Fearless captains Johnathan Hillstrand and Casey McManus of “Deadliest Catch” confront immense challenges each season, while hunting for elusive Alaskan crabs in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. Both have experienced their fair share of controversies, primarily stemming from the fiercely competitive nature of crab fishing, and the extreme conditions in which they operate. The unfiltered glimpse into their lives both on and off the boats catapulted their careers to new heights, making them household names in the world of reality television

“Deadliest Catch,” the high-stakes world of commercial crab fishing

In April 2005, the Discovery Channel aired the first episode of its newest reality TV show, marketed as the deadliest job on Earth, “Deadliest Catch,” set in the high-stakes world of commercial crab fishing, proven to be an exceptionally tough and hazardous occupation, with a history marked by approximately 400 fatalities out of every 100,000 crabbers. Only in recent years have these numbers seen a decline. Thom Beers produced a couple of pilot episodes as a testing ground to gauge whether it would attract a substantial viewership for the network, and it did. As a result, a regular series was created.

What to expect in “Deadliest Catch”

The Discovery Channel producers weren’t kidding when they promised viewers an insider’s look into the adrenaline-charged lives of Alaskan crab fishermen in “Deadliest Catch.” The series exposes the raw and relentless challenges that these courageous individuals confront as they grapple with towering waves, bone-chilling cold, and treacherous ice floes, all in pursuit of the lucrative crab harvest.

Most-watched TV series on Discovery Channel

With 19 seasons under its belt, “Deadliest Catch” has maintained its status as the most-watched reality TV series on Discovery Channel since its inception. Over the years, the show has faced its fair share of allegations, with some viewers believing that conflicts among the co-stars were scripted by producers, accidents were exaggerated for dramatic effect, and intense hype around certain personalities was engineered to attract more viewers.

Whether there is a grain of truth in these allegations or not, the show’s loyal fan base remains unwavering, and each season manages to draw in new viewers. It’s worth noting that in “Deadliest Catch,” most of its content is filmed as it unfolds, setting it apart from other reality TV series.

The entertainment industry has recognized the show’s authenticity and quality, as it’s received numerous nominations and won several awards from various prestigious award-giving bodies, including the Outstanding Reality Program award from the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards.

Meet Johnathan Hillstrand and Casey McManus

While Captains Johnathan Hillstrand and Casey McManus weren’t as popular as Captains Sig Hansen and Phil Harris, the two also gained a loyal fan base. Each of them was also embroiled in rumors and controversies, some of which resulted in legal disputes.

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Johnathan Hillstrand, Co-captain of F/V Time Bandit

In America’s deadliest profession, Johnathan Hillstrand was often hailed as the “Bad Boy of the Bering Sea.” To remain unflinching in his love for crab fishing, despite facing perilous forty-foot seas, witnessing colossal rogue waves reaching one hundred feet in height, enduring the relentless fury of 120-knot Williwaw winds, and witnessing the harrowing spectacle of the Arctic ice pack crashing into the hull of his vessel, is truly awe-inspiring. His bravery also extended to daring plunges into freezing waters, clad in his survival suit, to rescue fellow fishermen from capsized boats, saving them from the rapid grip of hypothermia amidst raging storms.

Johnathan and his brother, Andy Hillstrand, assumed the roles of co-captains aboard their family’s vessel, the Time Bandit. However, this didn’t imply simultaneous captaincy. During the red king crab season, Johnathan commanded from the wheelhouse, while his brother took the helm during the opilio season. He revealed that dealing with certain crew members at sea could be challenging, prompting him to keep an AK-47 and sturdy zip ties on hand to maintain order until their return to harbor. This was just a fraction of the countless unforgettable tales shared within the close-knit Alaskan crabbing community. It’s also one of the reasons he became a prominent figure on the cast of “Deadliest Catch,” as his magnetic personality drew TV ratings.

Born on 5 August 1962, in Homer, Alaska, to parents John and Nancy Hillstrand, Johnathan came from a long line of fishermen. His father imparted the intricacies of Bering Sea fishing, with Johnathan and his brothers joining him on the water as soon as they could walk. At the age of seven, they were already out there fishing. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until after high school that Johnathan embarked on a full-time career as a professional fisherman. Beyond crabbing, he also ventured into salmon fishing during the summer season, and dedicated approximately eight years to lobster fishing along the New England coast.

People who knew Johnathan Hillstrand often described him as someone who thought like a fish, a unique talent that contributed to his success in his chosen career. He possessed the rare ability to sense the direction of fish movement, making the mysteries of ocean currents seem far less enigmatic to him than to others. Surprisingly, despite his deep connection to the ocean, Johnathan and his brother Andy harbored childhood dreams of becoming astronauts, firemen, or race car drivers. If given the choice, those professions would have been his thriving grounds.

