by Shannon Wakeland
I remember the first time I ever had the chance of experiencing the art of "shrimp baiting." It had seemed easy enough when explained to me before the planned trip (Boy, was I in for a big surprise). Finally I was getting the chance to go shrimping! I was so excited that the night before we were to go, I barely slept a wink.
Earlier that week I had learned that I needed a salt-water fishing license, so I headed out to the nearest tackle shop the day before and acquired one. The only person who needed a shrimp-baiting license was the shrimper himself, so I didn't need to worry about that part. Now I was ready to go! I was looking forward to a night of fun. This seemed to be a popular thing to do here in Charleston, so I thought I would give it a shot. How hard could it be? Once we got there though, my outlook on this popular seasonal sport changed dramatically.
I dressed in old, faded blue jeans, a worn out college sweatshirt, some good water-resistant shoes and waited patiently for my ride to the Toogoodoo River (this is where I was told we were going). I was also told to pack a light snack, so there I sat with my bag in hand until I saw the old Ford pick-up rounding the corner of my street. Excited, I jumped up off of the steps and walked toward the truck, looking skeptically at the ten "poles" sticking out from inside of the small fishing boat.
I rolled down my window once I entered the smoke-filled Ford, and said a cheerful, "Hi!" to my friend, the shrimper. He mumbled a few words, not sure what he was taking on by having me tag along for the night. I began asking him questions, and that is when he decided to start talking.
He answered my questions about the "poles" in the back of the boat. I was still a little confused but he assured me by the end of the night, I would understand completely. So I said, "Fine" and sat back and listened to an old Bob Seger song on the radio as we made our way to the Toogoodoo River.
My nostrils immediately realized we were close when I inhaled the familiar smell of the marsh, an aroma one can only experience for oneself before knowing what the full effect is. The old Ford took the bumps and the turns pretty well and before long I could see the outline of the marsh and the river. I was amazed at all the trucks lined up, waiting for their turn to back up their boats into the darkened waters of the Toogoodoo River. I glanced at my friend nervously, wondering how we would maneuver his boat amongst the others, but pretty soon we were backing it up and into the water.
As we sped away from the landing, I glanced behind me, still amazed at the crowded boat landing, and also wondering at the same time how we would ever find our way back to the small place in the dark. I wouldn't worry about that for now, though. Not yet, anyhow.
I watched my surroundings, marveling at the beauty of the countryside. The river was only about 20 feet wide and on either side, the marsh lined the muddy banks, sometimes a house coming into view, but mostly just trees and wildlife. I could have sped along in the small fishing boat for hours just watching, but all too soon we began to slow down. We came upon a small spot on the bank with what seemed like hundreds of oak trees hanging over the water. The boat slowed down, barely moving. The driver left his seat at the wheel and walked to the front of the boat. Reaching out, he grabbed one of the tree branches, then pulled the boat up onto the bank. I looked at him curiously but still he didn't speak. Finally, after rummaging around in the boat, he found an old bucket and then leaned over the side and began digging into the mud and bringing up handfuls of the smelly stuff. He then would put the mud into the bucket. I asked what he was doing.
"Getting mud for the bait."
I said, "Oh." Not sure what that meant, but after a while, I soon found out.
I crinkled my nose at the smell of the fishmeal that he explained would attract the shrimp. Ignoring the churning of my stomach, I joined in and helped my friend make "bait balls," which entailed mixing fishmeal with the mud and then forming them into balls the size of a softball.
I was glad that I had my fake fingernails taken off the week before! Soon, after about 50 were made, and my hands were aching, we left our place on the bank and coasted along in the boat, leaving the closeness of the river and heading out towards the Intra-coastal waterway. Before long we reached some more marshland, and by then it was getting dark. My friend stopped the boat and began telling me what my duties included. I sat there listening, trying my best not to look nervous, but I'm sure he could tell. I took in everything he said, making sure that I would not forget a single instruction.
I sat behind the wheel, maneuvering the small craft alongside the marsh as he expertly inserted the "poles" into the mud banks about ten yards apart. Once this was completed we coasted up to each one and began throwing the mud balls we had made earlier in front of the "poles." By then I realized that these "poles" were actually PVC pipes that are mostly used in water lines, but shrimpers, like my friend here, use them as shrimp poles. The poles help him know where the bait was thrown. Made a lot of sense to me. Then he explained to me that we would wait for about an hour until the tide came in, hopefully bringing the shrimp with it. So we waited, and talked some, but mostly just sat there as I took in my surroundings and listened to the sounds around me. By then it was dark, making it seem almost eerie to me at times, yet exciting. Crickets chirped loudly in the distance, cows expressed themselves through their occasional "moo," and every now and then, a porpoise swam by, checking us out. Or so, that is what my friend said.
Finally, the time came. He threw his cigarette over the side of the boat and explained to me what I had to do. I listened once more, unsure of what the next few hours would hold for me. After taking one more swig from my Pepsi, I put the boat in forward and coasted slowly toward the first pole. As I was almost upon it, I put the boat in neutral, watching as the expert placed the casting net between his teeth while holding onto the end of it, then casting it outwards. It landed atop the water, directly in front of one of the poles before sinking slowly to the bottom of the river. Jolting me out of my trance, he yelled from the front of the boat, "Back up!" I had completely forgotten to!
I put the boat in reverse, guiding it back slowly, as I watched my friend pull the casting net up and out of the water and into the boat. I could see bright pink eyes everywhere! He held the net up over a cooler and unfolded it and when he did, it seemed as if hundreds of shrimp fell from everywhere!
This process was repeated over and over again. I began to wonder if the man was going to shrimp all night. Finally, when the cooler was full, and all of the poles had been "hit" at least 20 times, we stopped. I was tired; exhausted actually. But also thrilled at the same time. I had never seen so much shrimp. After pulling up the poles we headed back to the boat landing.
I was in charge of holding the spotlight, he told me. So up front I sat, huddled in my sweatshirt, as the cold November wind stung my face, but I still kept my eyes glued to the dark forbidding water in front of me. I wasn't sure how he knew where to go, because I couldn't even see ten feet in front of me, but soon we arrived at our destination.
Once were safely back in his truck and heading back home, I finally let out a long sigh.
He glanced over at me, smiling, then said three words that I had not expected, but longed to hear.
"Good job, kiddo."
I smiled tiredly, laying my head back against the seat, and thought about my first night of "shrimp baiting." I knew it was a night that I would never forget.