The Season of the Shrimp

In true Lowcountry fashion, it’s the middle of December and the high today is a warm 77 degrees with 100% humidity. What should be a brisk winter day is instead sunny and balmy, with just enough moisture in the air to frizz any hairdo. That’s the funny thing about the Lowcountry – just when you think you know the lay of the land, the roll of the tides, the rhythm of the seasons, all of a sudden your expectations are turned on their head and you’re wearing flip flops in the middle of winter. Not that I’m complaining.

My husband Wilson and I walk down the dock next to the little chapel in Palmetto Bluff, and we see two men who make a most dichotomous pair on a long, white fishing boat. At the helm of the boat is Chris Schumaker, a 31-year-old Blufftonian whose tanned face and bright smile indicates a seasoned outdoorsman with a keen sense of the Lowcountry landscape. Chris owns May River Excursions, a local boating business that takes guests out to explore the intricate waterways in the local area through fishing, shrimping, crabbing, or just a simple cruise.

shrimping-lowcountry-2Sitting precariously on the seat in front of the boat’s console is Krisztian, a Hungary-to-Bluffton transplant who also happens to be one of the most talented and nationally recognized photographers in town. Krisztian is dressed in black jeans and a slick black Members-Only jacket, which contrasts nicely with Chris’s worn-in red rain jacket and black rain pants. The two could not be any more mismatched. I grin at Wilson, because these strange interactions are seemingly commonplace in this area. That’s the other thing about the Lowcountry, and really the South in general – instead of hiding the crazy, we embrace the strange, the bizarre, the unusual, celebrating life’s oddities by parading them on our front porch. Or, in this case, on the chapel dock in Palmetto Bluff.

Wilson and I load our cooler on the boat, introduce ourselves to Chris and Kris, and settle in for what is sure to be an interesting afternoon on the thick marshes of the South Carolina coast. Today’s objective is simple: catch some shrimp. Shrimping in the Lowcountry is such a routine activity here that native Blufftonians might wonder why I’d even bother writing about such a thing. But for those of us not blessed to be born in this particularly low-sitting land, shrimping is much more than conventional. It’s a rite of passage, a source of pride; to sling an intricate maze of ropes into the murky water in pursuit of the most noble and delicious South Carolina white shrimp is an honor and a skill mastered by few. My dexterity for similar activities that require hand-eye coordination is anything but, so my expectations for today’s catch are low. But with the cast of characters on this excursion, I know the trip will be anything but the usual.

Chris expertly steers the boat neatly around a bend of spartina grass and Kris begins his animated chatter, slurred by his delightfully thick Hungarian accent, which reminds me of the colorful character Franc from Father of the Bride. “So vhere are ve going?” Kris chirps, scanning the water with Nikon in hand, his eyebrows arching in anticipation. “Such beautiful veather!” He squints through the Nikon’s viewfinder and snaps a photo of Chris only inches from his face. Chris smiles uneasily. “We’re going to find a deep hole, one of my usual shrimping spots,” Chris informs. Chris explains that from August to December, the shrimp season abounds in and around the May River, and tourists and locals alike try their hand at catching shrimp.

Chris peers at the depth finder on the console’s dash and explains that the larger shrimp hide out in deep holes, about 10 to 15 feet deep. Smaller shrimp tend to live near the oyster beds at the foot of the marsh grass, so we steer clear of these edges as the only ones we want to catch are those big enough for a fancy shrimp cocktail. We watch the depth finder plummet from 18 feet to 42 feet within seconds, and Chris thrusts the boat in neutral. He walks to the bow of the boat, gently picks up a cast net coiled at his feet, and begins to thread the rope through his hands until big ovals of rope are wrapped around his right hand. With his left hand he picks up the other end of the cast net, bites down on the fringe of it with his teeth, and then suddenly hurls it into the water with a quick and precise twist of his body. The cast net takes flight as it opens up in the air, creating a beautiful wide arch, or pancake, as Chris says. The net falls as quickly as it opens into the dark navy water below, sinking quickly to the bottom.

“The trick of shrimping is to wait until the net hits the bottom,” grins Chris. He waits another minute, and then says, “Nothing,” to no one in particular. He’s been doing this so long that he can feel the shrimp in the cast net, and can almost exactly estimate his catch even though the net is sitting on the floor of the May. Pull after pull he retrieves the cast net from the water, and it suddenly pops on to the side of the boat. As Chris guessed, no shrimp are inside. He dumps the cast net on the floor of the boat and walks to the console, puts the boat in gear, and motors swiftly along the river.

“Vat happened?” asked Kris, his lips pursed and eyes smiling. I think Kris knows exactly what happened, but just wants to hear the other Chris admit it himself. “No shrimp here. Let’s head to another spot down the way,” Chris said as he steered the boat through the dark water. He talks as he drives, “Sometimes [the shrimp] will just bury up, and then sometimes they just appear; but whether it’s an end tide or a flood tide, the big ones are always deep.” The boat cuts through the water as we ease into Bull Creek, and it’s clear that Chris has spent his entire life in the maze of waterways that make up this part of the Lowcountry.

Chris notes that for a first time shrimper such as myself using a smaller cast net, six or seven feet wide, will be easier for me to maneuver. He uses an eight-foot net, but says that depending on the coastal area, the local fishermen use different sized nets and different casting techniques.