Casey McManus, Captain of F/V Cornelia Marie

Casey McManus made his debut in 2014, stepping into the roles of engineer and co-captain aboard the iconic fishing vessel Cornelia Marie. This vessel garnered instant recognition, largely owing to the popularity of the enigmatic former captain and “Deadliest Catch” star, the late Phil Harris. The convincing force behind Casey taking on this position was none other than Josh Harris, one of Phil’s sons, who believed that he himself wasn’t yet ready to assume the role of fully-fledged captain.

Born on 27 January 1983, in Washington State, to parents Lynn and Jim McManus, F/V Cornelia Marie’s new skipper didn’t specify in his LinkedIn profile where he obtained his engineering degree. Nevertheless, his educational background includes attending Everett Community College for an Associate of Arts in Fire Science, and the University of Washington. While there might be ambiguity surrounding his formal education, Casey was undoubtedly molded for the fishing world by his father. Much like Johnathan Hillstrand, he hails from two generations of fishermen and received early training in the art of fishing. At the tender age of five, he’d already grasped the intricacies of gillnetting, and by the time he reached 14, was dabbling in commercial fishing.

For a span of several years, Casey served in the fire departments of Lynnwood and Lake Stevens, both located in Snohomish County, Washington State. In 1996, he joined Trident Seafoods, a family business, and remained with the company for 17 years. His tenure culminated with the position of Chief Engineer. In January 2013, Casey inked a contract with the Discovery Channel, officially becoming one of its talents. By April of the same year, he deepened his involvement with the F/V Cornelia Marie, not only serving as part-engineer and captain, but also investing in the vessel by purchasing minority shares; the majority of shares were still held by Josh Harris. Following a similar system to the Hillstrand brothers, Casey assumed control during the king crab season, while Josh took the helm during the opilio season.

Johnathan’s  colorful moments in “Deadliest Catch”

In the gripping world of “Deadliest Catch,” Johnathan Hillstrand was the life of the party, the prankster who gleefully engaged in a food fight amidst the walls of an Alaskan hotel restaurant, surrounded by other grown men. Eyewitnesses recounted the secondhand embarrassment experienced by city police and hotel security guards, who stepped in to restore order. Their expectations were shattered; instead of a room full of broken noses and busted lips, it was sticky faces and frosting-adorned hair. For Johnathan, such escapades were just another way to unwind after a grueling crabbing season.

However, not all of Johnathan’s moments were lighthearted. In 2013, he and the other owners of F/V Time Bandit found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit filed by a former deckhand, David Zielinsky. A painful incident unfolded on the boat, when Johnathan instructed the deckhand to launch a firework aimed at another fishing vessel while they were at sea. Tragically, the firework unexpectedly detonated in David’s hand, causing severe injuries to his arm and hand; numerous surgical operations were required to save his limbs. The ensuing trial was protracted, and the judge ruled that the Hillstrand brothers compensate their former employee, albeit at half of David’s initial demand. According to court records, the judge noted that the deckhand bore some responsibility for the unfortunate incident as well.

In 2018, after several years in the reality TV series, Johnathan retired from crab fishing due to Time Bandit’s major engine failure following the 13th season – the exorbitant maintenance costs prompted the Hillstrand brothers to list the vessel for sale. Remarkably, it marked the first time in nearly four decades that the boat didn’t participate in the crabbing season. Yet, Johnathan’s retirement was short-lived, as he made a triumphant return with Time Bandit for seasons 17 to 19. The decision arose from the realization that the crab quota allocated to him as a captain would be forfeited if unused, coupled with Captain Sig Hansen’s encouragement to return and “save the fishery.” Today, he remains an integral part of the reality TV series, continuing to enthrall audiences with his relentless spirit.

Captains Johnathan and Casey’s interesting partnership

With the unpredictable Bering Sea, it would be a smart move to create alliances within the fleet. The F/V Time Bandit and F/V Cornelia Marie entered into a partnership to look out for one another.

Catching golden king crab

In the seasons of 2021-22, the Alaskan government took the decisive step of shutting down the red crab fishing season, driven by concerns over the insufficient population of mature female red crabs, imperiling the sustainability of future years. In the wake of this closure, the only viable options on the table were to set their sights on catching cod fish, or pursuing the elusive golden king crab.

