Shelby Martin: From DreamWorks To Dream Life

By Rich Armstrong

Young entrepreneur turned her back on Hollywood to run her own fish boat out of Alaska.

Shelby Martin

Your standard success story normally doesn't involve a young woman leaving the bright lights of Hollywood to run a charter fishing boat out of Alaska – but Shelby Martin is not your typical young woman.

"I've never been happier in my career choice," says Martin, 29. "Every day is different, which keeps me engaged. I have new guests each day, and when it comes to fishing and wildlife you never know what you're going to catch or see. The weather and water conditions constantly change, which can create unique challenges as well."

Martin grew up in the small town of Galesburg, Illinois, where she and her brother, Kholby, would join their father casting into the local lakes for bass. Flash forward to Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Martin had dreams of someday working with orcas, "my all-time favorite animal." Then she took a film class and "loved it, so I switched majors."

Following graduation, she turned an internship at DreamWorks Animation (creators of "Shrek," "Kung Fu Panda," and many others) into a full-time career, first as a production assistant, then as production coordinator. After four years, she fell victim to mass layoffs at the studio, but there was something larger to her out there than just losing a job.

"At that point in my life, I lived in Los Angeles with the bright lights and night life, but I found myself being someone I wasn't," she explains. "L.A. wasn't for me. I decided I needed a complete change, something totally different."

An invitation from a friend to visit Juneau, Alaska, delivered that something.

"The minute I got off the plane, it felt like home," she says. "There was a small-town feel; this community surrounded by mountains and water seemed comparable to the plentiful corn fields and lakes of Illinois."

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska, but it's fairly isolated, with a small community of about 32,000, where the only way in/out is by boat or plane.

"In certain ways, it's similar to Galesburg where I grew up, except up here people have boats before they have cars. It's a big boating and fishing community," Martin says. "I always loved the ocean; Juneau gave me a shot at a new career."

That career began with the only person she knew in Juneau, a good friend whose family fished three or four times a week, mostly sportfishing, but occasionally some commercial trolling for salmon. Martin joined them to voraciously learn the finer points of Alaska fishing.

"I spent my first summer up here on the weekends with them on their boat, salmon and halibut fishing. My first weekend out fishing with them, my friend pulled up a 115-pound halibut; it was almost as big as me," she says. "I was ecstatic. From that point on I was really hooked on fishing in Alaska."

She earned a job as a deckhand on a charter fishing boat and was out on the water more or less every day, learning how to charter fish. Wanting to be a captain, she earned her captain's license at The Captain School in Cape Coral, Florida.

After several years of working for other charter companies, Martin purchased a 17-year-old, 30-foot Lee Shore Marine aluminum sport fishing boat with a cabin. After a refit over the winter and a new name, Alaskan C Shel, Martin began running her own boat this summer.

Martin's 49th Fathoms Charters will focus on halibut- and salmon-fishing trips, but is also available for whale-watching tours. She hired a backup captain, local veteran fisherman Toni Wisner, and plans to run with an all-female crew.

"In this industry men are the majority, so for some women just being given an opportunity is half the battle," says the young business owner. "My goal is to create a welcoming work environment for women who would like to break into this industry. It's physically and mentally demanding but very rewarding." 

— Published: October/November 2017

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