WINTER COLUMN: ‘Head-scratcher’ season a mixed bag for shrimpers

Recreational shrimp-baiters drop balls of fish meal and clay around a series of poles stuck into the mud in tidal waterways. The bait balls concentrate shrimp and make them easier to catch with a cast net.

Shrimping is tougher than most folks think. You don’t just head out on the water, toss a few bait balls overboard and fill up a 48-quart cooler lickety-split.

Though that does happen from time to time, the viral retelling of such rare feats amplifies our collective expectations when shrimp-baiting season rolls around.

The more likely scenario, of course, involves a lots of prep work followed by a few hours of casting a net in the dark. Beer-sipping friends along for the ride will be all too willing to offer helpful critiques — “Potato chip!” “Banana!” — as the net splashes down after a poorly executed throw.

If you’re lucky, you might come home with a half a cooler of small to medium shrimp, then spend an hour or so spiking your fingers as you rip the heads off your catch.

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of fun squeezed in there. With the right folks on board, shrimp baiting can be a blast.

But coming home with 12 shrimp is never fun. Not several dozen. Twelve individual shrimp.

This has been the sad saga for many a recreational shrimper this season, which started Sept. 15 and rolls through mid November.

Halfway through the season, the consensus seems to point to a very mixed bag.

Scott Hammond of Haddrells Point in West Ashley says chatter in the shop so far indicates solid catches south of Charleston in the North Edisto River, some decent catches north in Bulls Bay and mostly dismal reports from Charleston Harbor.

Mike Benson of Charleston Angler in Mount Pleasant also reports a hit-and-miss season so far. Some shrimp-baiting veterans have been blanked in Charleston Harbor, he said, while others reported a great early season in Bulls Bay.

“I had one friends who went to Bull’s Bay on opening day, and he coolered out in three passes (on the poles),” Benson said. “And they were big shrimp, big whites.”

Though some shrimpers speculate that most shrimp might have moved offshore early, Benson thinks shrimpers might get a nice pop as the season heads to close.

“I’m still seeing a ton of shrimp up in the flats and the creeks, so I have a hard time believing they’ve already all moved out.”

Larry DeLancey, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said a recent survey trawl captured “quite a few” shrimp in upstream creeks and rivers. These upstream shrimp, which theoretically could move downstream and become more accessible to shrimp baiters, were relatively small, he said.

Trawls in the harbor turned up larger specimens, but not many. “Kinda piddling,” he said.

DeLancey also suspects that some large shrimp have already moved offshore.

“We had such a mild, warm spring, and the shrimp spawned really early,” DeLancey said. “That might have thrown them out of whack some. They were spawning in late march or early April, which is unusual. Usually it’s a month later.”

Weird rain patterns also might be hampering the shrimp season. Instead of a little bit of rain weekly, the Lowcountry seems to be going dry for weeks and then getting 5 inches of rain at once, he said. Such salinity variations can stunt the growth of shrimp or force some to move out early while others hang upstream.

“The system would be more productive if we had normal rainfall, like once a week,” he said.

Bottom line for Lowcountry shrimpers? The best bets seem to be north or south of Charleston. And even then, shrimpers can count on working hard for a full cooler.

“I thought it would be a lot better, but it just never panned out,” DeLancey said. “It’s a head-scratcher.”

Public duck hunts

It’s time to test your duck-luck.

The deadline to enter the state’s drawing for public waterfowl hunts is Oct. 26. There’s a $20 entry fee and forms can be found at dnr.sc.gov/hunting/drawhunts.

The program is so popular that it usually takes two years or more to actually score a hunt, said Dean Harrigal, a DNR waterfowl biologist and veteran duck hunter.

But it’s worth the wait, Harrigal said. Getting picked awards hunters access to some of the best (and intensely managed) waterfowl habitats on the East Coast, including the Santee Coastal Reserve and Bear Island.

Would-be hunters can enter once for multiple sites across the state. But they should research each site beforehand.

“Each site is slightly different,” Harrigal said. “You need to look at the sites and match your equipment needs. For instance, on Bear Island East and Springfield, we provide you with boats, blind and decoys.”

Most sites feature wetlands managed specifically for waterfowl, and success rates are usually high, even for novice hunters, Harrigal said. “It’s premier public hunting.”

Fisheries management

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee will meet in North Charleston this week to evaluate vermilion snapper, red porgy, yellowtail snapper, black sea bass and red snapper.

The committee will meet Oct. 23-25 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4831 Tanger Outlet Blvd. For agendas, go to safmc.net.

Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or matt@tidelinemagazine.com

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