As if on cue, a shrimp burst from the water, turned a somersault, fell back, skipped across the surface, and disappeared in a violent explosion. Too bad for the shrimp — it was carrying a hook and never had chance. A fraction of a second later, the float disappeared behind a bulge of water and a shower of frantic finger mullet.
“Bet that’s a redfish!” I said, grabbing the rod from the gunwale holder.
Making sure the fish was clear of the marsh grass, I passed the rod to young Hayden.
“I might need some help,” he grunted, as the drag on the Okuma spinning reel squealed in protest. “Just keep your rod tip up and the slack out of the line,” advised Hayden’s father, Stephen, as he stepped to the bow casting deck.
All this commotion even caused Hayden’s younger brother, Colby, to look up from the Pathfinder’s stern bait well where he’d been chasing shrimp with a small dip net. His curiosity aroused, Colby came to the bow carrying a plastic bag filled with water and one tired shrimp.
After a couple of strong runs, the fish came boat-side and surrendered to the net. It was bronze- colored and drumming as we laid it on the measuring tape. The tip of the tail hit the 27-inch mark, 4 inches longer than the state maximum-length limit. So, after photos, we slipped it over the gunwale and back into the avocado-green water.
Three more oversized reds, a few speckled trout and a couple of sharks later, we pulled anchor and left before the falling tide stranded us. Thanks to some irresistible live shrimp and a bit of luck, the Adams men returned home tired but with some great fish stories and several digital photos for Mrs. Adams. Oh, I almost forgot the other souvenir — a plastic bag filled with seawater and one lonely shrimp.
As this story helps illustrate, a live shrimp will catch any inshore saltwater game and pan fish found in coastal Georgia. Plus, these very same shrimp often provide great entertainment in the process. Yes, it’s primal, but admit it: We all love the thrill of the chase. But we also love to spend our money wisely, avoid hassles and catch fish. Fortunately for us, we now have a choice between the real thing and some pretty convincing pretenders.
The availability of local, live bait shrimp is controlled by both the life cycle of the animal and environmental conditions. From July to December, bait-sized shrimp are usually abundant in the small tidal creeks of Georgia’s estuaries. The other six months of the year, shrimp availability can be unpredictable. In fact, during the spring fish- ing season, live-bait sellers can only satisfy customer demand with imported shrimp from Florida.
When live shrimp are “in season,” there are two ways to fill your well — catch your own or visit a state-licensed live-bait dealer. Either way, it’s going to cost you some time and money. A 3/8-inch-mesh monofilament cast net priced at less than $75 and 30 minutes of time will usually provide all the live shrimp needed for a day’s outing. You can opt to use a small trawl in designated areas, but these are a bit pricey (about $250) and take up space in the boat. Check the Georgia Sport Fishing Regulations for information on bait-shrimp harvesting. During times of high abundance, live bait shrimp sell for $12 to $15 a quart. The price skyrockets as high as $25 when shrimp are hard to find. Regardless of the price, you’ re paying for convenience and the privilege of not having to waste fishing time to locate shrimp. The number of baits per quart varies depending on shrimp size, but if you’ re getting good bait-sized shrimp (about 4 inches long), you’ll typically have three or four dozen. You’ll need an aerated and insulated bucket or cooler to transport the shrimp from the seller’s holding tank to your final destination. Don’t scrimp. It makes no sense to kill $24 worth of live bait because you chose not to double that amount for a good bait life-support system. There are several types of aerators and aerator/bucket combinations manufactured by Marine Metal Products.
This same life-support system can be used when fishing from shore or in the boat. Just be sure to carry extra batteries. Although bucket-type bait wells usually have a Styrofoam insert, the water temperature inside the container can still soar to lethal levels during the peak of summer. You can keep your bait happy by either exchanging the water frequently or periodically adding a sealed plastic bag containing ice. Remember to not add ice directly as it will melt changing the salinity and stressing the bait.
These days, new-generation saltwater-fishing boats leave the factory with flow-through or re-circulating bait wells or both. My Pathfinder 2200V XL Tournament Edition has two bait wells — a 15-gallon at the bow and a lighted 40-gallon at the stern — in addition to a 40-gallon release well for the catch. Regardless of the size and type of your bait life-support system, remember to not overcrowd it. Last, but not least, keep extra bait dip nets onboard. Even shrimp in small containers can be hard to catch with your hand.
In the end, it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis for every trip. What is most precious, time or money? At $12 a quart, you can pay for your cast net with the first six quarts of self- caught live bait. Not to mention, having a cast net onboard means you can also catch finger mullet, small menhaden and other baits. However, there are times when the peak feeding period is at dawn, and you can have live shrimp in hand at 5:45 a.m. by stopping at the live-bait dealer.
Fine Fake Shrimp
Up until the 1980s, it was hard to find a decent artificial shrimp-imitating lure. Georgia anglers used curly-tail and paddle-tail plastics like the Mann’s Stingray Grub with great effectiveness, but no one had any delusions that actually looked like real shrimp. Then, companies like D.O.A. Lures, of Stuart, Fla., began producing soft-plastic versions that actually looked and moved like the real thing. While these lures gained instant acceptance in Florida and around the Gulf Coast, they met a cool reception in Georgia. But some Peach State anglers did experiment, and the word began to spread that maybe a soft-plastic shrimp could work in Georgia’s normally turbid coastal waters.
Recognizing there was money to be made in the growing saltwater market, other tackle manufacturers began to develop their own shrimp imitations. The chemists got into the game, and the scented versions of plastic shrimp joined the crowd. Each brand had its own unique features and selling points, but for the most part, Georgia anglers still didn’t put much faith in the plastics as an acceptable substitute for a live shrimp.
