Football has the Manning brothers. Tennis has the Williams sisters. TV has the Wahlbergs, Baldwins, Kardashians and more. Dungeness crab fishing has the Retherford brothers. And it’s game on for brothers Mikey and Chris Retherford, as they captain two of the boats in Discovery Channel’s new Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove (premiering Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 9/8c). The Retherford boys are second generation fishermen who have followed their father, Mike Sr., in building a successful life off the sea. While fishing initially started as a means to make money for Chris, it is now a true found love. We recently got the scoop from Chris Retherford on why the majority of their family is on his boat not Mikey’s, the competition between the brothers and why they are known as the nicest bullies.
Let’s start by getting some clarification on the family, it looks like there are actually four Retherford siblings on boats?
There are four siblings. So it goes, Mikey (35), which is my older brother, and he runs the Winona J and then I run the Excalibur. My younger sister, Kelsea (26), works with me on the Excalibur. And then the baby, Kyle, he works with me also. Kyle will be turning 24.
I understand that your dad first started fishing in the ’80s. Can you talk a little bit about how old you were when you first got started and when your dad actually allowed you on the boat to fish with him?
I know me and Mikey, we started young. I think the first time I went fishing, shoot, I was probably 10 to 12 range. I know Mikey went crabbing when Mikey was 13 or 14. Then Kyle, Kyle used to go crab fishing, he was the youngest out of the bunch. We called him cabin boy. He would keep the galley clean, make sandwiches, come out and do bait when he could. He was around 10 or 12 also. We’ve always been around the boats. Dad would get in to offload, and Mom would drag us down no matter where we were. If we were out in Newport, Astoria, wherever. We’d go down to the boats and basically get in the way and hang out with Dad when he was offloading. Because once he got back, normally he would leave again, so that was our time to see him.
Knowing this is really one of the most deadliest industries in the U.S., and with the West Coast particularly being incredibly dangerous with your wicked winter seas, what made you want to follow your dad and continue doing this, out of choosing anything in life?
I started fishing with my father. I would fish in the summer so I had enough money. That way, I could play sports and stuff during school and I didn’t have to get a job. Fishing always starts out with the money — the money that you can make in such a short time. Then, you fall in love with every aspect of it. The ocean, you know, the harvest, the lifestyle. That’s what kind of draws you to it. Initially, it’s always about money and then as you grow as a fisherman, it starts becoming a lot more.
And the dangers of it doesn’t weigh on you and your family? In the first episode, before you head out your family is deep in prayer and thought.
Well, we’re a Christian family and I would pray whether I was a truck driver. The prayers aren’t due to the safety aspect. Anything is dangerous. Everybody has their lot in life and this is the passage that we’ve chosen. The dangers come and go. It’s not always dangerous on the ocean. You have the winter months and the derby season — yes, those can be dangerous, but I believe we all have enough knowledge that we are supposed to make the right judgment call. You’ve got a job to do and you do it.
The derby season seems thrilling and just a huge rush. How would you describe it? Is it something that you look forward to every year?
It is. The preparation for crab season is intense. Normally, you spend a few weeks getting ready, getting your pots ready, deciding where you’re going to fish and trying to plan in your head. “OK, where are the crab going to be at this year?” Nowadays, the fleet is a coast wide fleet and it has gotten so efficient, that if you really don’t land on the crab at the first get-go, you get left behind. It’s nerve wracking, getting her going, trusting your gut. You trust in your judgment where you’re going to leave your gear, where you’re going to go. It’s very intense. It’s a very intense process all the way up until you get your pots, and you dump them in the water and you’re heading home from dump day and you’re finally like there’s a relief like, “Well, hope there is a crab here,” because there’s so much build up to that point. Once you get working, once you get to work, it’s different, but the build up to that point, it’s pretty intense.
There’s so much competition now for you, too. But you guys are unique in the fact that you’re two brothers, you’re both captaining your own boats so how does that strategy come into play and work in your favor?
Having somebody to work with is awesome. Most everybody has a person to work with. The nice thing about fishing with my brother or around my brother is that there’s never a lie to be fed. It’s always the straight truth and there’s no … You don’t have to read between the lines. He’ll tell me exactly what he’s getting. I’ll tell him. It’s all honesty. I think that plays a huge part because you always know what he’s doing. If he’s in a different area than you, you know where to go or if you don’t need to go there. I think it helps.
Also, I think sometimes I think it has a downfall, you know, that if he’s on crab and I’m not. Then I put my pots next to him, that’s going to soak that crab up that much quicker. There’s a fine line there too. Best-case scenario is that we both land on crab and we can work the way we work and not have to be next to each other.