“The way I do it, that’s the Lowcountry way,” he says with a grin. “People in Florida, they have a different throw because they use a bigger net.” The boat slows with a slight turn and Chris cuts the motor and checks the depth finder. “Let’s see if there’s something better here,” Chris says as he grabs the net. We all stand back as Chris adjusts the cast net, places the end in his mouth, and then slings it into the air. A spray of saltwater erupts and Kris snaps more photos. “Very good! Very good! Now can you do zat again a vittle slower?” he asks as he zooms his Nikon forward and back, and Chris looks a little sheepish as he pulls the net slowly back into the boat. “Sure. Ready?” Chris asks, and the other Kris nods. Chris arranges the cast net, puts the fringe in his mouth, and again launches the net into the air; it spreads wide and lands elegantly in the water and sinks to the bottom. “Veautiful!” Kris exclaims over the fast clicking of the Nikon.

After many more throws of the cast net, a small pile of shrimp begin to collect at the bottom of Chris’s orange bin. I gingerly pick one up – “It’s not going to eat you, you’re going to eat it,” reminds Wilson – and examine the little animal. Its slick outer shell is a smoky gray, and its tail fans out in a striking aquamarine. Nature is an artist, I think to myself. “Do zat again,” Kris instructs, and I hold the little shrimp up to his lens. More clicks. I notice Chris chuckling at us.

rodsChris weaves the boat to the end of Bull Creek and Daufuskie Island is in the distance. “Ok your turn!” he says. I step onto the bow of the boat and Chris hands me the cast net. “First put this around your wrist,” he instructs as he places the end of the cast net rope around my wrist, which I observe is the only part of the net that is inflatable. “Hold this here,” Chris hands me part of the cast net, “And this here,” giving me the other end of the net in the other hand, “And bite down here,” and I bite down on the net’s fringe somewhere in the middle. “Ok, now swing it off the boat. And don’t forget to let go of it with your teeth!” Chris chuckles and Kris makes a loud “Ha!” from behind his lens, and I can see his eyebrows laughing again.

I grip the net tightly, twist my body to the right, and fling the net with all my might to the left. The net flies through the air with a sad, haphazard flop and splashes in the water.

“Good job!” Chris says even though I know what I just did was not a good job. “Now wait ‘til it hits the bottom.” A few seconds later he says, “Did you feel it?” No, I think to myself. “Do you feel any shrimp in there?” Chris asks. I shake my head and try to focus on pulling in the net, which is a much more laborious operation than Chris made it look like. I finally pull the heavy cast net into the boat, and low and behold, there are four shrimp squirming in the net. Damn, I think to myself. No wonder people like to do this. Kris puts down his camera to inspect my catch, and we both grin. “See, you’re better than you zink,” he says. A few more attempts at casting brings in nine shrimp, and the little pile in the orange bin begins to grow.

Finally, Wilson takes a turn at the cast net. Having grown up on the water of Wrightsville Beach, NC, Wilson considers himself a fisherman worth his salt, pun intended. He easily arranges the cast net between his hands and teeth, and throws it in the water. The net spreads out wide and soars through the air and lands gently in the water, sinking cleverly to the bottom. “The perfect pancake!” Chris says. Wilson smiles. He pulls in the net – he caught three shrimp. He casts the net again, concentrating on his form this time, and again deftly maneuvers the net so that it extends superbly through the air. Except this time, the entire net falls into the water: net, rope, wrist holder and all. “No!” Wilson yells, followed by some expletives and his scrambling in the boat. Chris and I howl with laughter, and Kris excitedly snaps his Nikon just inches away from Wilson’s attempt at a cast net rescue. He grabs a long fishing net and scoops the wrist holder out of the water, and finally grabs the cast net, breathing hard and laughing now too. “I forgot to put that thing on my wrist!” Wilson says and points to the wrist holder. “Thank goodness it didn’t sink!” He peers in the cast net and two more shrimp are wiggling. Kris snaps more pictures as he says, “Don’t vorry. I got de whole zing on cam-er-rah!”

We catch a few more shrimp and our pile turns into a meal fit for three. The December sun begins to set against the skyline, streaming bright reds, oranges, yellows and blues into the sky, and we start to make our way back to the dock. Nature the artist, I think again, and zip up my jacket against the crisp evening air. Once we arrive at the dock, Chris and Wilson pinch the heads off of the shrimp, and Chris piles them in a paper cup with a lid. “So they won’t stink,” he says with a smile. Wilson and I thank Chris and Kris, and then get in the car to head home. We ride in silence and I think about our eventful afternoon. The day not only afforded us a bowl full of shrimp, but new friends and, for me, a new skill – for Wilson, perhaps a little humility. Us North Carolinians still have a thing or two to learn about the Lowcountry and her wicked sense of humor.

Special thanks to Chris Schumaker of May River Excursions, who so kindly hosted Wilson, Kris and me on his boat for an afternoon to teach me how to catch shrimp. Chris specializes in much more than just shrimping though – he guides fishing trips, ecology tours, and much more. To book an excursion with Chris, call 843.304.2878 or visit www.mayriverexcursions.com. And thanks to Krisztian Lonyai too for capturing the whole thing on cam-er-rah.

Written by Anna Jones

Photography by Krisztian Lonyai

 

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We are thrilled to announce that power has been restored to Palmetto Bluff and the community will reopen on Friday. Please check the hours of operation for any restaurants or facilities you plan to visit as we are working to re-open all of them very soon. Thank you to everyone who has helped re-open our beautiful community and we look forward to hosting you at the Bluff.