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Bait Shrimping with Captain Eddie

Shrimp boats line the channel behind our motorhome. We are at an RV park in Port Isabel, in southern Texas. The banter of the shrimping crews, much of it in Spanish, wakes us most mornings. If that doesn't, the starting of the boat engines does. I watch. I wonder what it is like to work on one of those boats.



When I take our dog NeeMo out for our morning walk, I greet the shrimping crews. When they come into dock later in the day, we watch some more. We start to visit. I'm beginning to learn about shrimping.

Some shrimp boats go out into the Gulf of Mexico for three weeks to three months at a time. They bring back 30 tons of frozen shrimp a trip. Not these.

These are bait shrimp boats. Regulations for licensed for bait shrimp boats limit the size of the boat, size of the nets, the size of the harvest, and the areas they are allowed to trawl.

I got a chance to work on one of these shrimp boats. We went out on near-shore and inland waters. The trip takes about four hours. On a reasonable day, we'd bring back about 80 quarts of live bait shrimp.

Bait Shrimping in TexasBob Working on a Bait Shrimp Boat with Captain Eddie and Mate Richard

The shrimping trip starts before 6:00 in the morning. Fog or the weather can change this schedule. But, 6:00 a.m. is what time Captain Eddie tries to leave the dock.

After a quick check of the engine oil, fuel, and safety equipment, we cast off the lines, and slowly motored away from the dock. All of our movements were relatively slow, as to not create a wake. Even at full throttle, our top speed is about seven knots per hour. We made our way through the canal in the nearly dark, with the sunrise imminent.

All along the canal were docks full of boats.

Some of the boats were part of family shrimp operations. These boats are captained by brothers, uncles, fathers, grandsons, cousins, and in-laws. They are painted in a similar style, with names of wives, mothers, and other family.

We passed fishing boats and pleasure boats of all kinds and sizes. There were fancy yachts. There were 10-foot, homemade, wooden skiffs. Plus, everything imaginable in between.

Seagulls Following the Bait Shrimping BoatSeagulls Following the Bait Shrimping Boat

As we get to the beginning of the ship channel, we see three oil drilling and production platforms. They were in for maintenance. We'd seen them from the campground. But, the massive structures look much bigger from close up, at the water level looking up at them.

The mate, Richard, gets the net and trawl doors ready. As the sun starts peeking over the horizon, I’m hypnotized by the sunrise. The change in the engine drone gets my attention back to shrimping. Captain Eddie is adjusting the speed to pull the net. He switches from the controls in the pilothouse, to the controls on the deck, and starts backing off the winch to let the net out. As the net plays out, Richard pulls on the cables to align the trawl doors as they begin to enter the water. The trawl doors catch the water and spread the mouth of the net as the cable plays out and they disappear under the water. The net is let out 350 feet or so into water, 35 to 40 feet deep.

Shrimp NetThe Bag of the Net After the Trawl

We get to watch the scenery for about 40 minutes. There are an array of sea birds. We watch about a dozen dolphins frolic around the boat. The dolphins are in front leading us; beside close enough to almost reach out and touch; and following behind in our wake. There are three other boats trawling for bait shrimp. Sport fishermen in a variety of boats pass in all directions

Captain Eddie starts the boat in a circle while he starts to winch in the net. As we see the trawl doors starting to surface, I worry we’ll catch a dolphin in our net. I realize then the turtle excluder device (TED) will also work for dolphin, and I relax.

Richard grabs a rope attached to the front of the net that leads to the bag end. As the doors and net rise, he pulls the bag end, loaded with our catch over one of our tanks. With deft hands, he opens the bottom of the net and our catch falls into a live tank. He then ties the net closed and swings it behind the boat while Captain Eddie starts spooling the cable out for another pass.

There were no problems with the dolphins.

Now the work starts for me. Captain Eddie pilots the boat while Richard and I set up the sorting board over the live tank. We dip about four quarts of our catch out onto the board at a time. We sort the live shrimp into a second live tank.

We sort out seaweed, all sorts of little fish, stingrays, baby flounder, sea lice, squid, and some sea creatures we aren’t able to identify. We keep the squid and sea lice in a separate bucket, to sell as bait. The rest goes overboard, if the pelicans, sea gulls and other birds don’t grab them first.

About the time we near the end of sorting the first net of shrimp, we pull in another. This net has a small tree stuck in the mouth, and the tickler chain is broken. We remove the tree and stow it on the deck to be disposed of on land, so we don’t catch it again.

This haul is less because of the broken tickler. The tickler chain is drug along in front of the net to make the shrimp jump off the bottom just in time to go into the mouth of the net. The chain is two pieces, tied in the middle with net twine. The twine will break if it snags on a rock or other object to save the rest of the net. We retie the tickler chain and start another trawl.

Our view for the rest for the voyage is of the sorting board, unless we are pulling or dropping the net.

Bob Picking ShrimpBob Picking Shrimp

After four trawls, we head back to port, with Richard and I sorting all the way. We tie up at the dock and finish the first sort of our catch. Then, we sort again. The second time, we look for all the things we may have missed. We also sort the dead shrimp from the live shrimp.

This is where my day as a shrimper ends.

Captain Eddie still has deliver and sell the catch. He transports the live shrimp in large tanks, with oxygenated water. The dead shrimp go into one-pound boxes and are froze. He wholesales his shrimp to bait shops, who, in turn, sell them to sport fishermen. Some of his deliveries are to bait shops as far away as Port Mansfield, about 70 miles away.

Shrimping is hard work. Much of the time, you are standing up, leaning over the sorting board. Waters can be rough. Bad weather can cancel scheduled workdays. Pay depends on the catch, and you never know if it will be a good run or not.

Like so much of the other work I've done while RVing, shrimping was fun to do short-term. I learned a lot.

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Coleen's comments: My husband, Bob Nilles, wrote this article about working on a bait shrimping boat. He enjoys sport fishing and boating on our RV travels. This was his first trip out working on a shrimp boat.



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