Shrimp-sacking time in South Carolina

Deep-holing or baiting, South Carolina shrimpers can keep 48 quarts (heads-on) or 29 quarts (heads-off) per day. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

September is shrimp-catching season in South Carolina, and it’s highly anticipated for many outdoorsmen. Many are so passionate about the sport they plan their entire fall outdoor activity calendar around shrimping opportunities.

Guy Blanton, 77, from Bonneau Beach S.C., is so fervent about the sport that he’s become proficient at both shrimp-baiting and “deep-holing” — a highly effective technique to catch shrimp without bait.

Both techniques are effective, he said. Deep-holing season is open, and shrimp-baiting season opens soon. The season is set by law to last 60 days, opening at noon on the last Friday on or before Sept 15, which this year is precisely Sept. 15.

“Recreational shrimping employs the use of bait balls, with the location marked by proximity to long poles stuck into the bottom substrate of coastal waters, to attract the shrimp to that specific location,” Blanton said. “Deep-holing is the art of catching shrimp without bait. But it requires the shrimper to target shrimp already concentrated in big numbers. Both techniques require the use of cast nets to catch the shrimp.

“I believe both baiting and deep-holing techniques have positive aspects, and I’ve actually been deep-holing longer than using bait and poles. But I’ve discovered that using bait can produce limits of big shrimp in short-order if you employ the right strategy,”

Blanton said multiple components help ensure success when using bait. The first is to maximize the process by teaming with a like-minded, shrimp-loving outdoorsman.

“Going solo when shrimping can be done, but it’s much more effective to have a team, with one throwing the cast net and the other driving the boat,” he said. “If the two have skill sets that are interchangeable, that’s excellent, but the net man needs a good boat driver, because net placement is crucial to success. The combination of tidal current and a windy day can challenge even a two-person team.”

Deep-holing involves finding concentrations of shrimp in small areas and dropping a heavy net on them. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Blanton said tidal flow is crucial to shrimp congregating in big numbers in general areas. These sweet spots are often found around bottom contour changes such as creeks cutting across a flat, ditches between sandbars and similar areas. He searches for these targets before setting his 10 poles and deploying bait balls.

“The concept is simple, but before fully committing to a spot, I may set one pole and use one bait ball to test an area,” he said. “A quick assessment of shrimp numbers can save having to pull an entire setup to move if shrimp numbers are not high. Once confident in an area, I’ll set my 10 poles and place the bait in a specific spot in relation to the poles, so when I cast the net, the center of the 8-foot net hits directly over the bait. Then I haul the shrimp aboard and repeat the process until the limit is in the cooler.

“The best locations can vary day to day, and even tide-to-tide,” he said. “For example, on a high but dropping tide, setting up near grass lines can be good to catch shrimp as they leave the grass and retreat to deeper water. When the tide is low but rising, I’ll often set up along the edges of deeper holes and try to catch the shrimp as they move out of the deeper water and migrate back toward shallower areas.

Guy Blanton shows off a net filled with dozens of big shrimp from one throw on a bait ball. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“The best shrimping will be on a moving tide, and the slowest (will be) on the slack water time between tides,” he said. “Shrimp can be caught on any tide level, as long as the water is moving, but understand that different tides require varying strategies in terms of where and how deep to set your poles. That’s part of the challenge — figuring all the moving parts of this process to be successful.”

Blanton places high emphasis on the right setup, and it’s essential that the direction of the tide, incoming or outgoing, be factored with the prevailing wind conditions when placing the poles. You want to set up so the wind and tide work for you as much as possible, not against you.

Blanton said being organized before leaving home is essential.

“Once I get out on the water, I don’t want to waste time with anything other than catching shrimp,” he said. “Pre-trip preparation for everything I can do is done, and while time consuming, the advance preparation more than pays off. I always have my bait balls prepared and sealed in containers ready for use. My poles are stored so they are easy to reach when setting poles. A lot of movement is involved, so I have the boat loaded with only necessary equipment so I have room to work.

Blanton goes often enough that he generally stays on top of where the shrimp are. But some days he discovers the shrimp are not in the numbers or sizes he found even a day earlier.

“When that happens, I don’t hesitate to make a move to a totally different area,” he said. “When I’m on the shrimp in good numbers, we can load the cooler in 2 to 3 hours — and sometimes much quicker. I do enjoy the process, but my goal is keeping the boat driver busy maneuvering the boat into position, and making good casts and filling the cooler with big shrimp as quick as possible.”

Blanton said deep-holing is essentially what it sounds like. He locates deep holes in creeks, ditches or channels where shrimp tend to congregate naturally in huge numbers.

“The big difference is, no baiting permit is required, only a recreational saltwater license,” he said. “The primary season is from May 1 through Dec. 15. And less equipment is required, essentially a net for catching and a cooler for storing the shrimp.

Two boats and two sets of poles resulted in these two limits of jumbo shrimp from Bulls Bay last fall. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“Major differences between the two methods are the depths being shrimped, the net, tide and mentally keeping track of where the shrimp are located,” Blanton said. “In the deep-hole method, I’m usually in depths between 8 and 30 feet. The net I use for deep-hole is the same 8-foot radius, except that I place duct tape about 21/2 to 3 inches high around the perimeter of the net above the net weights. The tape acts like a fin and keeps the net open as it sinks to the bottom.”

Blanton said the best tides for deep-hole shrimping are from two hours before to two hours after low tide.  When the tide drops low enough, the shrimp have to leave the grass areas and look for shelter in deep holes.

“My method for deep-hole shrimping is, once the net has been thrown, the net and boat drift together until the net hits the bottom,” he said. “When that occurs, the net line will go slack for an instant and then tightens up again as the boat continues to drift away from the net.”

Since the shrimp are generally right on the bottom in these holes, it’s critical to know when the net hits the bottom to pull it in.

“Keeping track of where the shrimp are requires communication by the boat driver and the net thrower,” Blanton said. “When the net hits the bottom and I feel shrimp, I let the driver know to check the depth on the graph, and I identify a line to that exact location using any objects I can to repeat that drift precisely. I’ve not found GPS to be accurate enough to get back to the same spot, and sometimes the sweet spot is small, but loaded with shrimp.

“Empty net retrieves and huge catches dominate this process,” he said. “On one occasion, I caught about 40 pounds of shrimp in one cast while deep-holing. That doesn’t happen but once in a lifetime. But you can make some consistently heavy hauls when you’re on shrimp and have the right system.”

Blanton said both techniques are effective and both can produce limit catches in short order.

“Find the one that best suits your style and go with it,” he said. “But I enjoy both so that’s what I do.”

Bait balls, usually made of fish meal and a binding agent, are placed next to a pole in an area where a cast net can hit the exact spot. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Pay attention to shrimping regs

Shrimping by bait or deep-holing is easy, fun and potentially extremely productive. Specific guidelines govern shrimping; the regulations differ for the two tactics, and you’ll need to follow them.

The season for shrimp baiting lasts 60 days, and the owner of the poles being used must have a shrimp-baiting license. The catch limit is 48 quarts of shrimp measured heads-on (29 quarts heads-off) per boat or set of poles per day, and each boat is limited to a set of 10 poles. Specific details on all regulatory requirements, including season dates that change annually, are found by checking the S.C. Department of Natural Resources regulations digest for shrimp baiting. These regulations are not difficult to follow, but they are highly specific.

Deep-holing without bait requires only a recreational saltwater fishing license. The season for taking 48 quarts of shrimp measured heads-on (29 quarts heads-off) per boat is May 1 through Dec. 15.

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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