Small crustaceans, big-time fun: Go to it, recreational shrimpers, it’s your season
The nets fly at noon. Shrimp baiting opens — one of the bounties of life in the salty Lowcountry.
Thousands of boats will be out there during the two-month recreational shrimping season, setting poles, dropping clay-and-fish-meal bait balls, then slinging cast nets.
Lights will gleam from their boats at night in Charleston Harbor, Bull’s Bay and elsewhere. If the baiters are lucky, they motor back to the landing with a cooler of fresh shrimp.
Here are a few tips and tidbits:
One license for every set of 10 poles. $25 residents, $500 nonresidents. Contact S.C. Department of Natural Resources, 866-714-3611 or www.dnr.sc.gov.
A limit of 48 quarts of “heads-on” shrimp per set of poles per day.
Net mesh cannot be smaller than a half inch.
Poles in a set must be placed within a 100-yard span, 50 yards from any dock, 25 yards from any other set of poles.
Boats must have night running lights and safety gear.
Shrimp can’t be sold.
Fines for violations start at $200.
How to, with tips
Go to favorite spots where shrimp have been caught before, or just follow the other boats.
During incoming tide, find a flat 1-1˝ feet deep; outgoing tide, 5 feet deep.
Shape bait balls like big softballs or hamburgers. Wait 10-15 minutes after dropping balls before casting.
Shrimping etiquette: Don’t shine lights directly at other boats. As in any fishing, give the other boat its space.
Casting is an acquired art, not too dissimilar from fly-fishing; nets are gently slung from the side. Net size varies. Get a few pointers.
Gear and meal mix can be found at most fishing-supply stores; also a good place to get pointers.
“Deep-holing.” A free-casting technique that doesn’t use bait. The net is dropped as deep as 40 feet to the bottom before it’s retrieved.
Because no bait is used, free casting doesn’t require a shrimping license but does require a saltwater fishing license, according the S.C. Natural Resources.
The deep-hole catch is hit or miss, said Bill Brickell of Mount Pleasant, the legendary Mr. Shrimp. But the shrimping is fun. The keys: Wrap duct tape around the net ends so they open as they drop. Don’t wrap the line around your wrist; if a wrapped net is grabbed by a shark or other large fish, you’d go along for the ride.
Spotty and smaller size, but more shrimp than last year, said Larry DeLancey, DNR biologist.
The baiting catch averages about a half-million pounds per year, about a fourth of the total recreational/commercial catch.
Shrimp tend to move into the shallows to feed at night or when the water gets murky; that’s why baiting is often done at night. It’s thought that shrimp stay deeper during the day to avoid predators, Delancey said. Bull’s Bay is popular for daytime shrimp baiting because so much of its waters are shallower.
Shrimp baiting appeared to hit its peak in the late 1990s when nearly 20,000 licenses were sold, then dropped dramatically. About 8,000 per year have been sold since 2008.
Baiting license and gear alone can cost $100 or more; but a trip can be worth it. A cooler of shrimp (48 quarts) tends to be about 60 pounds, and a pound of local catch can cost $10 or more on the retail shelf.
What did they use to bait shrimp in the old days? Dog food.
When Tommy Gladden was a teen on Sullivan’s Island in the 1970s, he picked up on an islander’s trick for shrimping in tidal creeks. He mashed dog food into a bank mud at low tide, and let it sit until the tide came in. Then he cast with a seine net and pulled up shrimp by the bucketsful.
He later heard people in Georgetown used fish meal, so he switched to that.
In the 1980s he spotted the lights of one or two boats below the Cooper River bridges night after night. Thinking they were gigging flounder, he decided to join them. But they were baiting shrimp with fish meal and poles. He took it up too.
“That may have started baiting around here,” Gladden said.