Captain Hook

Keith Robbins, Charter Fishing Guide

By Matthew Halverson July 19, 2010 Published in the August 2010 issue of Seattle Met


Makeup by Cara Aeschliman.

Image: John Keatley

LOOK TO THE LEFT. See that crusty dude who looks like he belongs on the deck of the Pequod? That’s Captain Keith Robbins, and chances are that’s the last time you’ll catch him sitting still until the end of the month. August just happens to be the peak of king salmon season in Puget Sound, and thanks to the old-school, hands-on angling style that he uses, Robbins—owner of A Spot Tail Salmon Guide—is one of the most sought-after charter fishing guides in town. But even if he didn’t get a single call, he’d still be out on the water.

I WAS FISHING BEFORE I WAS FISHING. I’d be in the boat but not holding a rod, just going out with my dad and my brother.

CAPTAIN KEITH IS MORE OF A NICKNAME THAN A FORMAL DESIGNATION. But yeah, I’m licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. I just had to pee in a cup this week.

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A FISHING GUIDE, a good question to ask is where they like to go fishing when they’re not guiding. And if they say they don’t fish when they’re not guiding, you don’t want to hire them. A guide who doesn’t like to fish has been guiding too much.

THE MOST FRUSTRATING QUESTION THAT PEOPLE ASK ME IS, “How many fish are we going to catch?” That’s a pretty good indication that people haven’t spent a lot of time fishing. Yesterday, I had somebody call and say, “Can you clean and package and ship our catch?” And I said, “Let’s catch them first. The rest is easy.”

I’M THE MOST DISAPPOINTED PERSON ON THE BOAT when we don’t catch anything.

WHEN MY GIRLFRIEND MOVED IN WITH ME, I had just had my floors done. I said, “Okay, there’s only two rules: You can’t wear shoes in the house, and don’t ever question me about how much I fish.” Within a week, she was wearing shoes in the house, but she has never, in 10-plus years, given me any grief about how much I fish.

IN MAY, I TYPICALLY GO TO THE FLORIDA KEYS TO FISH FOR TARPON. At that time of year they’re typically 50 to 150 pounds. And you’re fishing for them in crystal clear water, so you can see it all happen. You’re throwing a two-inch fly at a fish that opens its mouth the size of a basketball, and when you hook one, which is hard to do, they jump so high out of the water that you’re actually looking up at them.

A LOT OF PEOPLE JUST WANT TO CATCH FISH. The technique is less important than the outcome.

THE WAY I FISH REQUIRES A LITTLE FINESSE. It’s called mooching. You’re dropping and reeling, dropping and reeling, dropping and reeling. Your bait never sits still. Every other guide in the Sound has gone to trolling with downriggers, which is where the pole is in a holder, you drive around, and when the fish eats, you grab the rod and reel it in. It’s a very effective method for fishing. But there’s a handful of us that still like to be connected to the rod.

I’VE TAKEN OUT A WHOLE BUNCH OF BASEBALL PLAYERS AND MUSICIANS, kind of crazy celebrity types. I took out D12, Eminem’s group, once. They were all very…let’s say, relaxed.

I DON’T REALLY WATCH ANY OF THE FISHING SHOWS. We call it fish porn. I have, and I do, but I don’t do it regularly. I don’t have it on my DVR or anything like that. I’d rather be out fishing.

I GOT MY FIRST BOAT IN 1976, my senior year in high school. Just a little beater that was $300. I used to leave it at Ray’s Boathouse when it was actually a boathouse. There’s a whole story right there: There was traffic at 4 in the morning in Ballard because it used to be a viable fishing community.

THE THING THAT’S AMAZING TO ME ABOUT SEATTLE is that you can catch salmon and see the skyline in the distance. Where I fish, you’re at most about a 15-minute boat ride from the city, but mentally, you’re in the wilderness.

