Passionate about the sport and eating qualities of shrimp, many outdoorsmen plan their entire fall outdoor pursuits around this coastal sport. For 2006 there's great news for shrimpers.
David Whitaker, assistant deputy director for the Marine Resources Division of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in Charleston, said shrimpers should have a bumper crop for the 2006 shrimp-baiting season.
"We had an excellent spawning season this year, and there are lots of shrimp available this year, almost too many," Whitaker said. "Of course, as with most any natural resource, adverse weather conditions prior to or during the shrimp season can impact the catch this season in a negative manner. For example, if we get a lot of rain from major storms it can force the shrimp out into the ocean early.
"But with normal weather, the only negative I know of is that when we have this many shrimp, actually too many in one sense, the growth rate will be slower. That translates into smaller shrimp early in the season, specifically during September.
"However, by October, the shrimp should have had time to reach excellent sizes, and we'll still have large numbers of shrimp. That should translate into an outstanding season this year. That should be especially true for the last half of the 60-day season."
The practice of shrimping using cast nets without bait isn't restricted by a season. But as Smoky Evans of Awendaw said: "Shrimpers have found the shrimp-catching process is much more productive and fun during the annual shrimp-baiting season."
According to Whitaker, and the shrimp-baiting guidelines from the SCDNR, the annual shrimp-baiting season begins at noon Sept. 15 2006 and ends at noon Nov. 13.
Evans said October is his prime shrimping month anyway, and based on the above report, this October should be better than normal.
"I've found October is the prime time to load the freezer with some of the best of all the bounty we can gather from the sea," he said. "By this time, the shrimp are very large with plenty of jumbo-sized shrimp for the taking."
The basic rules of shrimp baiting are relatively simple but strict. They remain unchanged for 2006 from recent years, Whitaker said.
The actual season is limited to 60 days, set annually to fall somewhere between Sept. 1-Nov. 15. The daily limit is 48 quarts of whole shrimp or 29 quarts of headed shrimp per day for each set of poles.
If no bait is used, the same limits apply for each boat per day or for each person if no boat is used.
Types of poles used are as varied as the individuals who enjoy shrimping. There's a 10-pole limit, but the poles can be anything from PVC pipe to the ever-popular heavy-duty cane poles - or even metal conduit. Poles must have a tag attached that corresponds with the user's shrimp-baiting permit. Poles also must have reflective tape affixed and not be over 1-inch in diameter.
Evans said his shrimping buddies use everything from very simple cut bamboo to expensive store-bought fiberglass poles.
"I'd suggest using whatever you're comfortable with," Evans said. "The primary purpose of the pole is to mark the location of your bait so you can get the net open right over the bait to maximize the catch."
In addition, the regulations state the distance between the first and last pole can't exceed 100 yards and there must be at least 25 yards between each set of poles. No poles can be placed within 50 yards of any dock, public landing or boat ramp.
Unattended poles will be confiscated. Evans said he has been witness to wildlife officers enforcing that regulation, so beware if you try to stake out a honey hole early and leave.
The permit fee for taking shrimp by cast net over bait is $25 for residents and $500 for non-residents. Included with the permit are 10 tags that must be placed on the poles used to mark the baited sites.
The permits are available each year after August 1 at the SCWMRD license office in Charleston or Columbia and can be purchased by mail or in person. Permit applications are available at various coastal bait and tackle shops, marine supply shops, docks, marinas and commercial license agents.
Evans strongly suggested that prior to going shrimping, every potential shrimper obtain a full set of regulations and study them. They're not difficult to understand but are strictly enforced.
Shrimpers should make sure they understand the legal "how-to" of shrimping over bait before they go out on the water, Evans said.
The actual process is really quite simple and a lot of fun. It's something almost any team of two people can accomplish.
"Essentially, all you need is a good net thrower and a good boat driver," Evans said. "I've seen one person do it all, but that's really a chore and hard work. A two-person team definitely works best for most shrimpers.
"While it's easy to think the net-casting member of the team, the 'netman,'is the key in reality because he's going to be is only as good as the boat driver.
"We'll have a few trips each season where conditions are benign enough that an inexperienced driver will be OK. When the wind isn't a big factor, a buddy can be trained without a lot of problems. That's especially true if shrimping during the daytime.
"However, often for larger shrimp, you have to shrimp at night, and that can complicate matters a bit for an inexperienced boat driver. At night when the wind blows and the current is ripping, a good boat driver is a real key to success.
"He has to keep the netman in position to cover the bait with the net, then keep the boat in position so the netman can recover the net quickly to dump the shrimp. He has to do this while keeping the boat and motor off the poles and bait.
"Then, by the time the netman is ready to cast again, a good boat operator will have the boat positioned at the next pole at proper casting distance. It's definitely a team process with both partners key to success."
