Known for his spicy temper, his sometimes overdramatic tendencies, and his ability to fill enormous quotas, Wizard captain Keith Colburn might very well be the most successful self-made crabber in the fleet. While most captains and crewmembers got into crabbing through bloodlines, in 1985, at the age of 22, the completely inexperienced Colburn decided to catch a plane up to Kodiak, Alaska, and take over the Bering Sea.
Beginning as a true greenhorn, Colburn began his crabbing journey on the 135-foot Alaska Trader. As we’ve seen countless times on "Deadliest Catch," most greenhorns are just hoping to stave off seasickness long enough to get completely battered physically, mentally, and emotionally. Colburn, however, immediately began to thrive, and in just three years, he became a full-share deckhand on none other than the Wizard.
Colburn must really love the Wizard since as a deckhand, a first mate, and now owner/captain, he’s been on that vessel for more than 30 years and counting. Wherever he ranks on your list of favorite captains, there’s no denying Colburn’s ability to convey the life of a crabber while getting the job done, and there’s a lot you might not know about the "Deadliest Catch" star. From his secret talent to his moment in Congress, here’s the untold truth of Keith Colburn.
Keith Colburn was a sous-chef and a self-proclaimed ski bum
In a 2012 interview with GamerLive.TV, Keith Colburn revealed that in 1985 — before that crabbing lightbulb went on — he’d been working in a French restaurant since he was 14, and he’d risen to the rank of sous-chef by the time he was 21. Living in Lake Tahoe, California (widely known for its ski resorts), whenever Keith wasn’t in the kitchen, he was hitting the slopes or just bumming around the lodge. His original goal was to become the chef, but after hearing about the possibilities of big money in the modern-day Wild West of Alaskan crab fishing from a guy in high school, he put that on hold.
Ironically, his abilities in the kitchen helped him secure a spot on the Alaska Trader. He explained, "For the first six weeks that I was in Alaska, I worked for room and board. When I first got on the boat, one of the things that kept me on the boat … was being able to cook." According to Keith, the learning curve was steep since, for one thing, his nice French restaurant was never once sloshed around by 20-foot waves. Plus, he had to whip up a lot of grub in very little time since every minute off-deck was a minute the boat wasn’t producing.
His first appearance on Deadliest Catch saw the sinking of Ocean Challenger
We first met Captain Keith Colburn in Season 3, Episode 1, and since his first scene in "Deadliest Catch" involves an emotional rollercoaster, fans immediately gravitated to him.
Before a fishing trip, Colburn makes one final call home. While hearing his young children perform the now infamous crab dance, his laughter sinks into concern over an urgent radio broadcast signaling the sinking of Ocean Challenger. Sparing his family any worries, he gives his kids a loving, heartfelt goodbye and then relays the severity of the situation to the camera.
While fishing for black cod, Ocean Challenger rolled in heavy seas and capsized. Of the four crew members on board, skipper David "Cowboy" Hasselquist and Walter Foster failed to get into their survival suits and were found dead. The lone survivor, 28-year-old Kevin Ferrell, got into his survival suit and relayed to Coast Guard members that the missing fisherman failed to reach his suit. The search was later called off, and the fourth man’s body was never recovered.
After hearing of this tragedy in his first episode, Colburn unknowingly solidified himself as one of the mainstay captains after an emotional breakdown over the lost seamen. The first two seasons of "Deadliest Catch" followed Rick and Donna Quashnick on the Maverick, Jim Stone on the Retriever, and Coleman Anderson on the Western Viking. Whether those captains opted out of the following seasons or the show opted for more engaging characters, in Season 3, "Deadliest Catch" kept boats like the Northwestern, the Cornelia Marie, and the Time Bandit and began following new captains like Keith Colburn and a revolving door of others.
