Following Phil Harris’ Hawaiian Fishing Clues

The following appears in the May issue of California Sportsman:

The late Phil Harris (left) had mysterious handwritten charts his son Josh, now captaining the family’s crab boat on Deadliest Catch, went to Hawaii to investigate. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

By Chris Cocoles
A decade after his dad – iconic crab fishing captain and fellow Deadliest Catch alum, Phil – passed away suddenly at 53, Josh Harris is still chasing his ghost.

Josh, now piloting his dad’s boat in Alaska and featured in the Discovery Channel hit series, idolized the larger-than-life Phil Harris, who in 2010 succumbed to complications from a stroke he suffered while aboard the family boat, F/V Cornelia Marie.

Make no mistake: the younger Harris is himself an accomplished fisherman, a trait he has no problem thanking his mentor and father for handing down. But even now, the duo is still competing against each other.

“I took it upon myself to be that one- upper. He’s not here to defend himself, but I’ll tell you what: I guarantee he’s watching,” Josh, now 37, says of Phil. “Even last year, when I was pulling that epic 1,000-crab-per-pot (haul), I was going through some of his old log books and he had pots bigger.”

So when Josh was thumbing through some of Phil’s personal effects and found charts lled with handwritten notes describing fishing spots off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, a new challenge was born. Josh Harris and Casey McManus, the co-owner and -captain of the Cornelia Marie, headed to the Aloha State to find out more about his dad’s obsession with the Big Island’s legendary saltwater fishing. The story is being chronicled on a new Discovery Channel spino series, Deadliest Catch: Bloodline.

Harris and McManus purchased a 19- foot boat and tested their fishing skills with rods and reels with the intention of someday dipping their toes into Hawaii’s lucrative and competitive commercial fishing industry.

“My dad had a bunch of different sides to his life. So to be able to go and see what he was seeing and try to figure out exactly what he was seeing, it’s just an adventure, man,” Harris says. “And it was totally out of my realm and my comfort zone. It was intense.”

HE HAD A WAY with words, that Phil Harris. “Well, the difference between a fisherman’s story and a fairy tale is a fairy tale starts out, ‘Once upon a time;’ a fisherman’s story starts out, ‘This is no bullsh*t,’” a laughing Phil says in an archived clip from Deadliest Catch, which is now in its 16th season as one of Discovery Channel’s anchor series.

This Hawaiian adventure started just that way. No fairy tale, but something mysterious – but with no bullsh*t – that was part of his legacy. It’s clear that Phil Harris made the most of his 53 years – whether it was crab fishing, cars, motorcycles or living it up in Hawaii.

“I’ve run into people who knew my dad, and he had signed stuff for them and it’s in their offices. And it’s kind of cool because I hear about all those stories,” Josh Harris says. “He was a good guy. Goofy, funny, warm, loving, caring. And he was a bike-riding mofo – an animal.”

An animal with a zest for island life, apparently. Josh Harris found the scribbled charts from the coast of Kona, Hawaii, in his cabin as the guys were renovating the family’s iconic Alaska crab boat, the Cornelia Marie. At first, the simple sight of Phil’s easy-to-recognize handwriting was too overwhelming to take in.

“I just (originally) said, ‘Get those away from me.’ But then, I took the water charts home and started looking at them and I was like, ‘OK,’” Harris says. “Something like that brings back a lot of old emotions. But I thought about it for a couple of hours and told Casey, I was sort of joking around and told him we should go over there and fish some of these spots just for fun. We laughed about it and joked about it, and (it seemed like) five minutes later we were on a plane.”

Granted, there are worse places to blindly travel to and start a new venture than the tropical waters of Hawaii. But it was still quite a bold, spur-of-the-moment decision. After all, this was not the same life the Harris family created for itself in Alaska’s frigid Bering Sea.

“I’m a crab fisherman. I fish for things with legs; I don’t fish for things with fins,” Josh jokes. “I’ve come to figure out I’m not so good with that.”

For Josh, Hawaii just felt like unfinished business as he deciphered the notes Phil scribbled during his time in the islands in the 1980s. If anything, Harris’ and McManuses’ return to the Big Island over three decades later would determine if those fishing notations held water, per se. It almost became a treasure hunt of sorts.

“It was more along the lines of, ‘I wonder what he was thinking about?’ And seeing all this that was put in front of me. I wondered why he would do that? What’s really over there?” says Harris, who equated the curiosity to a landmark in his hometown of Seattle.

“You keep hearing about how big and tall the Space Needle is. But until you’re sitting on the glass floor and at the very top of that thing, you don’t realize how tall it really is. I can explain it to you about what it’s like to stand on the glass floor and look down, and you might say that it sounds scary. But until you do it yourself and your heart falls out of the back of your pant leg, that’s when it’s real. I needed to experience that. And I did. And I liked it.”

Josh mans the fishing rod at sea. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

THE GUYS HAD A family connection in Hawaii – McManus’ parents own a house near Kona – and McManus was able to purchase their boat. But they also needed a local to help them find their way. Enter one of Kona’s most respected commercial fishermen: Jeff Silva.

“He told us everything. He’s like, ‘If you can’t handle any of this, this ain’t the place for you to be, brother.’ We were like, ‘OK. We do things totally different, but our way of doing it is in Alaska. Your way of doing it is in Hawaii, and that’s where we’re at,’” Harris says. “I don’t want to get thrown over the side of a boat. I want to come out here and chase down this chart, see what I come up with and, if I like it, we’ll keep going further with it.”

