Interview

How Commercial Fisherman Corey Arnold Got Hooked On Fishing

And how he hopes to pass down that passion to his kids.

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Courtesy of Corey Arnold, Getty Images

You could say that for Corey Arnold, the simple pastime of fishing with dad pretty much set his whole life in motion, including two hugely successful careers — as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and an award-winning photographer who has been on exhibit all over the world. (His latest for National Geographic features wild animals living in uncomfortably close quarters with humans in cities.)

Chris Arnold was an avocado grower and nurseryman, in Southern California, who bought a fishing boat when Corey was a toddler. He was reeling in baby sharks while still in diapers.

“My dad was obviously busy with work and running a business, so fishing was a hobby for him,” says Arnold. “But I was 100 percent on fishing.”

It was on a summer fishing trip to Alaska with his dad that Arnold first observed a commercial fishing operation — by 19, he had his first fishing job. He spent his first five seasons setnetting salmon in Bristol Bay and Kenai, as he worked his way through college, and then joined the crew of the f/v Rollo for seven seasons, fishing for King crab out of Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands. (Arnold and the crew of the Rollo were featured on Season 2 of the Deadliest Catch).

In between his shifts on deck, Arnold photographed the crew at work. “I’d keep two cameras on my bunk at all times, wrapped in Ziploc bags and duct tape, and shoot in between work and sleep. Many of my best photographs were never made as all hands were needed on deck during the fiercest storms,” has said of his photographs in his first book, Fish-Work: The Bering Sea.

Courtesy of Corey Arnold
Courtesy of Corey Arnold

Today, Arnold still spends his summers fishing in Alaska, captaining a commercial gillnetter in Bristol Bay, where he fishes for wild sockeye salmon. During the six- to seven-week season, he lives with roughly 130 others in a remote seasonal camp at an abandoned salmon cannery called Graveyard Point. Next summer, Arnold and his wife, wilderness filmmaker Aly Nicklas, are planning to bring the kids — 3-year-old Wolfgang, who already shares his dad’s passion for fishing, and 16-month old Shiloh, who’s next on deck.

Arnold and his wife, filmmaker Aly Nicklas, aboard his boat in Alaska — Nicklas was 3 months pregnant with Wolfgang.

Courtesy of Corey Arnold

This summer, Arnold’s focused on getting his camp at Graveyard Point ready for family life. He’s less worried about the huge brown bears that wander through camp than he is the lead paint and exposed rusted metal. His hope is that his kids “can play in camp and come out on the boat a little bit and just at a really young age, start to see what we’re doing up there.”

Just a few weeks before Arnold was set to depart for Graveyard Point, we talked to him about why fishing is so often handed down in families, and whether he wants them to follow in his footsteps.

During the six- to seven-week fishing season, Arnold lives with roughly 130 others in a remote seasonal camp at an abandoned salmon cannery called Graveyard Point.

Courtesy of Corey Arnold
Courtesy of Corey Arnold

When you first started going out on the water with your dad, what got you so excited about fishing?

There’s something instinctual — the strategy of stalking and hunting prey that I think is deep in us from our ancestors. And there’s something about fishing that really grabs hold of a kid’s curiosity. You’re dropping a line into this endless void, and you never know what’s going to grab onto that hook.

I was a very curious kid. I grew up in Southern California; there’s pictures of me wearing diapers on our boat catching little baby sharks. When we’d go on vacations, there was always a river or a lake that was the destination. My mom wasn’t excited about that, but that’s how it worked.

I was really into using light line and having these epic battles that felt a little more fair for the fish. My dad would just put on a big old reel and heavy line and be cranking up some tiny fish. But I was always more into the strategy of fishing, rather than just hauling up meat.

Did your interest in photography grow up alongside your obsession with fishing, when you were a kid?

When I was little, it was all about fishing. My dad was a hardcore amateur photographer, and as he got older, his interest grew and grew and grew. He made a living as an avocado grower and a nurseryman. But photography and fishing were his hobby passions. So, I turned both those things into more than just a passion, but a way to make a living and a total lifestyle.

Did your dad grow up fishing with his dad?

My dad picked it up on his own. He was a working-class business owner. I think a guy that worked at a pipe company — his pipe rep because he bought so many pipes for all the agriculture stuff — and that guy started taking him fishing and then they ended up going to Mexico. And then my dad bought a boat, and he got me into it.

