Vagabond vendor sells fish, tells tales in Forest Grove

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Jonny Rush does not have any trouble attracting attention as he goes from town to town in Oregon selling fresh-frozen fish from an old school bus he has appropriately named The Red Bus.If Jimmy Buffett — Mr. "Margaritaville" — sold fish for a living instead of singing pop songs, this might be what his ride would look like.

In an old school bus festooned with parrots and colorful fish and even a pink flamingo, Jonny Rush brings his products — fresh-frozen, organic fish — to customers around Oregon.

For the past 18 years, Rush, who goes by the name “Capt. Jonny,” has been buying fish in bulk from commercial suppliers and selling it in towns across Oregon. Right now, he’s parked along Pacific Avenue in Forest Grove, just east of its intersection with Highway 47.

It may seem like a carefree life, but the vagabond vendor said selling fish is not as simple as just setting up on the side of the road somewhere.

“To sell fish, you need permission from the landowner, a city license from each town you’re selling in and clearance from two government agencies. I’m a USDA–approved store,” said Rush, who makes his home in Longview, Wash., when he's not on the road selling frozen fish.

He is not home often. Rush travels year-round in what he calls "the Red Bus," his 1974 GMC 6000 ex-school bus, which he has painted bright red and modified with eye-grabbing displays and artifacts from fishermen.

Capt. Jonny sells halibut, sea bass, ling cod and salmon. His “store” is open for business from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. He plans to be in Forest Grove for at least another week.

Fish and fishing have been Capt. Jonny’s life for decades. When he was still in his teens, he began fishing on the Columbia River.

“We were gillnetting, and we sold salmon to commercial processors,” said Rush.

Not long after that, Rush was traveling in Rapid City, S.D., and saw someone selling bags of fish along the highway.

“I asked if I could work for them for the day, and they said they’d give me a try,” he explained.

He was hooked.

“I started out in the 1960s with a Dodge van and one freezer,” he recalled. “I learned who the distributors were, and then came back to Portland and bought a retired bus. I filled it up with freezers and 2,800 pounds of frozen fish.”

Buys from big outfits

Because he buys his fish in bulk, Rush is able to offer significant discounts. While major grocery chains charge $23 per 12-oz. halibut filet and $30 per pound for sea bass, Capt. Jonny sells both for $9.

His prices are low because he buys his fish wholesale from major seafood outfits, such as Trident and Orca Bay.

“I specialize in Alaskan seafood,” Rush said. “Fish come in whole on barges to the seafood docks in Seattle." Big corporate providers call him when they’re getting ready to cut it. "Grocery store managers are not going to drive to Seattle to get fish,” he said.

Rush buys the irregular shapes left aside after the best-looking parts of the fish are cut out to go to the big grocery stores. But those larger, more consumer-appealing cuts are then "treated with heavy chemicals,” Rush said.

“I buy the leftover portions and chunks, and the fish I get are all organic. They don’t want to waste money spraying chemicals on them.”

Rush pitches the health benefits of fish as another reason to stop by his bus.

“We sell fish to help you improve your cholesterol levels,” he explained. “Some people call me ‘Dr. Feelgood,’ or ‘Dr. Cholesterol.’ I’m like a truck driver, living on the road to make your body feel good with this fish. No matter how young or old you are, if you keep eating hamburgers you can have a heart attack.”

'Nice guy'

Rush said he has been pleased with the response he has gotten in Hillsboro and Forest Grove.

One of his local customers is Buddy James, manager of Dollar Tree in Forest Grove. James stopped at the bus last Thursday to buy some of Capt. Jonny’s halibut, and was impressed with the quality and prices.

“I saw the bus and looked at his supplies,” James said. “It all looked pretty good, and he seems like a nice guy.”

Rush said he plans to visit Hillsboro soon, where he’ll park at the corner of Cornelius Pass Road and Germantown Road. But you’ll have to watch for the bus, because his dates in a certain spot are never certain.

Although Rush likes to offer low prices for his fish, he said he sometimes adjusts the prices depending on where he is located.

“My lowest prices are in Forest Grove and Hillsboro,” Rush said. “My highest prices are when I park in front of casinos. If people want to waste money gambling, they can spend an extra dollar on my fish.”

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