Evans said the reason for having this type of efficiency is during the course of a trip, the shrimping usually will get really hot, or they'll start 'running' for short periods. It's during 'run' time, Evans said, that makes or breaks a trip.
"If you've got an efficient team working pattern down, you can simply cover a lot more poles quicker during that 'run' time.
"On a good day we might get a limit of 48 quarts of shrimp in 2 to 3 hours. But the bulk of the shrimp may be caught in a 20- to 30-minute period. Some days, we'll have to work a half day or longer to get our shrimp if we don't get a good run.
"But I've seen others who didn't get the system down spend several hours shrimping close to us and not have much to show for it. It's important to catching limits of shrimp on most days."
Evans said it's also important to calculate the tide. If the tide is high and falling, poles should be placed where they will still have enough water for shrimp as the tide drops. The reverse is true for a rising tide. Poles should be placed where they won't be submerged when the tide peaks.
The poles Evans uses are generally 10- to 13-feet long.
"That enables me to cover most rising and falling tide situations," he said.
Generally, Evans said, the best shrimping will be during a moving tide and be slowest at slack-water time between tides.
"There are places that are best during rising tides, others at a dropping tide," he said. "But having a good tide moving water in one direction or the other is the one factor that's typically essential."
Of course the bait and placement of the bait are key components of the plan.
"We usually have the baitballs prepared prior to a trip, so everything is ready when we get there," Evans said. "The balls typically consist of ground up fishmeal, such as 100 percent menhaden mixed with a clayish mud in the form of a baseball-sized 'mud ball.' Some like to put a bit of a flatter pancake finish on them so they won't roll with the tide when tossed into the water.
"We'll usually put two or three out when we start and refresh the bait as needed if the number of shrimp starts to trickle down.
"As the fishmeal leaches out of the mud, the shrimp are attracted to the scent. It congregates the shrimp in a small area.
"Next, the bait balls are placed about 6 to 8 feet out from the poles for someone throwing a 6-foot cast net. This enables the person throwing the cast net to know the precise location of the bait balls when he casts the net so he captures more shrimp per cast."
While a good system is critical, the exact place one shrimps is also crucial. According to another highly successful shrimper, Chuck Robinson of Sumter, the right location can change daily.
"I've seen the hot spots change from one day to the next very dramatically," he said. "We've caught a limit in a certain place, for example, then go back the next day to the same spot and catch almost nothing.
"To be consistently successful, you've got to be willing to move around and spend some time finding the shrimp. In that way, it's like fishing or any other outdoor sport. You've got to take the initiative to find your quarry before you can expect to be successful."
However, shrimp sometimes will hold at the same general area for a while.
"When I find shrimp and end up with a good catch, if I'm going back the next day on a similar tide, I'll certainly start at about the same place," Robinson said. "Often that's all we'll have to do, or we may have to move a couple hundred yards one way or the other.
"In some areas, you'll find shrimp at the flats, near the grass, and sometimes they'll be found in better numbers and sizes near channel drops.
"One of the best-known-but-always-productive areas is right in the Charleston Harbor near the aircraft carrier Yorktown.
"The Yorktown is located just down from the Cooper River Bridge, and most of the best shrimping there is done at night. Granted, there's often a lot of competition, but it's a huge area and (has) plenty of shrimp.
"The location in Charleston Harbor is such that from the early season right on until the end of the season, you can expect to catch a good mess of shrimp in this area almost any time you go."
But Robinson said almost any sizable creek or bay at the coast has the potential to hold shrimp.
One method he uses to locate a productive area is to stick one or two poles in a promising spot, add a bait ball or two and wait a few minutes. Then cast the net on the bait and if you catch some shrimp, you can stick the rest of the poles and start getting serious. If not, move and try again elsewhere.
It's a bit more work, but this way, once you set up you can be more certain there are shrimp in the area.
Robinson said many places exist at the coast that will produce plenty of shrimp. Typically these smaller hot spots will be excellent for a while, then the shrimp will eventually move out of the area as their natural progression toward the sea continues.
However, the larger areas such as Charleston Harbor, Bulls Bay near McClellanville, Winyah Bay near Georgetown and Port Royal Sound and St. Helena Sound near Beaufort are other major areas that are usually productive throughout the season.
Bulls Bay and the Edisto River near Rockville are areas known to produce excellent daytime shrimping as well as at night, he said.
"If you shrimp enough, you'll eventually find some honey holes that will be productive every year for a couple of weeks," Robinson said. "But I always like knowing I've got these other major areas to fall back on when I can't find shrimp there."
Evans said while limits sometimes come quickly for the experts, newcomers may have to work a bit harder.
However, experts like Evans and Robinson said the keys to consistent success are good measures of preparation mixed with plenty of good, old-fashioned hard work. And it's well worth the effort.
The reward is some of Mother Nature's tastiest bounty from the sea.