Harris began fishing with his father at age seven and after high school began crab fishing. He initially worked on a crab boat unpaid until he proved his worth. By the time he was 21 he was one of the youngest captains of a crab fishing boat on the Bering Sea. He had been the captain of the Cornelia Marie for more than 20 years at the time of his death.
Beginning in 2004 and continuing until his death, Harris and his boat were followed by an embedded film crew for the series, Deadliest Catch. The Cornelia Marie was first shown during the opilio crab portion of Season 1, as a partner ship of F/V Maverick, and was heavily involved in the search effort after the sinking of the Big Valley. It became a regular fixture of the show from the second season on.
During the 2008 season, Harris was thrown from his bunk during a storm and thought he had broken his ribs. However, after coughing up blood for hours, his sons and crew convinced him to seek medical attention and enlisted the film crew to watch his condition. He was determined to have suffered a pulmonary embolism and ongoing medical treatment kept him from fishing for almost a year. He returned to fishing in January 2009.
During the 6th opilio crab season of Deadliest Catch, Harris suffered a massive stroke on January 29, 2010 while harbored in St. Paul Island, Alaska. He was flown to Anchorage for surgery, and was placed in an induced coma to reduce cranial blood pressure and swelling. He awoke from the coma after his condition had improved. He was squeezing hands, talking, and showing other signs of improvement but died from an intracellular hemorrhage on February 9, 2010. He was cremated, and half of the ashes were buried with the remains of his mother. Harris' family intends to spread the remainder of the ashes at sea.