Things changed forever in 2003 when Berkley debuted a shrimp pattern in the Saltwater Gulp! series, successor to its popular Power Bait line. Now saltwater anglers had a lure that looked like the real thing and emitted a scent that drove fish wild. This was a perfect combination for coastal Georgia where many species rely as much on taste and smell as they do sight. Best of all, they came in three sizes (2, 3, and 4 inches) and a wide range of colors.
Recently, Bass Assassin released the BLURP product line, and veteran plastics maker Crème put the Stinky Shrimp on the market. Both have proprietary scents infused into the conventional plastic baits. Even the veteran D.O.A. shrimp has been updated with a scent derived from farm-raised shrimp and baitfish. Not to be outdone, Berkley unleashed another salvo at the mid-July ICAST show when it raised the curtain on Saltwater Gulp! ALIVE! This product so impressed the fishing-tackle industry that it was awarded Best of Category for soft plastics.
One of the biggest complaints about the Saltwater Gulp! product line has been the fact that baits, once used, cannot be put back in the package like conventional plastics. When exposed to air, the bait shrinks and hardens. This new product can be returned to the hard container filled with Gulp! ALIVE! “Magic Gravy” solution and recharged. This same hard container keeps the baits in better condition, which translates to better action in the water. A pint of 3-inch shrimp contains 18 baits and retails for about $19, while the quart container holds 36 baits and sells for around $37. I have yet to fish the second generation of scented shrimp, but I doubt I’m going to be disappointed.
Like most plastic lures, shrimp imitators are available in just about every color combination known to man. Some have rather plain names like Natural Shrimp and Molting while others like Nuclear Chicken and Lime Tiger Glow are more exotic. These subtle variations in color are definitely meant to appeal to anglers as much as to fish, but it’s best to carry an array of colors ranging from very light to very dark with some chartreuse in the mix.
With twice-a-day tides measuring 6 to 9 feet in height, coastal Georgia challenges anglers. For at least half a century, they have fished these extreme conditions by using live shrimp under an adjustable slip float connected to a long casting rod and Abu Garcia Ambassadeur reel. This combo remains a mainstay since it gives anglers the option to fish depths ranging from 2 to 15 feet with equal effectiveness. Unfortunately, this combo doesn’t lend itself to the presentation of plastic shrimp as they hang lifelessly under the float, drifting in the tidal currents.
About the same time the tackle industry was cranking up to produce a decent facsimile of a shrimp, Bill Hall, of Precision Tackle Co., was starting to mass produce something call the Cajun Thunder.
Used for years in Texas bays, this combination of stiff wire, brass and plastic beads, and a brightly colored float soon revolutionized the use of soft plastics throughout the Southeast. Precision finishes each end with a swivel, the top one used to connect the main line and the bottom affixed to a leader of 2 to 3 feet in length.
Referred to as a rattling cork, this device, when jerked strongly with a snap of the rod tip, mimics the sound produced by saltwater game fish feeding on shrimp, mullet and other prey. This same motion causes the lure suspended below the float to rise rapidly, fall back down, and abruptly stop. This combination of sound and motion triggers the feeding instincts of species like speckled trout and redfish. Before long, tackle shops had waiting lists for the next shipment as more anglers learned about the new float that called up fish and could be used over oyster shells, rock jetties and other submerged fish-holding structure.
Despite its popularity, the Cajun Thunder had one flaw when used in areas with extreme tidal ranges: The only way to adjust for deeper water was to tie on a new leader beneath the float. This gets tedious when fishing in a place where the water can rise or fall an inch every five minutes!
As is always the case with fisher- men, someone took a good idea and made it better. The Lowcountry Lightning came out of Charleston, S.C., and gave anglers a depth- adjustable rattling float. It’s pretty much a hybrid of the tried-and-tested slip float and a Cajun Thunder. Over the past few years, several more manufacturers have released versions of these floats. Some use flexible titanium wire, which is less subject to kink. Others add a bit more weight to the bottom of the float to increase casting distance.
Although designed for artificials, the rattling float has become popular for fishing natural baits, as well. When rigging for live shrimp, I typically use a Eagle Claw thin-wire circle hook or a Kahle hook in a 1/0 size or smaller. The hook goes through the head of the shrimp just behind the horn. I pinch a small split shot about halfway up the length of the leader to help keep the shrimp down in the water. Sometimes, I substitute a red or chartreuse 1/8-oz. jig for the hook and attach the shrimp by hooking it just forward of the tail. This presentation adds a bit of color to the shrimp and slows it down, making it vulnerable to predators. Tipping the leader with a jig also gives you the option of quickly switching between a live shrimp and one of the imitations.
There are still traditionalists who boycott imitation shrimp regardless of how appealing the advertising or convincing the stories of their fishing bud- dies. However, this fraternity is getting smaller and smaller. In fact, I’m running into more and more anglers who have become certifiable plastic-holics — frequent GON contributor Capt. Bert Deener is one name that comes to mind. These anglers may use a live shrimp, but only when they have exhausted all options with artificials.
I’m not there yet. I like to have live shrimp in the bait well when I leave the dock for a day of fishing for trout and redfish. But, I’m not going to cancel a fishing trip just because I don’t have live bait. And, I’m not going to spend the best hours of the fishing day trying to catch bait. Instead, I reach for my tackle bag filled with imitation shrimp. Then, it’s just a matter of choosing a style, color and size. Heck, it’s about as much fun as fishing.