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It's Shrimping Time
Recent law changes give recreational shrimpers more options for catching Georgia's favorite crustacean.
By Capt. Spud Woodward
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of GON
The daily recreational limit for food shrimp caught with a cast net is 48 quarts (63 pounds) of heads-on shrimp per person or per boat. If you remove the heads of the shrimp while on the water, you are limited to 36 quarts (40 pounds) of shrimp tails per person or per boat. That’s a fine reward for a few hours spent on the water.
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“Tell me again why we’re doing this,” I asked Dan Foster as he checked his cast net for tangles.

“If the shrimp are here, you’ll see on the first throw,” said Dan.

It was a blustery day in late October 1988, and the location was Jointer Creek, one of many tidal waterways located between the mainland and Jekyll Island. Foster, a marine biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service and saltwater-tournament fishing partner was working on his latest shrimp-catching scheme.

The display on the Lowrance depthfinder read 20 feet, and small marks off the bottom appeared like sprinkles of pepper on the screen.

“There’s no way you’re going to catch any shrimp in water this deep. The net will be closed before it reaches the bottom,” I commented.

Disregarding my skepticism, Dan pivoted at the waist and launched the cast net, which spiraled open in an almost perfect circle before hitting the surface. Immediately, the net started its descent through the green water.

A few seconds later, the hand-line went slack, signaling the net had reached the bottom. Dan gave the line a couple of quick tugs before beginning his retrieve. As the net broke the surface, we could see a few shrimp tangled in the monofilament webbing near the horn of the net. However, we really got excited when the bottom of the cast net cleared the surface. Dozens of large shrimp were trapped in the net completely filling the perimeter. Dan dumped his catch in the galvanized metal washtub on the deck and looked at me with an I-told-you-so expression. Not a single fish or crab, just 5 pounds of pure shrimp.

Over the next hour, Dan and I took turns with the cast net. We didn’t catch 5 pounds with every throw, but we still managed to fill a 48-quart cooler with large shrimp in short order. And, we pulled these tasty crustaceans from water typically too deep for a cast net. So, what was the trick you’re asking? An elaborate casting technique or supernatural ability to find shrimp? Well, finding shrimp and opening the cast net are both very important, but the thing that made the difference was the addition of duct tape above the lead line of the cast net. A few years later, this simple modification would be the focal point of a great controversy within Georgia’s shrimp fishery.

Shrimp Paradise: The coast of Georgia features more than 239,000 acres of tidal waters — an area six times the size of Lake Lanier. These creeks and rivers combined with the surrounding 350,000 acres of salt marshes support a dazzling diversity of life and provide a fertile nursery for white and brown shrimp. When Mother Nature provides mild winters and adequate freshwater to mix with seawater, these estuaries produce shrimp in staggering quantities.

The average annual commercial harvest is about 3 million pounds of heads-off shrimp. When you consider an average size of 30 shrimp to a pound, the commercial harvest alone accounts for 90 million shrimp a year! Then there’s all the shrimp eaten by predators along the perilous journey from egg to adult combined with the ones harvested for bait and personal consumption. It’s reasonable to assume that Georgia’s coastal waters produce an annual shrimp population that numbers in the billions. Sounds like you should be able to throw a cast net anywhere and catch a shrimp. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Like most pursuits in the great outdoors, success in recreational shrimping depends as much on timing and location as it does on gear and technique. Shrimp spawning begins during the spring in the waters of the open Atlantic Ocean and continues through the late summer. Billions of larval shrimp hatch out in the spring, but thousands die in the first few days from predation or starvation. Those that survive the trip and make it into the estuary grow rapidly over the summer. Most of the spring-spawned shrimp reach harvestable size by September. Shrimp produced from early and mid-summer reach harvestable size in late autumn and early winter. Easy to see why recreational and commercial shrimp harvesters look forward to the autumn months with such anticipation.

As they mature, shrimp leave the small creeks and move toward the deeper, saltier areas of the coastal estuaries — larger tidal rivers and the confluence of these tidal rivers, areas commonly referred to as the sounds. These coastal waters are off limits to trawlers, so shrimp usually stay put until pushed out into the Atlantic by astronomical high tides, heavy rains, or dropping water temperatures. Typically, inshore shrimping with cast nets is good through mid-December.

In addition to seasonal migrations, shrimp move each day in response to light and tide. They generally stay in deeper areas during the day but will move into shallows at night and on cloudy days. That’s the reason many recreational shrimpers, particularly those with small boats limited to sheltered waters, wait until dusk to start their activities.

The twice-a-day, 6- to 9-foot tides that move seawater between the Atlantic Ocean and the estuaries trigger shrimp to move. Savvy cast netters know that shrimping is often best on the “spring” tides coinciding with full and new moons. So, when conditions are poor for inshore fishing, they’ll often be just right for shrimping. Regardless of the moon phase, shrimping at lower stages of the tide is advisable.

To start the hunt, familiarize yourself with NOAA navigation charts and talk to the locals. Marina and fish-camp operators stay dialed into the activities of their customers and can help you zero-in on some productive areas. Once you are on site, idle along the shoreline looking for the telltale signs of shrimp jumping in the engine prop wash. Pay particular attention to the guts and run-outs draining the marsh surface. In most areas, it’s just a matter of moving until you find good concentrations of larger shrimp.