Captain John, alongside co-Captains Casey and Josh, won the bid for golden king crab. With their seasoned crabbing expertise, it might have appeared like a straightforward task. However, these coveted species dwelled in the deeper, more treacherous depths of the ocean, adding layers of complexity to their pursuit. The responsibility of retrieving the crab pots lay squarely on the shoulders of John and Casey, with the weighty task of ensuring a successful catch, without sacrificing profits or lives.

Josh, while a capable captain in his own right, acknowledged his relative lack of experience in such situations, deferring to the expertise of his counterparts. The retrieval operation, seemingly uncomplicated on paper, unraveled as a multifaceted challenge in reality. Only through the combined wisdom, experience and innovative thinking of these two seasoned captains did the operation achieve success. Their willingness to think outside the box was instrumental in overcoming the complexities of the endeavor.

Fighting off the Russians

In one gripping season of “Deadliest Catch,” viewers witnessed a tense standoff as Captain John found himself facing a formidable threat from Russian draggers. The confrontation unfolded over the radio waves when several boats encircled him, their distinct accents revealing their Russian origin. They brazenly conveyed their intentions: they were there to fish and strongly suggested that John should abandon his plans to set his crab pots.

These Russian draggers employed a method of catching bottom-feeding fish using nets, a practice detrimental to the sustainability of crab fishing in American waters. Captain John, recognizing the importance of preserving this valuable resource, refused to yield to the pressure. Instead, he made a strategic move by reaching out to Casey. Together, they hatched a cunning plan to ensure both their vessels could continue fishing, without resorting to a potentially dangerous confrontation with the Russian vessels.

Their plan involved a clever diversion – both F/V Time Bandit and Casey’s vessel would navigate in opposite directions while remaining in the same general area. This tactic effectively created a blockade, preventing the Russian draggers from encroaching on their fishing grounds. In the end, the scheme proved successful, with both of their vessels returning home with their tanks brimming with a bountiful catch of crabs, and after safeguarding the sustainability of their crab fishing operations.

Not sharing crab information

Fans of Captain John often found themselves frustrated by what appeared to be a lack of reciprocity from the F/V Cornelia Marie captains, Casey and Josh. In the perilous world of crab fishing, where partnerships are crucial, the expectation was that they would assist each other to ensure both vessels met their quotas upon returning to port. However, it seemed that this partnership wasn’t always reciprocal.

Time and again, when Casey and Josh discovered promising crabbing spots, they chose not to share this valuable information with John, despite having benefited from his assistance on numerous occasions. There was a particular instance when Josh contemplated informing John about a lucrative spot, but Casey dissuaded him, expressing concerns that John might disseminate the information to other competitors. John loved to be friends with everyone in the fleet.

Ironically, unbeknownst to Casey and Josh, John was already present in one of these secret crabbing locations, diligently hauling in crabs as they deliberated. The situation gave rise to debates among fans in online forums regarding their favorite skippers. Some fans suspected that these scenes might have been scripted or staged to add intrigue and drama to “Deadliest Catch,” emphasizing that reality TV often blurred the line between authenticity and entertainment.

Casey McManus unexpected exit from “Deadliest Catch”

Discovery Channel had grand plans in store for co-captains Casey McManus and Josh Harris, but a shocking turn of events disrupted their trajectory. Abruptly, Josh Harris was terminated from the network, and his name was swiftly removed from the TV show’s official website, as well as its social media platforms. Online news sources erupted with startling news, alleging that Josh Harris had sexually abused someone when he was still a teenager, and the situation took a darker turn when it turned out that he’d raped a four-year-old girl.

As a consequence of this scandal, Captain Casey McManus found himself also ousted from the show. Despite having no connection to Josh’s legal troubles, fans speculated that Discovery Channel executives were keen to erase any trace of Josh from the program, and by association, Casey as well. While the decision appeared unjust to Casey, it could be seen as a logical one, given that his “Deadliest Catch” narrative had been inextricably entwined with Josh’s over the years.

Viewers were left in suspense about Casey’s future, and when inquiries arose on his social media platform, he offered a somewhat vague response: ‘There’s no crab to catch anymore, so I will be moving on from that adventure.’ Initially, fans interpreted this as a reference to the conclusion of the crabbing season. However, a visit to his LinkedIn profile shed more light on the matter, on which it was revealed that he served as F/V Cornelia Marie’s captain only until January 2023. Despite their hopes for Casey to find a place on another vessel, it appeared that his contract with Discovery Channel as a talent had similarly concluded at the same time.

In a later update, Casey shared that he’d embarked on a new chapter in his career, securing a full-time position as the Vice President of Operations at Paradigm Marine and Technical Service Private Limited.

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