He has a turbulent working relationship with his brother
When Boating magazine asked about the authenticity of the verbal and even physical altercations on the Wizard, Captain Keith Colburn answered, "For one thing, my brother, Monte, drives me crazy. He is a captain himself, and he doesn’t always do what I ask. He’s my brother, so what can I do? He takes liberty with being a family member versus a crew member. You have to yell to be heard over all the noise. You sound like a jerk, but you’re just trying to communicate."
After a particularly heated fight over the treatment of beloved deckhand Freddy Maugatai, Captain Keith fired Monte and kicked him off the boat. And after watching the fight on TV, Keith admitted that it got out of hand, stating to PopCulture.com, "I’d say I cringed a little bit when I fired my brother at the end of the season." The two took quite a while to reconcile, but after the backlash from fans, Keith posted on his Facebook page, "To answer the Monte question, of course Monte is back on the boat. That was not our first fight, wasn’t our worst fight, and won’t be our last. We are brothers; we carry on."
The original owner of the Wizard forbade Colburn from Deadliest Catch
Keith Colburn could’ve been in the first two seasons of "Deadliest Catch," but when producers initially approached him, the then-owner of the Wizard, John Jorgensen, denied the request. Speaking with GamerLive.TV, Colburn recalled, "I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do it, but the owner of the boat at the time said, ‘No way. No distractions. No cameras. No liabilities and risks. Just fish.’" Jorgensen — a third-generation crab fisherman whose father and grandfather emigrated from Norway — was an old pro who mentored Colburn through his rise from deckhand to the captain’s chair. Jorgensen had owned the Wizard since 1978, and when he handed over the keys to Colburn, he instructed him (via Crabwizard.com), "Tune out the rest of the fleet."
In 2005, Colburn and his wife/business partner Florence Colburn purchased the Wizard from Jorgensen, leaving him free to open its doors to "Deadliest Catch" for the first episode of Season 3. Colburn was especially excited by the opportunity because it allowed him to document his life at sea. This way, his kids and future grandchildren could see his life play out onscreen, preserving his legacy for generations.
He’s extremely hard on the revolving door of greenhorns
Colburn and the entire Wizard crew’s treatment of greenhorns is an ongoing discussion among "Deadliest Catch" fans. Even the captain’s own son, Caelan, found that out when he got majorly seasick and his dad’s response was a short "he’ll be fine." Every job has its learning curve, but even if a crabber’s job was on dry land, it’d still be one of the most physically grueling occupations on the planet. When that same workplace is constantly being rocked side to side or climbing up and falling down 20-foot water walls, a greenhorn is going to inevitably want some rest and sympathy. The problem is, they’ll get the exact opposite on the Wizard.
In a 2012 interview with GamerLive.TV, Keith explained, "Ultimately it’s the weather, the sea, and the Wizard that break down the greenhorns. I’m just there to tell them to ‘hit the road.’" Whether they just have bad luck with new hires or that — unlike most other ships — the Wizard works 24 hours a day, Colburn and crew have burned through more rookies than any other ship on the show. In Season 12, Episode 101, "Season in Hell," Colburn struggles to remember the Wizard’s greenhorns. Narrator Mike Rowe takes over and names all 15 that have come and gone in his 9 seasons on the show. In one particularly scary incident from Season 8, Episode 6, "Vital Signs," greenhorn Chris Scambler was airlifted from the Wizard due to dehydration and shock. Looks like Keith told him to ‘hit the air.’
Colburn survived the massive downsizing of the fleet
In 2005, Alaskan crab fishing was flipped on its head. To regulate overfishing, the industry transitioned from a derby style (where a large number of independent vessels raced to catch crab) to the new individual fishing quota (IFQ) system. This meant that larger, more established boats were given quotas to fill, while the quotas of smaller boats were too small to even cover their expenses. This "rationalization" process saw the fleet shrink from around 250 boats to roughly 80.
