perhaps one of the greatest criminal minds of our decade.
CGM: What sort of toys do you have these days? What do you drive or ride, for example?
JH: Nice cars, nice bikes. We have lots of nice toys.
AH: I have a GMC ¾-ton [from] 2000.
JH: A 2008 Chevy. I’ve got all Chevys — Harleys and Chevys.
AH: He does. I quit riding when I was 19 because I got into a motorcycle accident.
JH: I’ve got 296 horsepower to the rear wheel when I hit my nitrous in one of my bikes. … And I’ve got a 540-horsepower Corvette.
CGM: Because there isn’t enough danger out at sea.
AH: Yeah, he has to put that NASA Space Shuttle thing on his bike.
JH: We love that rush. That rush will, like, let all your problems just go phew! [Laughs] You don’t think about them at all. [To Andy] You get on horses and ride.
AH: I just have horses.
JH: I was watching the PBR [Professional Bull Riders] cowboys —
AH: They’re insane.
JH: They are shaking! When the guy gets up — I always go, “That’s why they’re like us — that guy was never so alive right there.”
AH: I’d never seen a 2,000-pound bull until I walked into my buddy’s, and I saw a 2,000-pound bull — I was shaking just seeing it, [let alone] going, “Now I’m going to strap into it.”
JH: [To Andy] I told those guys you’re gonna get on a bull. They want you to call them.
AH: I’ve ridden fake bulls before — I’ve done the mechanical bulls, and I’ve ridden them for eight seconds, but you see this 2,000-pound animal looking to kill you, you go, “Heh, heh, I think I’d rather crab fish.”
JH: They only have to stay on for eight seconds. We’re stuck out there for three months.
AH: Still, in that eight seconds, they say that everything slows down.
CGM: Is there any food you guys refuse to eat?
AH: I don’t like to eat codfish, because we use so much of it for bait.
JH: Or herring. Although it’s a delicacy for a lot of people, who’d fight for it, the Norwegians — we’re Swedish, but the Norwegians, they’ll see a pot full of crab and they’ll be going, “Look at the codfish! It’s the codfish!” We’re going, “Look at the crab! Yeah!” It’s bait, to us. … Squid? I don’t eat calamari, because we use that for bait.
AH: We’ve eaten cod. It just doesn’t taste good. I’ll eat halibut all day long.
JH: And I don’t like beets. I don’t know why. I just never liked beets. [Laughs.]
AH: Man, I love beets. The thing I can’t stand is Brussels sprouts.
JH: I love Brussels sprouts!
AH: I was forced to eat them, and I got whipped because I was hiding them in my pants.
CGM: Going back to when you were kids, what was the first album you ever bought?
JH: KISS. “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night.”
AH: KISS Alive?
JH: No … it had fire on it. It wasn’t Destroyer. It was the one before Destroyer. That and Blue Öyster Cult. B.Ö.C., man. All the way.
AH: But our dad always had eight-tracks when we were kids. I remember we listened to Beatles — Jim Croce was huge.
JH: We listened to Elvis.
AH: Elvis — we’d listen to everything.
JH: I remember the songs we used to —
AH: Wolfman Jack was on the radio.
JH: [In extra-gravelly voice] Yeah! Wolfman Jack was on the radio! That guy was the coolest guy ever! I loved him. … In a non-kinda-gay way, I loved Wolfman.
CGM: There goes our political correctness.
JH: We’re so politically incorrect — they had a galley-cam, and they go, “We can’t use any of this,” because we can’t go four minutes without saying something. They bleep the swear words, but we bash politically —
AH: A kid came up to him in Minnesota and said, “Can’t you talk without having so many bleeps, Captain John?” “Get outta here, you bleepin’ kid!” [Laughing] You just kind of get with a bunch of guys and you just start talking trash. … We just grew up where you said anything and it was never [admonished] because our dad was — I mean, we never really saw people.
AH: Alaskans want to be left alone.
JH: You can carry a concealed weapon; you can still grow marijuana if you want to smoke it — I don’t smoke marijuana, but you can grow a quarter pound of marijuana up there. If they just taxed the drugs — let all the drug people out of jail — you could save a lot of money …
CGM: What about movies? Any movies that made you cry as a kid?
JH: The Champ. Ricky Schroder, man.
AH: Yep! That’ll tear you up! No matter —
JH: I don’t care who you are, man — that’s the only one.
AH: Well, that and Old Yeller got me. And Where the Red Fern frickin’ Grows, man. That stuff’ll tear you up as a kid. And of course, they show it to you at school, where you’re watching with all these chicks. [Contorts face as if crying] “Not gonna cry, man!” [Laughs]
CGM: So what can Deadliest Catch fans look forward to with this new season?
JH: I never laughed more — there were so many shenanigans and @#$% going on, on our boat — I never laughed more in my life, this year. This is the funnest year I’ve had. We caught so many crabs, so quick. We got big Mikey back. He’s big. We dumped 300 gallons of water on him, and Andy hits him with a 10-pound bag of flour — pffff! Oh, man, I cried so hard.
AH: We have way too much fun. But we also know that it’s serious.
JH: Oh, yeah. It’s heaven and hell out there, man.
AH: That’s what our dad always told me — he goes, “When it’s time to work, you work; when it’s time to play, you play.” He goes, “I gave you every tool to kill yourself with, and you still couldn’t do the job, you idiots!”
JH: We had our share of ice this year. Wait till you see the ice — that’s an evil, evil character.
AH: White is bad.
JH: See, the show started out and Mother Nature was a character in the boats. And now, after being on the show a while, I started watching a marathon, and I’ve got to know how Phil’s doing. I’ve got to know. … The more soap opera-y it gets, the more I’m hooked on this damn show. It’s like a guy’s soap opera.
AH: But you wait till Mother Nature, the main character, lines up one time really bad on us — we’ve all escaped the really, really bad weather the last few years.
JH: I think it’s because all these people have been praying for us around the country. Doesn’t hurt. I don’t think it hurts you — we’ve been lucky.
AH: It’s gonna happen at some point.
JH: We knock on wood a lot.
AH: Because you can’t just run and go to someplace — because it’s a day and a half away.
JH: [Laughing] It’s bad luck to be superstitious!
Credit: Discovery Channel/Cameron Glendenning