Heather Sears did not make it through her first season trolling for salmon with her dad. Seasickness cut her season short, but she can be forgiven. She was then 8 years old on the 48-foot Aguero, out of Morro Bay, Calif. Two years later, at age 10, when even the most precocious kids are still a couple years off their first summer jobs, she completed her first trolling season. Sears, who now lives in Fort Bragg, worked with her dad, Fred Sears, for several years, but would not get truly hooked until she started her own operation at 21 years old.

“I really loved it when I was in my early 20s, when I bought my first boat. We had great salmon seasons here in Fort Bragg. It was just hopping,” said Sears, referring to a string of robust California salmon seasons around the turn of the century.

Sears, now 39, hasn’t slowed down since. In her career so far, she has run several boats, started a direct marketing operation and more recently opened a retail seafood market. She runs those crews both onshore and off and has used social media to drive business. Sears’ followers are invited to witness many of the hard truths as well as aspirational glimpses of the commercial fishing lifestyle.

Despite her early start, Sears was not planning on a career in fishing. She was taking classes at a local community college to complete her GED, with plans to move on to higher education and get a degree in biology. As fate would have it, the campus she attended in Fort Bragg had a view of the harbor entrance. She could see the trollers heading out to sea while she sat in class, and she knew they were catching fish.

“I remember a friend I used to fish with who said that I could always go back to school, but that I would never see salmon fishing like this again,” she said.

She walked out in the middle of an English class, got on the boat, untied it and went trolling. And while Sears never went back to school, that friend may have been right about never seeing that kind of salmon fishing again.

Lean years and closures in California have driven Sears and her current boat — the 42- foot Princess, which she bought in Nanaimo, British Columbia, in 2009 — farther from home to find fish. She owns troll permits for California, Oregon and Alaska, and was leasing a Washington permit when the fishing was good there. She would fish Oregon in the spring, then head to Alaska for the summer, and troll for tuna down the West Coast on way back south to California in the fall. Winter found her skippering a crab boat out of Crescent City, Calif., which took her away from Fort Bragg for another three months.

“It was a bummer, but there just wasn’t a lot I could fish for at home,” Sears said. Through it all, Sears has developed a sparkling reputation as a skipper. Just ask Tom Danielson, the skipper of the Sea Pride, a 51-footer that Sears ran out of Crescent City.

“She’s the only person in 50 years who has run my boat other than me,” said Danielson. “I chose her out of a bunch of people because I trusted her and she’s an excellent fisherman. You don’t turn the boat over to just anyone, and especially this boat. It’s the cleanest boat around.”

Danielson added that his family has not had an accident on one of their boats in 119 years of fishing, and he was certain Sears would keep their record clean.

But all the hustling up and down the coast is not ideal for Sears. She wants to direct market her fish, and do it locally. In 2014, she got a flash freezer working in the hull of the Princess so she can process and freeze her catch at sea. This helped her start Princess Seafoods, which sells her catch at farmers markets in and around Fort Bragg.

In an effort to stay closer to home, she bought a California crab permit a few years back, which was working until the fishery tanked last year. She even did hagfish one summer in California, which she said was not especially lucrative but was the “easiest thing she’s ever done.” And while California enjoyed a resurgence in the salmon fishery that allowed Sears to stay home this summer, she is taking another stab at diversifying her local portfolio with the recently opened Princess Seafood Market and Deli.

“I was just getting a really bad feeling about the way the salmon seasons were going and the way the crab fishery was going. I didn’t know what to do. So I thought I would try something different so I wouldn’t have to do whatever else a fisherman does when they don’t have anything to fish for,” Sears said.

She started the storefront with Wendy Holloway, her first woman crew member back in 2004. Now, between deckhands, farmers market help, and staff at the market, Sears employees 16 women. While it has never been a strict policy to hire all women, she said, it has worked out.

“It’s a lot of chicks, and we like it.” The market sells catch from the Princess. Anything else she tries to buy from likeminded people and small family boats out of Fort Bragg or nearby. It all helps Sears carry on her family legacy, even if fishing politics and relentless beatings at sea can get to her.

“There is the occasional day offshore where I look around and think: God, I wish I had an office job,” she said. “But I don’t really wish I would have done something else.”

Have you listened to this article via the audio player?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Brian Hagenbuch is National Fisherman's products editor, a contributing editor to SeafoodSource and a Bristol Bay fisherman. He is based in Seattle.

Join the Conversation