Deep-water shrimping in the sounds and larger rivers is very much a group activity, and nothing betrays good numbers of shrimp like a crowd of boats. Shoals of shrimp concentrate in deep holes, particularly during cold weather, and can often be seen on depthfinders as wispy marks along the bottom.

Some of the perennial hot spots are the Brickhill River in Camden County, Back River in the St. Simons estuary and the mouth of the Julienton River in McIntosh County. Since shrimp can be found in the deeper areas of every estuary, don’t hesitate to do some exploring. You might find an area off the beaten path and your own honey hole.

The food-shrimp season usually opens around mid-June each year and closes on December 31, unless extended into the following year. Recreational shrimping for food and bait is permitted 24 hours a day in all of the waterways of the Georgia coast designated as saltwater. Anyone older than 16 attempting to catch shrimp for food or bait must have a Georgia sport fishing license. The daily recreational limit for food shrimp caught with a cast net is 48 quarts (63 pounds) of heads-on shrimp per person or per boat. If you remove the heads of the shrimp while on the water, you are limited to 36 quarts (40 pounds) of shrimp tails per person or per boat. That’s a fine reward for a few hours spent on the water.

Net Results: Cast nets have been used to harvest shrimp from Georgia waters since colonial times. Every coastal community had net builders who were widely respected for their ability to take natural fibers and weave them into seines and cast nets. These days, most cast nets are machine-built of monofilament in foreign countries. A few manufacturers still build their nets by hand in the good old USA, but they’re a minority.

Betts, Lee Fisher, Calusa, and FITEC are recognizable names in the business. All make cast nets suitable for recreational shrimping in a full range of lengths, mesh sizes, and prices. Expect to pay between $50 and $100 for a quality cast net with the proper mesh-size, adequate weighting and stainless-steel hardware. Deluxe nets can run upward of $200. Several of these manufacturers also sell DVDs and videos with instructions on how to use and care for a cast net. Some even have online streaming video clips demonstrating a throwing technique (<>).

I caution you against spending too much for a cast net especially if you plan to do most of your shrimping along the shoreline of tidal creeks. Even if you’re careful, you’ll eventually make the mistake of throwing your cast net on top of oyster shells. Take it from me — oyster shells and monofilament don’t mix. Instead of buying a top-end cast net, purchase two good quality nets for the same price. That way, you’ll always have a spare in the event you severely damage your primary net.

Recent Georgia law changes repealed the length, but not the mesh-size restriction on cast nets used to harvest shrimp. So, if you want to throw a 14-foot cast net for shrimp, go for it. Most folks choose something in the 6-to 10-foot range as the bigger the net, the heavier the net. A typical shrimp cast net will have three-quarters of a pound of lead weight for every foot of circumference. This means a 10-foot-long cast net will weigh about 15 pounds. Cast nets used to harvest food shrimp must be constructed of 1/2- inch or larger mesh. On March 1, 2009, the minimum mesh size will increase to 5/8-inch. Larger mesh sizes reduce the catch of small shrimp and the bycatch of smaller marine organisms.

The most controversial part of the recent shrimping law changes involved modified cast nets (e.g. nets with duct tape, throw rings, etc.) What my friend Dan and I did back in 1988 was outlawed in 1998 as part of a legislative action regulating shrimp cast netting in Georgia. Ever since, recreational and commercial cast netters have sought a repeal of this prohibition. Their persistence was finally rewarded when a shrimp fishery regulatory reform bill (HB 100) passed the Georgia legislature this past spring. Now, recreational shrimpers have the option of using a modified cast net.

What is the advantage of a modified cast net? First, it depends on how the net is modified. Some manufacturers, such as FITEC, produce cast nets with a plastic ring designed as a throwing aid. It doesn’t change performance of the net once it’s in the water but rather helps the user open the net to its full circumference. Throw rings are only beneficial on cast nets less than 6 feet long and require a considerable amount of body motion to work properly, something that can be tricky on a small boat.

The other cast-net modification consists of attaching duct tape, strips of bubble wrap, or lawn chair webbing a few inches above the lead line. This material slows the sinking of the lead line and reduces the tendency of the net to close as it descends. This means the net covers more area when it hits the bottom thereby catching more shrimp.

Most people opt for the duct tape since it is relatively easy to sandwich the webbing between two pieces of adhesive tape versus attaching some other material with twine or contact cement. But before you run off to the hardware store for a roll of duct tape and some extra hand-line, consider the advice of veteran cast netter Joe Robinson of Brunswick.

“If you’re planning on shrimping in shallow water with a cast net shorter than 8 feet in length, there’s no real advantage to modifying the net with duct tape. You’ll do just as well with a conventional net. However, if you move out into the sound or one of the big rivers where you’ll be fishing in areas 15 feet or deeper, a larger net modified with duct tape can make the difference between catching and just throwing for the exercise. The key to success is finding the shrimp regardless of what type of net you’re using.”

Catching your own shrimp with a cast net gives you a tasty dinner, great exercise and is a wonderful way to spend time on the water, particularly with kids. You could go to the supermarket for frozen shrimp from some foreign country, but is that something you want to brag about to your hunting and fishing buddies?
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