Skip to comments.Fiercest fisherman roils crabbing world
Posted on 12/31/2008 11:16:23 AM PST by MovementConservative
(11-26) 20:13 PST -- The world's greatest fisherman once owned five boats.
He has fished close enough to the Farallones to eye the elephant seals lounging on the rocks, and he has fished off most every piece of the Oregon and Washington coasts and, sure, even off Alaska, west and north and far into the Bering Sea, to the very edge of the ice floe, to where you really can see Russia.
He has made millions, has lost millions, has brought life to the world and watched life go away.
He has filled boats with crab and fish, and he has kept law enforcement busy.
The notorious Dennis Sturgell is 56, a father of four, divorced once and married again. He lives in Hammond, Ore., and keeps his boats a few miles away in Warrenton, a town of fishermen and loggers at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Once a year, for two decades and change, as a kind of warm-up to the northern fishing seasons, he has run a boat from his home port to the ocean off the Bay Area - to fill his live wells with crab during a Dungeness season that opens two weeks earlier than on the rest of the tri-state coast.
He is not a well-liked man.
There was that time, years ago, when commercial fishermen from the Half Moon Bay, San Francisco and Bodega Bay fleets were meeting at the crab boat owners hall on Al Scoma Way in the city to agree on a price they'd present to the wholesalers, who would then sell into the crab-starved holiday market.
As Sturgell remembers it, the fishermen wanted $5 per pound for their Dungeness that year, an almost-unheard-of price.
He spoke with them from his boat via speaker phone. He said:
"You're not going to get $5 a pound, and you know it. I'm giving you a few hours to come up with a price the buyers will take or I'm going to set my gear and start fishing."
The world's boldest fisherman hung up.
Within hours, the story goes, the buyers accepted a price of around $2 per pound.
Whatever fraternal bond existed between the Oregon skipper and Bay Area fishermen was broken.
Bought a boat at 17
Sturgell got his start on fishing boats when he was 12. At 17, he had put away enough to buy his own boat, a 35-foot salmon troller. Then he purchased a larger boat and his first crab pots.
Within two years he bought more crab pots and added a shrimp boat to keep him working during the summer and fall, and in that way, Dennis Sturgell said he became the only thing he ever wanted to be, a full-time professional fisherman.
He had a 66-foot, custom steel boat built for himself, a serious crab boat that he named the Bold Contender, and he took it to Alaska to fish near the coast for Dungeness and halibut and black cod. He bought a 166-foot fuel supply craft in Louisiana, brought it to Oregon, gave it the name Fierce Contender and rigged it for crab fishing in the Bering Sea.
He made millions pulling crab from the autumn and winter misery of Alaska's cold sea.
He eventually amassed a fleet of five boats and profited mightily.
And one winter, while he was away in Alaska, the 26-year marriage to the mother of his four children fell apart.
Sitting in the wheelhouse of his boat off the harbor at Coos Bay, Ore., on Saturday, years removed from that winter and a week since the worst Dungeness opener off the Bay Area he can remember, Sturgell said, "That was it for me and Alaska."
So he stopped fishing the Bering Sea. His boats still went, but Sturgell didn't.
Sea of losses
In 38 years in the business, the world's fiercest fisherman has had boats catch fire and has had boats take on water nearly to the rails. But as a captain, he said, he has never lost a boat.
He considers himself not lucky, but calm.
In 1973, while returning to Hammond after crabbing in the ocean outside the Columbia River, Sturgell watched as his brother-in-law's boat took a wave, rolled over and went down. He got his brother-in-law out of the water, but the boat's deckhand and Sturgell's nephew, a 6-year-old who had been named Dennis after his crab-fishing uncle, were gone.
In 1995, with his own fleet of boats down to four, after having sold the 166-foot Fierce Contender, Sturgell sent two of his boats from Hammond to Alaska to fish king crab.
Halfway across the Gulf of Alaska, one of the boats, the Fierce Competitor, vanished. Five of Sturgell's best friends were on it. None was ever found.
In 2004, while Sturgell was driving to the Bay Area to meet his boat for the Dungeness opener, an alternate skipper was piloting the Bold Contender along the coast.
The boat took on some water, and the skipper panicked, Sturgell said. The boat went down for good off Newport, on the Oregon coast.
The trouble with the law
Sturgell speaks about loss, and he's quite calm. He talks about the law, and he's not so calm.
