Outdoor Corner: Shrimp!

Lyle Johnson
Cast netting is another way to catch shrimp for bait or personal consumption. Photo by Lyle Johnson

Relatively speaking; shrimp are small. I’m sure we’ve all heard people of lesser stature playfully called “shrimp” at one time or another. Shrimp are small in stature but it takes a herculean effort to harvest them for eating or fishing with, whether one is doing it commercially or recreationally.

Let’s start off with one variety that is probably unknown to many people: river shrimp. I’m not talking about grass shrimp. You know, the kind you dip out of the grass and use to catch bream and sac-a-lait. We’re talking about shrimp that live in the Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers by the tons.

My initial experience with “river” shrimp as they were fondly called, was when I was a young boy. My dad, Jerry, and Uncle Kearny took me on a trip to the Mississippi to raise their shrimp boxes.

I remember launching the boat and running along the willow trees to find long poles they’d driven in the bottom that were used to tie a short rope to a floating box that caught the shrimp.

I don’t remember exactly how many we caught, but I do remember eating a delicious shrimp stew, the dish that was cooked the most from the smaller cousins of the gulf shrimp we eat today.

There are lots of ways to catch these crustaceans but shrimp “boxes,” as they were called, was favored by those who caught them regularly. The boxes were built out of cypress (last up to 30 years) and measured about 3 square feet and had a hinged door on top and wire funnels on each side that allowed shrimp to swim in but not out.

The boxes had to be soaked for 10 days to get waterlogged enough so sink it until the top of the box was on the surface of the water, which made them nearly invisible. The run of river shrimp takes place during the spring rise when the females are migrating down the river to lay eggs in brackish waters, hence the need to set the boxes near the willow trees.

These small shrimp that grow up to four inches were not only harvested in the Mississippi for personal consumption. They were also sold commercially dating back to the late 1800s. In fact they were the shrimp that poor French Acadians found when they migrated from Canada.

In 1898, 200,000 pounds of river shrimp were taken by the poorly documented fishery of the Mississippi River and we can assume many more were caught and never reported. The Louisiana Sea Grant office confirmed this. The numbers were run and that catch was worth millions of dollars, not in today’s dollars but in their money.

We used to sell the shrimp at my grandpa’s store, Roy Marchand & Son, when I worked there as a teenager. They are no longer available for commercial sale but folks “in the know” still catch them for personal consumption.

The other kind of shrimp and the one we think of is Gulf shrimp. Shrimping is not for the faint at heart, but it is fun and like always, enjoying the fruits of your harvest makes it all worthwhile. Let’s examine some of the ways one could do it and what it takes to catch a bounty of this delectable seafood.

Let’s explore the recreational aspect. The Wikipedia definition of recreation; Recreation is an activity of leisure, leisure being discretionary time. The "need to do something for recreation" is an essential element of human biology and psychology. Recreational activities are often done for enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure and are considered to be "fun".

The most popular method to harvest shrimp is by using a trawl. It’s also the most expensive to get started, the most time consuming, with the most overhead costs and license fees. But the production rate is the highest as well.

To recreationally shrimp, a person just needs basic and saltwater licenses. To use a trawl, a person will additionally need a gear license for a trawl that is 16 feet and under. Of course, a trawl has to be pulled with a boat; put that on the list as well. During the open shrimping seasons, trawls 25 feet and less may be used for recreational purposes; recreational shrimpers using trawls 16 feet in length or less are limited to 100 pounds (heads on) of shrimp per boat per day.

Recreational shrimpers using trawls exceeding 16 feet but not exceeding 25 feet in length are limited to no more than 250 pounds of (heads on) shrimp per day per boat, provided the shrimp taken are used for bait or the fisherman’s own consumption and are not sold, traded or otherwise permitted to enter commerce.

The seasons are set by shrimp size and not by dates. Biologists perform sample trawls and determine the number of shrimp that it takes to make a pound. When that number reaches the desirable count, the season is opened and will be closed when the estimated quota of harvest is reached.

So the easiest way for a casual angler to catch shrimp for dinner is to go the bait shrimp route using a cast net or a seine. Both are readily available for purchase and fairly easy to learn how to use.

The seine is the easiest to master but takes two people to operate. There is a pole on each end with a section of netting that is about four feet tall stretched between the poles. The top has floats attached to keep the net up while in operation and weights on the bottom to hold it down while pulling it through the water.

The most productive way to pull this operation off is for one person holding a pole at the water’s edge while the second person holds the second pole at a slight angle forward (weighted end on the bottom) while walking away from the first person.

When the net is fully stretched, person two begins to make their way to the bank in a circular motion, keeping the net fairly tight. When the second pole makes it to the bank, both parties walk forward until the seine is out of the water. Then comes the harvest! Pick the shrimp out of the seine and any other by-catch that might be desirable and legal while returning the rest to the water to live again if possible.

The cast net only takes one person, but it is a little harder to learn how to use. My daddy taught me how more than 50 years ago, but I’ve seen folks struggle to learn the process. It’s way too difficult to learn with written instructions so, we won’t even try. YouTube is full of videos that help a little, but this lesson is usually learned through the school of hard knocks and some person-to-person instruction.

Of course tidal flow is a must and the falling tide is the best. Any place a culvert (or drain) flows under the road is a prime spot. The culvert funnels the water into a small spot and everything that comes through; well it comes out of that hole and compacts them.

Wild, Louisiana shrimp is one of the best tasting morsels of seafood we have to offer. It’s worth the time and effort to catch a few for yourself, take them home and prepare them for your favorite recipe!!