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The Most Dangerous Business in the World

How two Highland Park kids lit out for an Alaskan commercial fishing adventure.
photography courtesy of MC Crockett

Johnny Koons grew up at a place called Kanakuk Kamp, an 85-year-old summer camp in southwest Missouri that transforms city boys into leaner, scrappier versions of themselves. As the son of the director and one of the camp’s few year-round residents, Johnny called Kanakuk home for the first nine years of his life. He spent his days perfecting his target shooting, honing his line-casting technique, and paddling a canoe in a setting that would make Huck Finn jealous.

But in 1994, the Koons family left camp life for the tonier environs of Highland Park. They traded log cabins and thousands of acres of open wilderness for manicured blocks and “a backyard that I would feel bad keeping a dog in,” he says. Instead of having his pick of hundreds of other campers to run the woods with, Johnny found himself labeled a hillbilly interloper, out of step amid the Polo shirts and playdates of Armstrong Elementary School.

Around the same time, Joe Martin’s family resettled in Highland Park. His father, Joe Martin II, served as the founding pastor of Trinity Church Dallas on Cole Avenue. The boys met during that pivotal summer between fourth and fifth grades, bonding over muddy trails and riverbeds, fishing in Turtle Creek, and shooting .22 rifles in the wilds of Johnny’s grandfather’s ranch in Clifton, Texas, south of the city. They learned to trust each other’s instincts and keep an eye out for quickly turning weather.

Joe moved away from Highland Park High School during his sophomore year, finishing school in McKinney, where he connected with a whole new group of friends and immersed himself in Future Farmers of America. After graduation, Johnny, the more impetuous of the two, left to guide deer hunts at Selah Springs Ranch in Brady, about four hours south of Lubbock. Joe, square-jawed and methodical, stayed the traditional course, enrolling in the economics program at Texas Tech.

Years passed and in 2006, during Joe’s junior year, the friendship was rekindled when the two ran into each other at a Phi-Delt party. Johnny was in Lubbock visiting his cousin; the cousin’s roommate was none other than Joe. Johnny had been working summers as a deep-sea fishing guide at Tanaku Lodge in Elfin Cove, Alaska. The romanticism of working as a summer guide at Tanaku grabbed hold of Joe. Johnny warned him about the bone-deadening work and 16-hour days that deckhanding demanded, but his friend remained undeterred. With Johnny’s blessing, Joe sent his résumé to the lodge’s owners.

“I waited for two years for a position to open up,” Joe says. “The lodge is a small place. You have to wait until somebody leaves.” Finally, in May of 2008, he got the call. Joe boarded a plane for Elfin Cove two days after graduation.

Joe’s parents were surprisingly supportive of their son’s decision. Department of Labor statistics show that fishing is three times more deadly than logging. Lost fingers, drowning, slimy hooks through the skin, squalls, high seas—your basic parent’s worst nightmare. But his father, whose history with the church makes him see most everything in an ecclesiastic light, fell right in with the idea of his son as a fisherman. “After all,” Joe explains, “if it was good enough for the apostles, it was good enough for his son.”

As Joe stepped off the seaplane and onto the lodge’s dock in Alaska, fantasy gave way to a cold, wet reality. Johnny wouldn’t arrive for another month, and Joe’s fishing experience was limited to reeling in pond bass. You set the hook hard and fast, and the fish—all 5 pounds of it—fights back in fairly predictable ways. Not so with king and coho salmon, or a 100-pound halibut, which feel like you’re dragging a front door through 300 feet of water. Halibut are capable of killing a deckhand with a strike of the tail if they aren’t subdued in the water. “We’d keep a little snake charmer, a little .410 shotgun, and shoot them right in the head before we’d bring them onboard,” Johnny says. “If they’re alive when they get into the boat, someone’s getting hurt.”

Learning to work the deck meant learning new fishing techniques specific to kings and cohos. A lot of fish slipped through Joe’s hands in those first weeks. He’d get a king salmon to the surface, only to lose it by not sinking the club-like gaffing hook deeply enough into its jaw. Or he’d set the hook too quickly.

“I didn’t see Johnny much that first year,” Joe says. “He’d just gotten his captain’s license and was busy learning the ropes on the Sea Otter.” The separation forced the two to find their own way on the water. They spent evenings together cleaning and packaging the day’s catch and slept in the same bunkhouse every night, but each developed his love of the job separately and with a clear picture of what it means to earn your living the hard way.

By the following year, Johnny had made captain. Then Joe joined Johnny on the Sea Otter, which, for the next three summers, would become the friends’ home. Their childhood adventures together translated seamlessly to the deck. Catch rates soared; tips, some as high as $1,000, rolled in. Season after season, clients returned to the lodge with their kids, their brothers, their in-laws, and began asking for Joe and Johnny by name.

At the end of every summer, Johnny and Joe would bring home fish to share. Their Dallas friends said their haul tasted better than anything they could find locally. That’s when Joe got the idea: why not strike out on their own? The demand was there. All they had to do was give up the safety of the lodge and establish themselves as a commercial entity. No middlemen, no outsiders, and no brokers. Just two men and their boat.

