The first lasso-like nets of this year’s shrimp rodeo get thrown Friday as shortly after noon as humanly possible. Take our word for it.
That’s when the two-month recreational shrimping season, or shrimp baiting, opens. Thousands of boaters will be out there setting poles, dropping clay-and-fish meal bait balls then slinging cast nets with a looping beauty like a fly-rod cast. At night Charleston Harbor waters will gleam with their lights.
The quarry? A cooler full of “our sweet, fresh, white shrimp,” said Bill Brickell, of Mount Pleasant. “There’s just no comparison.” Brickell would know; he is the irrepressible Mr. Shrimp.
The recreational season is one of those you-have-to-be-here rights of Lowcountry life. A day or night on the water filling a cooler with shrimp is generally accompanied by a second cooler for beverages — although don’t tell anyone you heard that here — and a camaraderie that rivals fishing itself.
The shrimp cooler doesn’t always come back full, but the second cooler tends to come back a lot lighter and the time out there is priceless, aficionados say — the salt tang to the air, the rocking in the glistening tide.
“Hootin’, hollerin’ and enjoying the water. It’s not just the hunt, it’s knowing you’re doing this right in your backyard,” Brickell said.
The season does have its critics: Commercial shrimpers have complained it takes too much of the crop. Alcohol is a problem, despite boating-while-impaired laws, and greedy shrimpers have been known to trample the etiquette of staying a little ways off somebody else’s poles if the catch gets hot. The onslaught of trucks and trailers at the landings can back up parking down the roads.
But there’s nothing else really like shrimp baiting. Here’s a few things to know, cheap advice and some sly tips:
CATCH: Spotty, likely smaller, at least at first. “People will find some pockets of decent shrimp, somewhere,” said Larry DeLancey, of S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Cheap advice: Hang in there. The shrimp will get bigger week to week. Move if the luck doesn’t change. If it gets worse, think about heading south to the Edisto River estuaries.
Sly tips: Don’t forget about holes, drops as deep as 40 feet in the bottom where nets can be free cast without bait and shrimp come back not having eaten fish meal. Then there’s the “honey holes,” recreational shrimper Bill Brickell said. Commercial shrimp outlets are open during business hours at Shem Creek, in McClellanville and elsewhere. You can always say you caught it.
SPOTS: Rules of thumb are the Charleston Harbor area at night, when shrimp move into the shallows to feed, and Bulls Bay during the day, where much of the water is shallower.
Cheap advice: Go early (see above about boat landings).
Sly tip: There’s a lot of water out there; most veteran shrimpers have their own spots away from the crowd.
TECHNIQUE: Don’t overdo the shrimp balls. Brickell has seen shrimp baiters who shovel the fish meal bait from trash cans. A few balls at each pole will do the trick, if there are shrimp.
Cheap advice: Get it (the advice) at tackle shops and equipment dealers, if new to this.
Sly tip: Don’t make balls of the bait, make hamburger patties, so they don’t roll away in the tide.
COST: Not factoring in the boat, fuel and supplies, a shrimping license (for a set of 10 poles) runs $25 for residents, $500 for non-residents. Contact DNR, 866-714-3611 or www.dnr.sc.gov.
Cheap advice: License and outfitting can easily cost more than $100, but the allowed cooler (48 quarts) of shrimp per day tends to run more than 50 pounds. If sold at retail prices, those 50 pounds would be worth a lot more than that.
Sly tip: Don’t even think about it. It’s illegal to sell recreationally caught shrimp. Fines start at $200.
WHY DO IT AT ALL: Headed and cleaned, the shrimp can be frozen in containers of bags nearly full of water. The stored shrimp keeps a lot of that fresh Lowcountry taste for meals straight through to next year.