shrimp

An example of a nice shrimp catch recently from the Bulls Bay area. Photo provided

The question is asked over and over again this time of year throughout the Lowcountry.

"What do you hear about the shrimping?"

The short answer is "it's pretty good," especially when you consider all the weather events South Carolina has endured this year ... and the year before ... and the year before that...and the year before that.

"We've had four years of something going on in the fall," said Mel Bell, Director of the Office of Fisheries Management for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, referring to natural events that play a role in the harvest of shrimp.

A week before the recreational shrimp-baiting season began, Hurricane Florence brushed the Grand Strand as it made landfall in North Carolina. Catastrophic flooding occurred as a result, with much of the drainage into the Winyah Bay area near Georgetown. Hurricane Michael's effect remains to be seen. In 2017, it was Hurricane Irma. In 2016, there was Hurricane Matthew. And in 2015 there was the 1,000-Year Flood.

And don't forget the freak winter storm in January.

"The water temperatures for about a three-week period were below a critical level for shrimp survivability," Bell said of the January storm. "The overwintering shrimp we depend on to become our spawners for the next crop ... We were severely impacted in terms of our overwintering shrimp. That's why the commercial season took so long to open this year (June 19)."

Bell said the delay is a tactic to make sure the surviving shrimp — those harvested commercially and those taken by recreational shrimpers — have an opportunity to spawn.

When most people think of recreational shrimping, the image that comes to mind is the practice known as shrimp baiting. You make up bait balls that consist of fish meal and some type of binder, set out poles to mark the location of your bait and then use a cast net to work your way down the poles. A license is required and there is a limit of 48 quarts per outing. It is illegal to sell shrimp caught over bait.

A week ago Bell said 3,694 licenses had been sold for the season that runs from Sept. 7 until Nov. 6.

"We may still sell some more, but looking at previous totals for whole years there's been a steady, consistent decline," Bell said. "The number of shrimp-baiting license holders peaked at 17,497 in 1998 but has been steadily declining over the years. Last year (2017), a full year, we sold 4,858. That was about a thousand less than the year before which was a few hundred less than the year before that."

Weather could be a factor in the number of licenses sold.

But there's another possible explanation for the decline of shrimp baiters, and that is the growing popularity of deep-hole shrimping. Deep-holing doesn't require a license, and you can still catch up to 48 quarts per day with the season closed from Dec. 16-April 30.

Using your depth finder, you search for large numbers of shrimp congregated on the bottom in deep water and then cast a net that has been modified to stay open as long as possible to catch the shrimp.

"Deep-holing is becoming more and more popular," Bell said. "Some would argue that it's easier.They basically drop the net like a parachute. You don't necessarily have to be perfect in your casting ability. You don't have to mess with poles, bait balls and territory so much. I expect some of what we are seeing in the decrease in baiting license sales may be due to an increase in the popularity of deep hole shrimping."