It’s hard to believe that a 46-year-old grandfather and third-generation fisherman is now a recognizable face across the nation.
Just ask Andy Hillstrand.
Thanks to “The Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel, a series which has documented the lives of crab fishermen in Alaska’s Bering Sea through six seasons, Hillstrand, his co-captain Johnathan and their crew on the Time Bandit are known to TV viewers everywhere.
“We never could have imagined it,” said Hillstrand by phone from his home in Arizona. “We get recognized in supermarkets, restaurants, everywhere we go. It just blows me away how people are so interested in crab fishing. It’s great.”
Hillstrand said he is glad that “Deadliest Catch” has put a microscope on the thankless work that fishermen do.
“What is has done, is it’s brought attention to fishing,” he said. “We always give kudos to all fishermen. It doesn’t matter if you’re fishing lobster or whatever you’re catching. You’re still doing a dangerous job.”
Hillstrand and some of his fellow captains will be coming to the land of lobster soon, as “The Deadliest Catch Live” will appear at 7 p.m. Sunday at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. The event promises to have the camaraderie of “After the Catch,” a companion show to “Deadliest Catch,” which has the captains sitting around, drinking beer and swapping tales.
“It’s going to be stories that people don’t ever hear,” he explained. “There’s 10,000 hours of footage filmed, and people just want to know more about what it is. We take questions and we do a lot of audience participation in it. The idea got mentioned to us by a friend, and they set it up. We just thought we’d go see if people wanted to hear what we do to say.”
The Hillstrand brothers originally turned down the show that made them famous.
“They asked us the first year and we said no,” Captain Andy recalled. “Then we saw [Capt.] Sig [Hansen of the Northwestern,] and he said it’s not so bad. So in the second year they came to us again and asked us, so the next king crab season, we said OK, we’ll do it. We figured we’d have some good home movies.”
Hillstrand said “Deadliest Catch” is a fairly accurate representation of what crab fishing is.
“Obviously, they follow the storyline and see how it develops, and that’s what they get their stories from,” he said. “[Much of last season focused on the stroke and eventual demise of Capt. Phil Harris.] I didn’t want to see Phil with half of his skull cap gone, but that’s kind of like the TV part of it.”
The Time Bandit has three fixed cameras, two on deck and one in the wheelhouse, and two cameramen with portable cameras.
“It’s one more guy on deck we have to worry about,” he said. “When all hell’s breaking loose, that’s when they want to ask you a question, when you’re trying to deal with the problem. But it’s been five years now, so we’re more used to it.”
The worst situation ever for Hillstrand: “One time, we were out in 100-foot-plus seas, and I thought we were going to die. Usually king crab [season] has really bad weather, with a minimum of 40-foot waves. They [the show’s producers] must have been pulling their hair out because it’s been so nice that past six years. Lucky for us, bad for Discovery.”
There are now around 70 boats in the world which fish crab, down from around 300. As “Deadliest Catch” illustrates, crab fishing remains a male domain.
“One woman on a boat is like one man on a boat with five women,” Hillstrand said. “It doesn’t work. It just causes conflict. When you’re stuck out at sea two months at a time, it’s just easier to have guys. Truthfully, the guys can do every job on the boat and a woman can’t.”
In the offseason, Hillstrand, who wrote the book “Time Bandit” with brother Johnathan, lives in Arizona with his wife Sabrina. They have two grown daughters and two grandsons. His main hobby is training horses using the horse whispering method.
“I’m done training other people’s horses,” he said. “I’ll just train my five horses and have fun.”
Hillstrand is still waiting to hear if Time Bandit will be back next season. If not, he’s had a good run.
“When my 4-year-old grandson sees the TV come on, and hears the Bon Jovi [theme song], he says, ‘Grandpa Andy, Grandpa Andy,’” he said. “So I’m going to have a really good documentary that my grandkids’ grandkids can show and say, ‘This is what grandpa used to do.’ Because who knows how long crab fishing is going to be around?”
Limited seating remains available for Deadliest Catch Live. For tickets, call the Merrill Auditorium box office at 842-0800 or visit porttix.com.