That year, Keith Colburn and his wife/business partner, Florence, purchased the Wizard from John Jorgensen to ensure a spot as one of the surviving boats. This was a risky choice because there was no guarantee that they would even receive any quota. They trusted that the Wizard’s size (156 feet) and Colburn’s knack for filling it would be enough to secure that all-important quota. Captain Keith told the Discovery Channel (via Deadliest Reports), "There are crab vessels that are 165 feet, but what is unique to the Wizard is her capacity. She holds over 400,000 pounds of crab in her tank. There are larger boats that hold more pots, but I believe the Wizard holds the most crab in the fleet." Needless to say, Keith and Florence Colburn’s gamble paid off as not only was the Wizard allotted quota but their Opilio crab allocations ranked in the top 10, and their King crab ranked in the top 5 in the entire fleet.
He is extremely superstitious
Every captain has their superstitions. Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand don’t allow bananas on their boat, and they never leave on a Friday. There’s even a fleet-wide "no suitcases on the boat" rule because (for some reason) suitcases are bad luck. But gym bags and garbage bags are fully welcome. Sig Hansen explained to Yahoo! Entertainment that he once told the "Deadliest Catch" camera crew, "’You guys can bring all the cameras you want, but the suitcases stay on the dock.’ And I meant it."
However, Keith Colburn takes superstition to a whole new level. He continuously knocks on his bobblehead dolls for good luck, and the Wizard’s crab dance before pulling the first pot is a fan favorite. But he’s also mentioned no whistling in the wheelhouse and that coffee cups all have to hang the same way.
Colburn has said that his best trip ever came while chewing tobacco and using a Cup O’ Noodles cup as his spittoon. In an interview with Boating Magazine, he explained, "On one trip, we forgot the Cup O’ Noodles, and fishing was lousy. Two or three crabs per trap. I called my brother, who was skippering another boat 15 miles away and asked if they had Cup O’ Noodles." As you’d expect, his brother, Monte, thought Keith was crazy. But after some convincing, Monte actually rerouted to deliver the Cup O’ Noodles, and Keith’s numbers magically jumped to an average of 68 crabs per pot.
He’s still shaken by a massive wave from 2009
Many captains on the Bering Sea can tell you at least one moment that has a lasting impact on them. In Season 3, Captain Johnathan Hillstrand witnessed Josh White — a deckhand from nearby vessel, the Trailblazer – fall into the freezing water. Hillstrand immediately screamed "man overboard," steamed toward White, and had him pulled aboard the Time Bandit. In Season 14, Summer Bay greenhorn Spencer Moore was pulled overboard and was fortunately rescued by the quick response of fellow crew members. Captain "Wild Bill" Wichrowski was visibly shaken and later explained to BUILD series just how surreal the moment was.
Although Keith Colburn hasn’t had a man overboard (other than Freddy Maugatai voluntarily stripping down and jumping off the boat), his lasting incident came from a 40-foot rogue wave that injured almost his entire crew. In the 2008-’09 season, in an effort to combat the freezing spray, Colburn ordered the crew to wrap a massive tarp over the wall of crab pots. With men on top of the stack, the wave washed over the entire boat, leaving Colburn blind to the well-being of his crew. He explained to Soundings Online, "It was the worst wave I’ve taken at sea." His brother Monte broke some ribs, first mate Gary Soper suffered severe facial contusions, and deckhand Lynn Guitard had a black eye and a bruised back.
The Wizard’s crab numbers are at the top of the fleet
Whether it was in the old "derby style" or under the new Individual Fishing Quota system, Keith Colburn’s production is a mark many other captains strive for. Every year, with Captain Keith or relief skipper Monte Colburn at the helm, the Wizard is in the top 10 of crab production in the entire fleet. A look at Keith’s resume shows that in 2002, his risky decision to fish along the ice pack paid off in a record-breaking year: He brought in 540,000 pounds of Opilio crab in a year when the average catch was just 130,000 pounds. Perhaps the most impressive fact is that the Wizard has produced the most snow crab since 1999 (via Crabwizard.com), and from 1996 to 2000, Colburn produced the second-highest amount of king crab out of nearly 200 captains.