My dad and I talked about making our own fishing TV show. People that aren’t into fishing think watching people fish on TV has got to be the most boring thing on Earth, which is how golfing is for me to watch. But my dad and I loved watching fishing shows, and he’d suggest, like, “Yeah, we could do that.” And I’d be like, “Oh God, that sounds great, except, Dad, you’re like ...” I was just thinking how unfunny he was. How embarrassingly dad-joke, not funny he was.

A young Corey and his dad fishing.

Courtesy of Corey Arnold
Courtesy of Corey Arnold
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How did your book Fishing With My Dad, which you co-authored with your dad, come to be?

I had just published myBering Sea book with Nazraeli Press — they asked me if I had any other ideas. I always wanted to do this thing, as a tribute to my dad, showing the roots of how I got interested in photography and fishing. I went through all my dad’s old albums and scanned photos and eventually put together this series. We had a show in Portland, and it was great.

My relationship with my dad was really strong when I was little, like pre-puberty. That’s the time when I just wanted to hang out with him all the time. I wanted to go fishing with him all the time, and when I started to become an adult … our relationship wasn’t as strong. I didn’t want to go fishing with him as much because he kind of made the situation stressful. So, I think as I got older, I realized, I felt kind of bad. I know my dad had spent his whole adult life kind of missing and longing for that experience he had with me when I was little, that connection we had, and I wanted to bring it back and do something where he felt more involved.

How was time on the water with your dad different from the day-to-day of being father and son? Beyond fishing, what did you get out of it?

There’s something about the shared experience on the water, the feeling that you’re doing something that not a lot of people do. For example, in Alaska, we’re living in a remote encampment of 130 or so people, and we’re experiencing crazy weather, and there’s no help. So, there’s a certain camaraderie, this feeling that we’re all in this together, we’re doing this unique thing that no one else fully understands.

When I grew up on the water with my dad, it was the same kind of feeling. I’d go tell my friends what we’d caught, or I’d bring stuff to class for show-and-tell, and everyone was like, “Oh, my God, what is that thing? You brought a shark to class?"

It was foreign to other people; it bonded me and my dad. I’ve always liked to try to find paths that are not quite the norm. Try to find interesting ways to live my life. And I think fishing has brought me unique experiences and challenges that you just can’t find on land.

Was fishing a family thing where you’d all be out on the water together, or were you and your dad would the ones who were fishing?

It was usually just me and my dad. My sister wanted to, but she would get seasick. Or my mom and dad would get into a fight. My dad took fishing very seriously in a way that was not fun a lot of times for people on board. It wasn’t until I became a teenager and started rebelling against it and realizing that my dad was making work out of something that’s supposed to be fun. He was just super pissed if he wasn’t catching fish. And it was like, “Dad, we’re out here to have a good time. Don’t be so upset about not catching fish.” I was a little bit more of the adult in that way a lot of times.

When did you start commercial fishing?

In 1995. So how long is that now? Dang, 28 years or something? Yeah, so I was 19 years old. And that’s when I got my first job. I walked the docks and found a job set netting in Bristol Bay, which is anchoring gill nets out of little open skiffs. I did that for four years while I was going to college. It was right after I graduated from high school. And then I took a couple years off, worked as a photographer assistant. And then I decided I wanted to try to find a high seas job where I could make more money. I found a crab job in Seattle, and I did that for seven years.

I loved salmon fishing, but I would make no money when I started. One summer, I made $800. So, I decided to go back and buy my own boat. And I did that in 2009. So yeah, going on 14 years that I’ve owned my own operation. And in that period, we’ve had three of the biggest runs in salmon returns in the history of Bristol Bay. So, it’s absolutely booming. Last year, 79 million salmon returned to the area. Which is shattering any record in the last 120 years.

Now, as a dad, you’re out fishing with your own son.

Yeah, he caught his first fish last summer, which was a surfperch.

We were on rocks with waves crashing against them and sometimes getting us wet. He was a little bit freaked out and he was having nightmares after that. He thought waves were going to take him away while he was sleeping. So, I realized we need to go do some simple trout fishing from the shore with a bobber. Start easy.

He was super stoked ultimately to have the fish. He’s taken this massive mental and physical leap in the last just two months. He’s like a whole different person. He was going through tantrums, everything was scary all the time — and now all of a sudden he’s brave and super cognizant.

