Although it’s been more than a year since the death of Capt. Phil Harris, the gruff-but-lovable fisherman and star of reality hit Deadliest Catch, for his sons Josh and Jake, every day brings a vivid reminder of their loss. “In the grocery store checking out what kind of pasta noodles you want, some lady standing next to you just starts crying and gives you a hug without sayin’ nothin’,” says Jake of their Monroe, Wash., hometown. “The old man put off such a glow, people felt the warmth without ever meeting him.”
Since that light was extinguished Feb. 9, when Phil died at age 53, Jake and Josh have struggled to find their way out of the darkness, even as they return to crab fishing on the popular Discovery Channel series about plying their treacherous trade on the Bering Sea. (The new season premieres April 12; more than 6 million viewers tuned in last summer to watch Phil’s final episodes.) “Everything reminds me of him,” says Jake, 25, who, like Josh, 28, has had trouble filling their dad’s formidable shoes. Adds Josh: “That’s the hardest part-growing up. I really like screwing around; it’s just so much easier. But now I don’t have that option.”
Especially when Jake, the son whom Phil expected to follow in his footsteps into the wheelhouse of the Cornelia Marie, began spiraling down immediately after Phil’s death. Nine days later, he ended up in a police car chase and was charged with reckless driving. Shortly after, he checked himself into rehab for his addiction to prescription pain medication, which he says stemmed from pills he took after various sports and fishing injuries.
When his father died, his addiction “went from worse to…worser,” he says. “I look back on it now, and it’s, like, no way that was me! But I spent a month and a half in rehab and figured out why I was doing what I was doing.” Adds Josh: “He got color to him and gained weight. You couldn’t really talk to him before, so he got back to being normal. He’s more focused now.”
As Jake recovered, his older brother struggled to keep the business afloat, hiring lawyers to handle Phil’s estate and managing the costs of operating a ship and paying a crew (the brothers were not signed to a Discovery contract until this season). “We had bills to pay, we weren’t fishing, so we didn’t get a paycheck,” Josh says. “I was scared. There are a lot of times where I thought about giving up because it’s just too much.”
Only a month ago, Josh finally was able to grieve for his dad. “I had a nervous breakdown. It hit me hard. My emotions were all over the place. I would see a dog wagging its tail on TV and start crying,” says Josh, who spent three weeks driving around Florida to clear his head.
Still difficult: breaking the cycle of smoking that contributed to their dad’s failing health (Phil died 11 days after suffering a massive stroke while off-loading crab in Alaska). Last summer, “I quit for two days and started twitching,” Josh says. Adds Jake: “On the boat it’s hard when just one guy tries to quit out of seven guys who are smoking heavy.”
As they try to carry on their father’s legacy, both sons are working together to buy the Cornelia Marie (it would cost $1.2 million to purchase it outright from majority owner Cornelia Marie Devlin) and turn themselves from merely “the Harris boys” into true fishermen. “We’re in a much sunnier spot than we were before,” says Josh-especially when they’re working at sea, doing what Phil loved best. “We definitely feel the spirit of the old man out there,” says Jake. “It’s like he’s there, silently coaching us.”