"I'm an example," he said. "I'm something they all use to warn off other fishermen. That's what I get for being high-profile."
Four years ago, Sturgell said, he was cited for fishing outside of designated areas. The ticket was for $100,000.
Most recently, in a story carried on the national news wires, Sturgell was cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for bringing in almost $75,000 worth of cod the federal fisheries agency charges was caught illegally off the Oregon coast.
The fine is for $116,000, and Sturgell said more tickets are on the way.
"They literally are putting fishermen out of business," Sturgell said.
The Fierce Leader
But the world's greatest fisherman resurfaces, even with the tickets, even with the losses.
The sinking of the Bold Contender led to an insurance settlement that, in turn, led to the commission of Sturgell's current new boat, the Fierce Leader, which was completed in 2007.
But none of this fully explains why the name Sturgell continues to carry with it a heavy hit of hatred among the Bay Area's commercial fishermen.
On the Fierce Leader's maiden trip, in autumn 2007, Sturgell was halfway down the coast when he heard about a fuel-oil spill in San Francisco Bay.
He thought it over and headed south, anyway, to anchor just below Point Reyes.
Local commercial crabbers, set to start their season, were facing the public-perception disaster of potentially bringing diesel oil-tainted Dungeness to market as remnants of the Nov. 7 Cosco Busan spill worked their way into the ocean.
As a group, the three fleets from San Francisco, Half Moon and Bodega bays, hundreds of fishermen, said they would not fish. And they didn't.
Sturgell and a few other boats from the north did.
Alone. For nearly two weeks. And their pots were stuffed with crab.
"And I will tell you what," he'll readily tell you, "they were, without a doubt, the finest Dungeness I have ever caught. Huge. Packed with meat and full of fat and goddamn delicious. We cooked them up and really enjoyed them."
While Sturgell wiped the lemon-butter from his lips with the back of his hand, the local fishermen starved financially.
"He did what he did," said Larry Collins, who is president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. "I really don't want to talk about him."
If there's any remorse in Sturgell for what happened off San Francisco last autumn, he keeps it hidden.
He returned this year, set his gear the day before the Nov. 15 Dungeness opener, like all the other boats, and worked through three days of the worst crabbing he has ever encountered off the Bay Area coast.
He sold his small catch and left on the Tuesday after the opener, docking at Coos Bay that Saturday.
He hasn't found much good this year, he said.
He still owns three boats, but two of them are for sale.
He can still fish, but after he was cited a couple of years ago for not having identification tags on the buoys of his pots in Oregon, the state wants to take away his crab permit and ban him from fishing.
"I used to love to fish," Sturgell said. "Now I pretty much despise it."
The Fierce Leader left Coos Bay on Wednesday with its captain and a crew of five.
The Coast Guard radioed to ask where the boat would be fishing. And for once, Dennis Sturgell didn't seem to know.
E-mail Brian Hoffman at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Dennis Sturgell is a fisherman from Oregon who competes with Bay Area Crabbers and Washington crabbers and Alaskan crabbers alike. He is ready to head out for another Dungenous crab season onboard his fishing vessel Fierce Leader docked in Charleston, Oregon. (Lou Sennick / Special to The Chronicle)
“even off Alaska, west and north and far into the Bering Sea, to the very edge of the ice floe, to where you really can see Russia.”
Heh, heh, heh...they really can’t let go of her, can they? Hehee, heheee, heheeeee.....boobs...”to where you really can see Russia”...haw, haw, hawwwwwwwwwwww....
WANTED!!!....Dead or Alive.........
Good article. Crab and other fisheries are a hell of a business to be in right now here in Oregon and the PNW. The good thing is that crab is good at reproducing and the catch this year seems good. I am going to go out and purchase several today to help them all out.
I want that crab. Is that a Tasmanian Crab?
Good article. I live on the shores of Humboldt Bay. Skimpy crab catch this season and there was no salmon season...
Hey, I like this guy... :-)
Damn send that big baby over to my dinner plate.
We ned more like him.
I saw this. First thing I thought about was the Deadliest Catch about the Alaskan crabbers.
Costco had King Crab legs yesterday and my First Wife said thought she saw the puller’s fingers...
At the BBQ the other night, we came very close to having fingers mixed in with the sausage. Sil was trying to keep up with a guy that was using an electric knife.
Not quite, but daughter would claim they had the same attitude.
Looks like a Red Rock crab.
Used to catch them in Hood Canal.