Under the current Individual Fishing Quota system, Season 17 of "Deadliest Catch" saw captains attempt to work together to fill the overall 2020-’21 King crab quota. Sure enough, the alliance fell apart pretty quickly once captains realized they weren’t getting truthful information from each other, allowing Captain Keith to shine yet again. In an exclusive interview with Nicki Swift, Colburn admitted, "The alliance was a focus for them. But the quota, the Wizard got 116,000 pounds, which was more crab than all the other ‘Deadliest Catch’ boats, combined. And those guys won’t even give you a sniff of anything hot." With numbers like that, it doesn’t seem like Colburn was desperate for the information.
Keith Colburn lost his father and his former mentor in the same year
The year 2019 was one of setbacks and loss for the Colburn brothers. Season 15 of the show saw Keith and Monte alternate the captaincy so that they could share time at their ailing father’s bedside. After a yearlong battle with cancer, 81-year-old Gary Clark Colburn passed away on January 17, 2019. And after hearing the news of his father’s passing on the show, Keith shared his grief with fans in the episodes to come and on his Facebook page.
Later that year, on July 16, 2019, Keith Colburn’s former mentor and first deck boss on the Wizard, Michael "Bear" Rogers, passed away peacefully at only 66 years old. Back in 1988 — after only three years on the Bering Sea — Colburn soaked up every possible lesson from "Bear," and after a rough trip that year, he told Country Living, "My fishing career could have ended that day if not for Bear. He told the previous Wizard captain to ‘keep that kid and fire the rest.’"
He testified before Congress on behalf of the fleet
During the government shutdown of 2013, The Washington Post reported that 800,000 federal employees were furloughed indefinitely, and 1.3 million government workers were required to work without known payment dates. Around this time, Keith Colburn got involved in this dire situation after the lack of staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration greatly affected fishing in Alaska. According to CNN and the Los Angeles Times, Colburn’s testimony stated that these staff members are the ones who assign quotas to fishing vessels, and without them in the office, Alaskan boats remain at the docks.
"Deadliest Catch" has proven that there’s a lot of money to be made in crab fishing, but captains never shy away from sharing their vessel’s high overheads before even setting their first pots. Captains from the entire fleet watched from a local Dutch Harbor bar as Colburn explained to Congress, "We have been racking up bills getting ready to go fishing. If we’re tied to the docks waiting for the government, we can’t pay those bills." After deliberation, the fleet was eventually allotted their quotas weeks after the beginning of the season, but since the crab season’s deadline wasn’t extended, crews worked around the clock to try and salvage what they could.
Global warming has Keith Colburn eyeing retirement
For a long time, Keith Colburn was never one to discuss retirement. In July 2020, he told TV Showcase, "I don’t plan on retiring," but in an exclusive interview with Nicki Swift in June 2021, he cited global warming as a major factor in possibly stepping away from the Wizard. He shared, "Anybody that doesn’t think climate change exists. Guess what? It exists. Every year it gets worse and worse and worse." He then explained how the crabs keep moving further north as a result, and he also mentioned how the number of storms has greatly increased.
In April 2022, a special report from The Seattle Times and Anchorage Daily News stated that rising sea temperatures are putting Alaskan crab fisheries at risk. Before each crab season, state biologists conduct surveys across the Bering Sea to combat overfishing by assessing how much quota to allot the fleet, and 2022’s summer survey was so bleak that the fleet was only able to catch roughly 10% of the Opilio crab they could catch in 2021. About retirement, Keith told Nicki Swift, "Well, I’m definitely thinking about it," but to go out on a much less grim note, he did finish by saying, "But then you leave town. And it’s beautiful, it’s back home, and look at the stars, you set your gear, awesome fishing. You can’t take that away from me right now."