Silva became a fishing coach and so much more – almost a tour guide who taught the crabbers a thing or two about island fishing culture. In Alaska, it’s all about filling that pot and increasing your numbers of king and opilio crab.

Hawaiians are more about quality than quantity. Catching a blue marlin (kajiki) or yellowfin tuna (ahi) means a big dollar amount at market price when it comes to selling your catch.

“Those guys catch two fish in a day and they don’t go back out for a week. We have the crab fish mentality of let’s get 15 today and do it every day,” Harris says. “But there, it’s a bunch of different ethics that they buy into. You’ve just got to take a step back and you get the idea that it’s not your home; it’s theirs. And work with them.”

“You have to show respect, keep your mouth shut and learn how they operate and try to work as a team. You can’t come in thinking you’re a badass.”

Silva made it clear early on that the newbies would have to adhere to the local “traditions.” When McManus and Harris went out with Silva on his boat to test their rod-and-reel fishing chops, Harris hooked into a mahi-mahi, or dorado.

These two might be world-class crab boat skippers, but they were fish out of water in these waters. McManus had a bit of a gaff malfunction, as Harris managed to coax the sh to the side of the boat.

“When Casey McManus messes up, I’m right there to let him know,” Harris brags. Silva gave McManus quite a tongue- lashing as well.

Yet the hazing wasn’t quite over, and this time Silva was able to troll Harris as well. He managed to land one of the most valuable commercial fish on the market, an ahi, which can bring in up to $2,000 at fish auctions back in the port (this particular tuna weighed about 130 pounds and was caught in an area that appeared in one of Phil’s marked charts).

“This is your first yellowfin, dude; this is his heart; you gotta take a bite, dawg,” Silva says.

“It’s still beating,” Harris replies. “Cheers.”

Harris referred to the bite he took – with dry vomiting included – as one of the two most disgusting moments of his life (the other was at a hotel suite party in Vegas).

 “(Silva) is one of the top dogs over there, so when a guy who’s pretty much in charge of the fishery tells you to eat this beating heart, you’re not going to tell him no,” Harris says. “I asked, ‘When did you eat your first beating heart?’ He said, ‘I’ve never done that sh*t!’” 

Welcome to Hawaii.

Casey McManus, Josh’s friend and business partner, fishing on their boat in Hawaii. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

WHEREVER JOSH HARRIS GOES, it seems that his dad is watching. Phil’s face adorns the wheelhouse on the Cornelia Marie, the same area where he collapsed. That isn’t lost on Josh, whether he’s captaining that same boat in the Bering Sea and now in a much smaller craft off the Kona coast.

Josh admits to being disappointed Phil never was able to meet his granddaughter, but you can bet he feels his presence relentlessly.

“Every day I go into the wheelhouse and think about him. We kept a lot of stuff on the boat that he had in there. Anytime I do some kind of fishing activity or look at my daughter, I think of my dad,” Josh says.

Fellow Deadliest Catch skipper Johnathan Hillstrand, who came to Hawaii for a visit, and Harris cruise out to fish off the coast of Kona. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

Phil’s three main intentions during his Hawaii days included making money, meeting women and nding a stiff drink (one of the charts included the phrase “lots of good bars”). Josh might have the same motivation as he explores the Big Island more. (“I never get tired of bringing the boat in at the end of the day, putting it on the trailer and seeing girls in bikinis washing their Sea-Doo or their boat.”)

And the thought of starting a commercial fishing business there will at least send Harris back to Kona after getting a taste of it. Like any good fisherman, Phil left the bait on the hook for his son to snap it up. (Phil’s younger son Jake also fished with him for awhile.)

In the first episode of Bloodline, Josh went to visit Phil’s grave in the Seattle area. He choked up when describing how he’d always hope to make his dad proud.

“What’s going on there, Old Man,” Josh whispers as he looks down on the head stone, depicted with illustrations of his crabbing boat, a motorcycle and his prized Chevrolet Corvette. “I don’t know exactly what you had going on, but I’ll make an attempt to start or finish what you had intended.”

Josh mans the wheel of the boat. “This adventure is just starting,” he says. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

First and foremost, even if the new business venture goes belly up, what Josh really wants is to catch a blue marlin, a prized target for Hawaiian fishermen that Phil was never able to achieve.

“He was always on a hunt for a big-ass marlin. He never got one. So I took it upon myself to be that one-upper,” Harris says. “So for me, to go out on this hunt and catch a marlin, not knowing anything about them nor the area that I’m going to or how to catch a fish in Hawaii, it was something that the least I could say is, ‘I got you at one thing.’ I’ve got to catch this marlin, man.”

While he can’t give away if this first attempt ultimately achieved that goal, Harris did admit he came close at least once. They hooked a marlin, one that during a long fight made one of the species’ iconic leaps from the water. But as so many anglers can attest, the fish was one that got away after it slipped under the boat and ultimately snapped the line.

This wasn’t a fairy tale. This was no bullsh*t.

“All I know is that we proved ourselves over there and we have the rite of passage to go back, so I think that’s OK. If you didn’t honor or respect the area, or the people and their theories and religion, well, I probably wouldn’t be telling you all this stuff . I’d probably have a black eye that never healed and have no boat,” Harris says. 

“I just want to learn a lot more. I want to actually go and get my (commercial fishing) license. I just got a little taste. This adventure is just starting.” CS 

Editor’s note: New episodes of Deadliest Catch: Bloodline can be seen on Tuesday nights on the Discovery Channel (check local listings), with a new episode tonight at 6 p.m. Check out a sneak preview here. Follow Capt. Josh Harris on Instagram (@joshharriscm).