THE IDEA OF KILLING AN ANIMAL DOESN’T SIT WELL WITH ME. A lot of people would say, “You’re killing fish,” but I actually kill very few. I really encourage people to catch and release. My old hat had a saying on it: “It’s about the catchin’, not the killin’.”

OH NO, I EAT FISH. I love fish. Love ’em. It’s pretty tough to beat fresh salmon on the grill.

THERE’S AS MANY FISH STORIES AS THERE ARE FISHERMEN. Actually, there’s about 10 times more fish stories than there are fishermen. Hey, we’re fishermen. We exaggerate.

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THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT HAVING WATER UNDERNEATH YOUR FEET THAT’S MAGICAL, even though sometimes you’re on land. For the most part, I’ve got water under my feet, whether I’m wading in a river or in a boat. I do a lot of catch and release, so it’s the pursuit. It’s a lot about the pursuit.

THERE’S A DOCK AT GOLDEN GARDENS, AND BACK IN THE DAY, MY MOM WOULD DROP ME OFF THERE DURING THE DAY. I was probably 12, 13, 14. and now I call it my babysitter. I didn’t at the time. I’d be there all day, fishing off the dock, and then my mom would come back and pick me up later. You can’t do that kind of stuff now.

EVEN IN MEXICO AND THE BAHAMAS, AND CERTAINLY MONTANA AND FLORIDA, THE IDEA OF KILLING YOUR PARTNER—WHICH, IF YOU’RE A FISHERMAN, IS THE FISH—JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. And the idea of being able to catch the same fish multiple times, I think, is just fantastic. You’re not catching the same fish twice if it goes in your cooler. At least the perception is nice.

EVERY DAY IS ENTERTAINING. The thing that’s cool is I’ll take out CEOs of big companies, and they’re totally enamored with my job. I’ve taken a lot of people who are powerful in their own industry, but if they had their way, they’d be a fishing guide.

ONE TIME, I WAS FISHING WITH DAN WILSON, WHO WAS THE FORMER CATCHER OF THE MARINERS. He had his son and a friend of his and his son. The fishing was outstanding. And Dan’s son—I don’t remember how old he was, but not old—already had a couple king salmon. And every time he dropped the line, he said, “I got one!” At one point, I look over, and he’s got a fish on, and it’s clearly a salmon. He’s fighting for a second, and then he just lets go of the rod. This was the only time, even to this day, that a rod has gone overboard. So Dan, who I knew could afford to replace it, was reeling his line out, and he caught his son’s line. He didn’t catch the rod. He caught the line. He reeled it up, and then from a distance, we could see the butt of the rod. We backed up, grabbed the rod, reeled it up a little bit, the fish was still on, and his son reeled the fish in. I’ve heard of this happening before, but that was the first time it happened to me. So once I saw that, I knew that he was a really good catcher.

Ed. note: Robbins is also the owner of the bars Tini Bigs and Hula Hula.]

I NEVER TELL ANYONE ANYTHING ABOUT MY OTHER JOB, because I want them to take me seriously as a guide. And I have this perception that if they knew I owned a bar or restaurant, they would think, “Oh, he’s not really a fishing guide.”

I WORKED IN RESTAURANTS PRETTY MUCH SINCE I WAS 18. Then I worked in fine dining. And I worked at a bar one day a week, and it was a lot of fun. And the bar I worked at went out of business, and then I ended up making a really low-ball offer, and no one else wanted it because the lease was really bad. I ended up getting it. So then I worked in the restaurant business. But I always fished. Sometimes I stayed up all night. When you start out, you’re there a lot. I would close the bar every single night. And a lot of times, myself and my old fishing buddy, who was one of my bartenders, we’d stay up all night, go to his boat, and we’d go fish until like 7 or 8 in the morning, and then we’d go to bed. And then we’d go to work at like noon or 1. So I always fished, even when I opened my first business.

AT SOME POINT, THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS BECOMES DIFFICULT. I mean, I’m hardly there late anymore. It’s very difficult to work late and get up at 4 in the morning to go fishing.

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