You’ve probably seen him on “Deadliest Catch,” blurting the lines of limericks and other poems while working on the deck of a fishing boat. Or you’ve most likely read or heard his poetry at a memorial service paying homage to a beloved community member who had passed.
Larry Ryser, long known as a fisherman, has become somewhat of a poet laureate of the fishing fleet.
Somewhere in his reams of poems, he must have something that describes his experiences being on one of America’s most popular television programs.
“The (‘Deadliest Catch’) producers called each of us crew members and asked questions,” Ryser recalled.
One of the questions was about greenhorns, inexperienced newcomers to the boat — and, in some cases, to the profession. Having a greenhorn aboard can cause all sorts of drama, which “Deadliest Catch” producers love.
Ryser shared a greenhorn story to answer the producer’s question. He told of traveling to Dutch Harbor on a boat skippered by his friend, Larry Gunderson.
They had been fishing for a couple of months when Gunderson and the crew asked for Ryser’s opinion on hiring a greenhorn.
“We’d been through five (greenhorns) already. Five bad ones in a row. I chose to take one. I like teaching,” Ryser said.
“We hired this guy (we’ll call him Sam). We get him out there and days into the trip. I can see he’s inundated with a flux of information. Four egotistical guys tell (Sam), ‘do this, do, that,’ not explaining anything. I got (Sam) alone and said, ‘You’re being overwhelmed here. If you ever have a question and need a straight-up answer, come to me and I’ll tell you why. In fact, if you have an idea, feel free to bring it up.’”
Ryser continued, “About two weeks later he came up to me and said, ‘Hey Larry, remember you told me that if you had an idea.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m Larry Ryser, and walked the deck of a crab boat for years. This punk kid ain’t going to teach me nothing.’ (Sam) said, ‘When you tuck the bridle, have you thought of tucking it this (particular) way?’ I said. ‘It’s a great idea.’”
“I ended up using (that method) the rest of my career. I always thought that it was beautiful that I created an atmosphere where a greenhorn could teach me something,” said Larry. “It never made sense to me to have an ego on the deck of a crab boat (while) you’re constantly learning and nobody knows it all.”
Apparently the “Deadliest Catch” producers didn’t think there was enough drama in Ryser’s greenhorn story.
“They wanted me to go off on greenhorns,” he said.
Ryser said the “Deadliest Catch” crew tried to create tension among the fishermen.
“They didn’t do it with us, just because we were such a tightknit group to begin with. We’re all best friends. There wasn’t going to be any tension,” he said. “If they would have stuck around just one more week, they would have seen us get into a big argument and practically go to blows. They left too soon.”
Many of Ryser’s poems are dedicated to those he’s met in the fishing industry.
Ryser was on the Elizabeth F skippered by Stormy Stutes in 1991, when he met Scotty Powell, who was from Astoria, Oregon.
Powell was walking the docks looking for a job. He was a greenhorn.
“We talked amongst ourselves to hire this big boy. We named him Pork Chop,” Ryser said. “He wasn’t going to win any awards, but at the end of a two and a half month season, he was adequate and he wanted to go on. We parted ways on good terms. He went his way, I went mine”
“Nine years later I’m in the Bering Sea” where strong winds were generating 30-foot waves, Ryser said. “It was too rough for us to fish.”
In the morning, the skipper woke up the crew and said there was a mayday. He told them to look closely at the water.
“About 40 minutes later, I spotted something orange at the top of one of the waves,” Ryser said. “He’s dead, He’s floating. I was deck boss and had slippers on. I’m grabbing the hook, trying to hook this guy.”
Once they got the body on deck, they headed for the vessel Stimson, which would carry the body to Kodiak.
“We had to go through the storm to meet the Stimson,” said Ryser. During that trip he realized who the fisherman was: Scotty Powell, “the young man I helped to get his first job.”
Ryser also paid homage to George Brandenburg, who perished after the Barbarossa rolled over. Ryser had talked to him on St. George Island.
“When I saw him pulling his anchor, I said, ‘Where the heck are you going?’ ‘I’m just going to go have a look.’ He went out there and never came back,” Ryser said.
Ryser also wrote a poem honoring the crew of the Lin J, who perished when their boat went down in the Bering Sea.
“There was a guy I knew on there. Just met him briefly. He made an impression on me,” he said.
Ryser wrote his first poem in 1983 when he crewed on the Shisalden, which fished brown crab on the Bering Sea. He was 28. It was Christmastime.
“We left Dutch Harbor and we (weren’t going to) come back until six months. This was going to be my first Christmas away from my family,” he said.
The boat tied up to a processor that had women on board. The processor crew was throwing a party.
“We put our least-stinky clothes on and we’re all primped to go to this party,” Ryser said.
“At the last minute, we’re just getting ready to head up to the party, when the (processor) foreman came” and informed the Shisalden crew that they had taken a vote and decided “they don’t want no fishermen attending. That devastated me.”
Ryser said they “cut loose and anchored up” and enjoyed a leg of lamb dinner, along with a couple of jugs to drown their sorrows.
“I laid down that night and thought, ‘I’m bummed out. How do I express this (feeling)? Poetry? Hmm. Wonder if I can do it. Can I make it rhyme? Have a storyline? Message?” Ryser said.
At about one in the morning, he wrote “Night Before Christmas,” which referred to “those who never have known a good meal, too poor to buy toys. No dolls for girls, no trucks for the boys. Elders so lonely … no one to care. Give thanks to Whose birthday it is.’
“It wasn’t perfect. It took a little bit of refining. The first (poem) took off from there,” Ryser said.
Larry’s poems open a window into the camaraderie that is strong in the fishing fleet. Who better to achieve the title of Poet Laureate of the Fishing Fleet than one who understands the language, the experiences of the fishermen?