MOUNT PLEASANT — It is 30 minutes until the bait season opens, and Mr. Shrimp is about to hyperventilate.
His Whaler is packed with shrimp poles, shrimp net, shrimp rake, shrimp basket and beer — lots of beer — but for another 29 1/2, Bill Brickell has nothing to do but anticipate his Ahab-like quest for the white shrimp.
So he decides to hold court and explain The World According to Mr. Shrimp.
"You don't start until dark," he explains. "The shrimp hear the click of my light and shudder in fear."
"The FAA has called several times. There are so many flies over my bait balls that they're blocking the air traffic over Charleston."
Listening to all this, Randy Potter rolls his eyes and says, "All that beer in the boat — that's for us, so we can put up with this all night."
Shrimp-baiting season just affects some people this way. For two months, the state opens its waters and allows folks to bait for shrimp in a frenzy that must just about clean the waters out of those little boogers. This year's season began Friday at noon.
So far, the Department of Natural Resources has sold 6,575 shrimp-baiting permits this year, down from a high of 17,000 in 1998. Most years, the state sells about 10,000. This year, the department forecasts a moderate season due to the drought. Still, Michael Willis of DNR says "we expect several thousand shrimp baiters out sometime over the course of the weekend."
And all of them must bow to Mr. Shrimp, one of the most fanatical, professional and quotable shrimp-baiters in all of the Lowcountry.
This is a Charleston tradition, as sacred and pure to some people as Thanksgiving turkey and football. Until early November, there will be so many amateur shrimpers on the water that most nights you could just about walk across the harbor.
Brickell says that he's been doing this "about 100 years, or at least 20," and says he's been hooked, or netted, since his first cast.
"Half the fun is the hunt. You get out there being on the water, watching the sun set over Charleston, it's a great feeling," he says.
In a typical season, Brickell says he'll net about 1,000 pounds of shrimp. A 48-quart cooler, the nightly limit, will hold about 50 or 60 pounds worth. Twenty trips, and he's got enough for a year.
Although he admits that by the time you buy a boat, net, bait, poles and various other accessories, you can spend about $100,000 per pound of shrimp if you aren't good; that does not happen to Mr. Shrimp.
"It's very rare that you get skunked," he says. "If you do, you aren't doing it right. Most of the time, if I show people at the landing how many shrimp I caught, they faint."
"Don," he calls his friend and boat mate Don Hyers, "how many times did you faint the first time you saw how many shrimp I catch?"
"Maybe two," Hyers deadpans.
There is very little room on this boat for serious discourse. Mr. Shrimp says he has so many friends and foreign dignitaries calling to book a shrimp-baiting trip that he won't be able to squeeze anyone else in until late in 2012.
In fact, Brickell is so popular that his wife, Cyndi (that's Mrs. Shrimp to you), has ordered new furniture but won't let them deliver it until the day after bait season ends.
"Until then, this place will be like a bed and breakfast," she said.
As he leaves, Mr. Shrimp tells the missus that "I'll see you in a cooler" and then departs on the first great hunt of the season. It's low tide at noon and Mr. Shrimp's schtick is at this point deeper than the harbor. As the boat motors out of Hobcaw Creek, he breaks into what he calls the shrimp dance, which he says, of course, "brings the shrimp."
"By tomorrow, you won't be able to get in here for the kids lined up to pay 50 cents to see all my shrimp," he says.
And you thought fish tales were whoppers.
Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to a saltwater fishing license, a shrimp-baiting license is needed for every set of 10 poles, and is available only at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources licensing office at Fort Johnson. They cost $25 for residents, $500 for nonresidents. The season lasts until noon on Nov. 11.--The limit is 48 quarts heads-on per set of poles per day, one set of poles per boat.--The net mesh cannot be smaller than a half-inch.--Boats must have night running lights and safety gear.