Your daughter, Shiloh, is 16 months old — is she getting excited about any of the same stuff?

Whatever Wolfie does, she wants to do. We went trout fishing from the shore the other day. I was with my two buddies that don’t have kids, and they were casting from the shore, and I’m trying to cast the line, trying to keep Shiloh from just walking straight into the water, which was really hard, and trying to keep Wolfie from falling off these steep rocks that he just kept climbing. He found an old half of a fishing pole, a broken fishing pole, that someone just left on the bank and the whole time he was just running around slapping the water saying how he’s fishing. We ended up pulling in one trout finally.

How do the kids respond when you pull in a fish and suddenly there’s a wild animal flopping at their feet?

Well, they kind of giggle at first with excitement. Then they’re just kind of confused. Shiloh was giggling when the trout came up, and she was reaching for it, a little out of control. And I have all these pictures of Wolfie. His first fish, that surfperch that we caught in September… he cranked it all the way in. Once he got it, he was just staring at it dumbfoundedly. Like, what just happened? And we’re all super excited. I was almost in tears, and he’s just totally zoned. He didn’t show that much excitement. But then later, all he does is talk about it. All he does is talk about the fish he caught.

He’s just still a little too young to fully understand life and death. We’ve been really trying to teach our kids empathy and care for animals.

Corey Arnold fishes with his son, Wolfgang.

Photo credit: Aly Nicklas

Arnold’s daughter, Shiloh, gets in on the action.

Photo credit: Aly Nicklas
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What did you teach them at that moment?

In fishing, you love the animal that you’re killing for food. You can have a passion for fishing and fish conservation and a love of the beauty of the creature itself. But at the same time, you’re killing it, and you’re giving thanks to it for giving its life to you so that you can eat it. I think when we pulled up that trout and it was flopping around and dying, it swallowed the hook, so we were definitely keeping it to eat it. And Wolfie was excited at first, and then it’s like, “Oh.”

I could see his little brain thinking: We’re hurting it. I think it’s important to try to really explain to them right then what’s going on here.

I just remember as a kid, my dad was a little more barbaric about fish. He didn't seem to think too much about the fish’s feelings. I want to be able to explain [more to Wolfie], and hope that he has empathy for these creatures and understands that it’s still important that we have this protein.

That night I was cooking it up, I’m like, “Do you want to eat it?” He’s like, “No.” And then I lathered it in butter and salt and gave him a mouthful, and he was like, “Oh, I like fish.”

Wolfgang tests the waters.

Photo credit: Aly Nicklas

Corey Arnold with his son, Wolfgang.

Photo credit: Aly Nicklas
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You obviously got a lot out of fishing with your dad — what do you hope your own kids will get out of the experience?

One of the things I’m most interested in as a father is creating a resilient child who can deal with adversity. And how do you do that without just manufacturing fake adversity? You don’t want to do that. Obviously, you want there to be a reason to suffer if there’s some kind of suffering to overcome. And going out and having the drive and the excitement to go seek out fish is powerful enough to help you overcome these comfort barriers. So yeah, I’m talking to Wolfgang about fishing all the time. And he knows I go to Alaska [to fish] — six weeks, six to seven weeks, I’m gone.

He thinks when I’m in Alaska, I’m just fishing with a pole. He has no idea what I’m really doing up there. But he’s excited about it. And he is always like, “I want to go fishing with you in Alaska, Papa.” He knows this thing I do is mysterious, and he can see the excitement I have for it, and he wants to be a part of what I’m doing.

There’s obviously no limit to what fishing can be — you’re the perfect example of that. And for kids, it seems like a skill that can take them in any direction, as far as they want to go.

Fishing gets you outside and exploring places that maybe you wouldn’t think of going to. If you have a destination at a certain lake or a stream or are exploring miles of a river that’s bushy and people don’t ever go to, that’s part of the adventure: finding new territory to fish. And then all the other natural things you see along the way, all the birds and the wildlife and that whole experience. Photography has been an excuse for me to get out and meet people and see the world. My reason for going to a place usually has to do with photography. And it’s the same with fishing when you’re a little kid. It gets you out of your tiny little world.

Corey Arnold and Wolfgang on the Oregon Coast.

Photo credit: Aly Nicklas