As deckhand and captain, their salaries had been sufficient, especially with the lodge providing room and board. A popular deckhand could make $15,000 to $20,000 from May to September. Captains make even more. But what they were considering would involve far bigger numbers. A quick search revealed that a used troller would cost as much as $300,000. A small blast freezer would set them back $15,000. Even with an outside equity partner funding the purchase of the boat and freezer, they would have to sell 10,000 pounds of fish in their first summer just to cover gas, supplies, repairs, food, and shipping. The numbers seemed daunting. Plus, they would be trading rods and reels, steady clients, and a salary for hydraulic machinery, high volume, and nerve-racking uncertainty. But they figured that experienced fishermen on a fishy boat—slang for lucky—could haul in enough to make the risk worthwhile.

photography by Joe Martin

At the end of 2010, they applied for a business license under the name Stormont Williams (a combination of their middle names), and contacted a long-time client, a plastic surgeon from Houston who’d offered to back them should they take the plunge. That set in motion a plan to establish a direct link between the people of Texas and the best deep-water fishing in the world.

The sea really is a cruel mistress. She gives and takes without reason. You think it’s going to be hard, Johnny says, but in the end, it’s always worse. Like when an inexperienced deckhand gets pulled overboard in a 4-knot current, or a hook bound for the bottom catches on your clothing, or you lose a $250 lead sinker because you misjudged your depth.

Or you invite a woman onboard.

In January of 2011, the same month that Joe and Johnny signed the papers to solidify their plan, Joe married MC Crockett, a Texas gal with a game-for-anything spirit. In a Hollywood-style plot twist, the duo became a trio. “It was like I got married to them both at the same time—MC in the church and Joe in the business,” Johnny says.

In April, Joe and Johnny bought the Burgundy, a 34-foot fiberglass troller. The boat had little in the way of a galley and nothing in the way of a toilet, shower, or running water. But the $66,000 price was right. Plus, the Burgundy had a reputation for being supremely fishy.

It was agreed among the three that the boys would start fishing in late May, with MC coming aboard a couple weeks later for the king salmon opener, the brief window when the waters are opened up for a seven-day free-for-all. MC would earn her keep by driving the boat when the lines were running hot, and cleaning and icing the catch while the boys kept pulling out fish.

In years past, when MC would visit the lodge, Johnny was superstitious about her even stepping foot on the boat. Women were, after all, bad luck for fishermen. Sure enough, on the days she was a guest on the Sea Otter, no one caught much of anything.

The Burgundy is a typical troller with a hydraulic superstructure holding four stainless steel lines—two on either side of the boat. Each line is equipped with eight monofilament leaders ending with a variety of lures, baited hooks, hoochies, and flashers. A spring on each leader jiggles when its lure has been hit. Once the fish is on, the deckhand grabs the line, pulls the leader in by hand, clubs the fish with the gaffing hook, and lifts it onto the deck, where he cleans it before storing it in the hold.

On July 1, the Burgundy was rigged, gassed up, and ready to face the annual king salmon opener. MC’s impact—and the power of superstition—was about to be put to the test. The trio had spent the night on the boat, Joe and Johnny in the two narrow bunks a foot too short for them. MC made a pallet on the floor. On the first day, the boys fished from 3 in the morning until 7 at night. In 16 hours, with eight hooks on each line (32 in all), the Burgundy brought in 117 king and 76 coho salmon. The take became so overwhelming that MC stayed on the wheel so that Johnny could pull fish off the lines and Joe could concentrate on cleaning them and getting them into the hold. By the time Johnny would drop the lines back into the water on one side, the springs would already be jiggling on the other. No one they knew, not even the lodge owner, had been flooded with a take so big. At one point they realized that the Burgundy was so fishy that they might not be able to keep up.

Not everything went better than expected. Life on the water in close quarters isn’t easy. There’s the natural friction that comes from spending 24 hours a day with someone, challenging enough if that someone is your best friend or your spouse. But make it your best friend and his spouse, a newlywed couple to boot, and tensions run even higher.

Small errors in judgment—like forgetting to salt all of the herring bait and losing 100 pounds of it to rot—led to blow-ups. They were the kinds of tiffs that would normally diffuse with space and time, but they had neither. When your space is 340 square feet bound on all sides by water, your workday ends when you fall asleep, and you sleep so close to the enemy that you can count the minutes by his (or her) breathing.

But they kept at it. Every week or so, they’d putter up to the Hoonah Cold Storage barge, aka The Scow, to sell enough fish to take care of any cash-flow problems. Even though The Scow offered only a fraction of the price they would get on the open market—$3 or $4 a pound, as opposed to $18 to $24—the cash was enough to keep the trio in gasoline and ramen for the foreseeable future. Everything else they took back to the lodge’s cleaning and processing room, where the boys could sanitize themselves head to foot and process the fish in a sterile, world-class facility.

Back onboard, MC started cooking. She planned improvements to the quarters, including the addition of a bathroom. Slowly, the three found a workable rhythm. By the middle of their first summer in business together, they had brought in close to 4,500 pounds of fish. Superstition be damned.

Over the course of the opener, the trio pulled lines, gutted, and kept mum about their differences. The boys reeked. All three of them were covered in fish slime; even on deck there was no escaping each other’s foulness.

But everyone knew what that stench meant. “It was the smell of money,” Johnny says, “and it smelled great.”

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