ISLE OF PALMS -- White shrimp are teeming back in the creeks behind this island. Red drum are schooling to go after them. Sea trout are feeding on them under the docks.

At high noon today, the crustaceans face a bigger critter.

It's the opening of the recreational shrimping season -- shrimp baiting -- a two-month fling of nets that is a signature of the Lowcountry. Clay and meal bait balls are dropped around poles set in the water to lure clusters of feeding crustaceans under the nets. Among boaters, few things are more prized than bringing home that brimming, shiny cooler full.

That's despite the long hours rocking away in the dark, paying $100 or more to buy the license, the net, the poles, the meal mix, the gas for the boat and, oh yeah, beer for the cooler. Sure, it would be cheaper just to buy the shrimp, Jeremy Burnham happily concedes. But that's not the point.

"It's the sport, the fun, the camaraderie. Going out there with your buddies at eight or nine at night," he said. "You eat what you catch, just like you eat what you kill hunting. That's what keeps you going out there. Anybody can go buy shrimp."

Burnham, 31, of Mount Pleasant, has shrimped for nine years. He takes unlucky shrimping customers at Atlantic Game and Tackle out, too, when he gets off work, so they can bring back a cooler. Won't take a shrimp for it, he said.

It looks like an average year for the number of shrimp out there, said Larry DeLancey, crustacean monitoring program supervisor with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. But after a slow spring commercial season, that's not so bad.

"They're smaller than normal, but it's certainly better than it could have been," he said.

Burnham is one of about 5,000 baiters licensed so far this year, down from last year's 6,000, and way, way down from a peak of more than 17,000 a decade ago. The decline has been attributed to the cost, the effort, the crowds at boat landings and any number of other factors. It's had one, silver-lining upshot though: More shrimp.

A decade ago, amid the swirls of all those nets, wildlife officers were worried for the sustainability of the shrimp population, and commercial shrimpers were blaming the swarm of baiters for a drop-off in the fall catch offshore that got so bad a lot of shrimpers wouldn't launch during baiting season.

"Once the fish meal is distributed in the (estuary) nursery, all movement stops. The shrimp eat the meal and don't migrate offshore," said Clay Cable, a former commercial shrimper.

"We think everybody has a right to the resource," said Craig Reeves, South Carolina Shrimpers Association president. "But when you've got 15,000 to 17,000 people out there at the head of the estuary throwing food in the water for 90 days, shrimp were staying put. With 7,000 to 8,000 people out there, the normal migration pattern is back."

The catch has been down the past few years for both commercial and recreational shrimpers, despite the drop in the number of boats of both groups. Commercial shrimpers say something is killing the shrimp. Reeves said they're seeing more black gill disease, a parasite that turns the crustacean black and weakens it so other marine creatures can easily prey on it.

But Bill Brickell, also known as Mr. Shrimp, won't hear of that.

"There's no black gill disease out there. There are shrimp out in the creeks," crowed baiting fanatic Brickell, of Mount Pleasant. "I made 70 (meal) balls last night and I had shrimp walking up my 100-foot dock to get in my basement." And not just little ones, Mr. Shrimp says. "I've got to break them over my knee to get the heads off."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.