Lacie Richardson’s Colorado lineage runs deep. Going back four generations, she is one of the first of her kin to ever leave the state. While speaking with the Business Journal, Richardson recalls her first trip to Alaska as a college student, reciting the names of the exotic-sounding ports — Togiak, Egegik, Sitka — from which she would one day earn her keep.
“I flew into nowhere Alaska and chartered a bush plane,” she said. “I had no cell phone service, I didn’t know who I’d meet.”
Richardson would eventually take jobs that, to the landlubber, sound as foreign as the ports — tendering, long-lining, gill-netting, seining.
Growing up in a landlocked state, Richardson was inexplicably, as if by Siren, called to the sea. She would spend her early adult life tracing the coast of the nation’s 49th state, only to be led back home where she would start her own seafood distribution business, Wild Woman Fish Co., in 2014.
The distribution and wholesale operation not only specializes in troll-caught salmon, halibut and other wild-caught Alaskan seafood, it also serves to educate restaurateurs and consumers — and make a better life for fishermen at the top of the world.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a fourth-generation Colorado Springs native on both sides of my family. I went to high school in Falcon and, when I graduated I went to Western State in Gunnison. Ever since I was real young I’d been interested in fly and sport fishing.
My junior year of college I just got it into my head that I wanted to go to Alaska … but I couldn’t afford to just move there and live, so I arranged an exchange program through college that allowed me to continue my education and experience Alaska while having a place to stay. … I had no reason to go except everything in me told me I had to. I didn’t question it. I just went. I bought a one-way ticket in the middle of January and gave the exchange program two weeks’ notice.
You probably weren’t studying fishing.
I was an English major. … Being an English major got me into the performance side of things. I got into performance poetry and public speaking. I never knew how much I loved being in front of an audience and I got to develop those skills.
But in Alaska I was known as some crazy blonde girl who loves to fly fish. I was on the river every chance I could get. I was part of a traveling fly fishing club. Then I got a job on a charter boat and did some sport fishing as a guide the first summer I was there. I also guided whale-watching tours.
Did you graduate from college in Alaska?
No. I came back the second semester of my senior year of college to Western to graduate. But right after graduation, it hit me — what am I going to do with my life? I’m an English major!
The day after graduation, I got a call. The voice on the other end said he was a captain of a vessel, and my name was dropped in conversation on the docks as a candidate for a good deckhand. He asked if I ever thought about commercial fishing. I was like, ‘No, but it sounds fun!’
That was the launch of my commercial fishing career. The money was great; I got to travel and it funded my artistic, sea-gypsy lifestyle at the time.
What was commercial fishing like?
I jumped from boat to boat along the entire outer coast of Alaska in every single industry you could do other than crabbing. I promised my dad I would never crab. He thought it was too dangerous.
I just immersed myself in fishing and was working on the docks as a charter boat deckhand. I would do boat work for people on the side. Like, ‘Do you need your boat painted? I’ll paint it for you.’
I practiced a really strict work ethic and I’d get the job done. I got a reputation on the docks, which is a small community, as a super-hard worker, good to be around and obsessed with fishing.
Where did your love of fishing come from?
My dad raised me to love the outdoors. We have a small ranch in Cotopaxi we were raised on hunting and fishing.
But it was also kind of innate. Ever since I was little, my dad jokes, I was the first one in the gut pile. I wanted to process whatever we were handling more than the catching and hunting. It was about taking care of and honoring that animal and honoring the environment and knowing how to provide for myself in a wilderness scenario.
All through college when I was living in Colorado, I lived off of elk and pheasant and deer. I used to clean fish in my dorm room. My roommates hated it.
Talk about your company.
So, my last two years in Alaska I invested in a troller [vessel], a hook-and-line fishery out of Sitka. It was an investment with another person. I had never trolled before. It was the only fishery I’d never deck-handed or crewed.
Trawling is the demon of fisheries. It uses a big net and has a lot of by-catch.
Trolling is a quality-based fishery, not a quantity-based fishery. It’s all hook and line. We are really fishing — using bait and hooks and judging depth and tricking fish into taking lures.
I went into trolling because the industry was a cheaper fishery to get into. … But reality hit, and we realized we didn’t know what we were doing. The first season, we didn’t make any money. We were so broke.
I did the troller for a few seasons and sold fish in the offseason. I grew to the point where I couldn’t do both. I let the boat and permit go because it was extra overhead.
But I had been coming back [to Colorado in the offseason] and would bring big boxes of fish for friends and family. … I realized I had this amazing product and would come home to Colorado, where there wasn’t any good fish. I was going to see about selling it.
The first season I brought back 300 pounds and it was gone like that. I was onto something. … We’re selling about 3,000 pounds a month now.
What’s your process?
I work with a trollers cooperative out of Sitka, which is the cooperative I used to belong to. … They clean the fish the second they’re on the boat, fillet them and pack them on ice and cryogenically freeze them the day of catch. There’s never more than 24 hours before a fish is locked in time.
We barge the cryogenically frozen fish from Sitka to Bellingham, Wash., and have them trucked here to Colorado Springs. But they’re not slow frozen. The fish get to -50 in about five minutes. … There’s no cellular damage, so we can distribute fish year-round that, when thawed, will taste like the day they were caught, guaranteed. It’s the highest-grade sashimi on the market and we’re one of the primary distributors of wild fish on the Front Range for the wholesale industry.
Do you have advice for other young professionals?
I always tell people thinking about starting a business, if there’s something you’re passionate about, and you find a problem in that industry, the solution is your business.
The problem was a lack of product in this area, but in the entire industry, there’s a lack of connection between community, fishermen and the consumer.
I unintentionally began to bridge this gap and connect people to their food and provide a product with integrity that was consistent and sustainable. … A lot of my business model has been education-based. We speak across the Front Range promoting education in the industry. Even in Alaska we’re creating a model of a company that fishermen can have confidence in and through which they can start to take back control of their industry … and learn how to connect with their own communities.