How did it end up that you got both your siblings — Kelsea and Kyle —on your boat?
We bought the Winona J in 2008. Prior to buying the Winona J, my dad and Mikey split time on the Excalibur as captains. I still worked on the back deck. We — me, Mikey and Dad — went in as partners and bought the Winona. It was Mikey’s turn. My dad wasn’t ready to get out of the business all the way. Mikey was wanting to run a boat full-time. He didn’t want to have to split time. So he got that opportunity. Then I started splitting time with my father on the Excaliber. Then, my dad still crabbed, Mikey still crabbed. I still worked the back deck. Then I got the opportunity to run a different boat, the Lisa Melinda for crab season. I took it. I ran it for two years. Well, the two years that I was on the Lisa Melinda running it, Kyle became of age and was ready to go to work. He went to work with my dad. He started shrimping with Mikey on the Winona, and then my dad was like, “Hey. I want Kyle to work with me.” The old man used his leverage, got Kyle over with him, and that’s where he stayed. Then, when Kelsea came to work, we happened to need a guy, so I offered her a position as a $200 a day person. She came out. That’s how I got Kelsea and Kyle with me.
I didn’t know if there was a story there, that they’d much rather work under you vs. your brother?
No, no, no. Mikey’s the favorite brother. He’s the nicest guy. I think they’d prefer working with him.
Kenny Ripka (the captain of Redeemer) had described you guys as the nicest bullies. Usually you don’t hear those two words together. Why would someone think you guys are bullies, and then of course, the flip side, nice about it?
I worked with Kenny on deck and then I started running the boat. I was working as a captain and a crew, so I’d take my trips up and I’d run the boat. How that came about is basically, when you’re fishing and you’re working with your friends, [but when] you’re running a business you’re not trying to be buddies with people. You have to run your business. There would be lots of times where it would be like, “Hey, can we take a day off?” “No,” and you say it with a smile. “Do we got to do this?” “No, we’re doing this, let’s get her done.” You know, you say it with a smile.
We work hard, we work very hard and there are a lot of times where we’re tired but we still have to push on. That’s how Kenny started to call us the nicest bullies is basically, you’d say, “Get her done,” with a smile instead of yelling. You can’t have a lot of emotion with your crew. That’s basically what it boils down to.
Do you and Mike have any kind of competitive flair between the two of you? Like rivalries as far as who yields the most year over year?
Absolutely, me and Mikey, we’re best friends, but we also compete to push each other. It’s funny because at the end of the year, the boats make the same amount of money. I mean, some years I’m ahead, some years he’s ahead, but we go from season to season, like “Hey, I’m going to catch more fish than you this year” or “I’m going to catch more crab than you.” So we use that to drive us, more so than anything.
For me, I’m part owner of the Winona J. I don’t have any ownership in the Excaliber, but I have to run the Ex with the mentality that I own it. I want to catch more crab a lot of times than Mikey, just one pound is all it takes. I don’t want to catch a lot more crab, just one pound, because I want my boat that I own to make money also. That’s how it is in every season. I compete but I don’t want to beat him too bad, because then I’m not making money on the other end.
What are your average work hours like when you’re out there?
During crab season, normally, you don’t come in unless the weather’s too bad to fish or you run out of bait or you’re full. The boat never stops. It’s an ongoing rotation. The crew rotates, sleep shifts, and so they normally do 15 and 5, or 20 and 5, depends on if Kyle rotates up in the wheelhouse with me. It all depends. The boat never stops, that’s the whole plan. When it’s go time, it’s go time.
Watching you go into the bar – a treacherous waterway that connects the ocean to the bay (its claimed numerous boats and lives over the years) — is nerve wracking. Is your heart racing when you do that? Or are you at the point where you’re confident?
It’s not always like that in the winter months, but it can be. Sometimes even in the summer months, you get a big swell that rolls through. Every single time you go in and out, it’s not that bad, but you find yourself having to trust in the year’s time. You just got to read the ocean, and read the tides, and try to make the right judgment call.
I mean, you’re confident. We’re in the wheelhouse, so we have the confidence to do it. The thing of it is, with a bar, you can do the timing, you can sit out the tips and time. Time the swells and hope that your timing’s right, you know? There’s only so much you can do, the rest is basically in the Lord’s hands. You hope you made the right call, when to go, and we’ve been very fortunate.
May that good fortune continue.
You can follow Chris Retherford and his family on Tuesdays at 9/8c on Discovery Channel in Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove.