The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
When I was a kid, we’d load up the family RV and head to Emerald Isle, North Carolina, about four hours away. Often these trips were quick getaways that were less about sand castles and more about fishing.
We sometimes fished from the beach, but our main fishing happened from piers that stretched up to 1000 feet into the Atlantic. I have fond memories of parking the RV at the Indian Beach pier, which also served as a campground. If the fish were biting, we’d be out on the pier for hours at a time, casting lines with two hooks and a sinker as far as we could. Sadly, Indian Beach pier eventually crumbled in the wave of hurricanes in the late 90s.
Our bait was usually limited to bloodworms and raw shrimp. I thought little of it at the time, but bloodworms are frightful little creatures that bleed profusely when you cut into them. They are venomous carnivores that are capable of biting humans. I have been bitten by a bloodworm and it’s not fun. But, the fish love them. We mostly caught spot, and occasionally pompano, sheepshead, puffers, and more. I also set basket traps for blue crab.
Those days and nights on fishing piers were fun for a kid like me, and exposed me to a lifestyle of sport and self-sufficiency. On a good trip, we’d be able to fill the freezer with fish and give them to friends and family. My mom was the most gifted fisher and always seemed to catch fish when no one else could. Over the course of an afternoon, you’d notice other fishers sidle up to try to get in on the action. Those salty characters who now live in my memory as the shark hunting character, Quint, in the movie Jaws.
One of my clearest memories is fishing with raw shrimp as bait when I was about ten years old. Over the course of the evening, my face seemed to explode with a reaction to something. My eyes got red, puffy, and itchy. I sneezed and wheezed and tried to contain what felt like a bad cold. I washed my face and hands and it passed, but remained a mystery.
As an adult, I became a fan of sushi and noticed something odd. When I ate raw shrimp, my mouth would feel anesthetized and my throat would feel swollen. Sometimes my lips would puff. It didn’t take long to realize that I was allergic to raw shrimp. Thinking back to those childhood fishing trips, I remembered that I was baiting hooks with shrimp and then touching my face. Thankfully, the reaction only occurs from raw shrimp and I have no problems with cooked shrimp or any other shellfish.
And that’s a good thing because shrimp, or “spot prawns” to be precise, are a recent entrant on our list of foods we pull from the Salish Sea around Orcas Island.
Despite living in the area for so long, I never knew much about spot prawns. Our Canadian friends to the north always raved about them and got excited for spot prawn season. On visits to Vancouver we would pick up spot prawns for dinner. It seemed odd to me that this prized seafood was not well-known in Seattle, which shares the same waters. I still can’t explain why this is the case, but we now count ourselves as spot prawn enthusiasts.
It didn’t take long to hear about spot prawns after moving to Orcas Island. Like the fishers at Emerald Isle, islanders here are always aware of what’s in season and how to catch them. Our contractor, Drew, took us out for our first spot prawn experience, which involved dropping a few hockey puck-shaped pots in 400 feet of water, waiting an hour, and then pulling them up with a battery powered pulley. It was like magic and we wanted to do it ourselves.
Unfortunately, our little boat didn’t seem like a candidate for an automatic “puller” and the idea of pulling shrimp pots by hand from 400 ft deep seemed daunting. That all changed when we met a neighbor at our marina who hand-pulled small pots at a depth of 250 feet with great success. His bounty influenced our decision to invest in a single shrimp pot, 400 feet of line, two buoys, and shrimp bait. We were set for the 2021 shrimping season.
Perhaps the reason spot prawns are not well known in Seattle is that they are a protected resource. This year’s season lasts a total of twelve days, split between three long weekends. During these times, each licensed shrimper can use two pots and bring home 80 prawns per day. A productive and law abiding shrimper could bring home a maximum of 1,280 prawns in a year. A couple like us could keep over 2,500. The lesson: get while the getting is good.
Last week was our inaugural shrimping trip and our friend graciously allowed us to follow him to his coveted shrimping spot. Spot prawns, conventional wisdom tells us, like to feed in the short period of time when the tides change known as the “slack tide”. This means that within a limited number of days in a season, there are only a few hours a day when the shrimp feed. For our first trip, that meant leaving the marina at 6:30 am.
By 7:00 am our little shrimp pot was baited with cat food, shrimp pellets, and sardines and lowered to the bottom. To wait out the trapping, we tied our boat to our friend’s boat and hoped for Camelot. He bottom fished for lingcod until his giant hook snagged something on the bottom and had to be cut free. We drank coffee and talked story.
On our first pull, we got about 40 spot prawns, which felt like a victory. Because the slack tide was longer than usual, we stayed for another round and came home with just over 80 prawns. The next day we went out twice and came home with a similar amount.
After that, the weather turned and made shrimping more difficult. We stayed home and filled our bellies with those sweet buttery little crustaceans. They are the best-tasting shrimp I’ve ever had. The Canadians are onto something.
The final opening of the season is in the middle of June and we plan to take advantage. Like every shrimper, our goal is to “limit out” which means catching the legal limit in a day. With two people and a second pot, we may be able to do it. Maybe next year we’ll get an electric puller.
For now, pulling one small pot and 400 feet of line is part of the fun and a reliable form of exercise. Instead of using teamwork, we challenge each other to pull the entire thing in one shot. It’s harder than it sounds and highlights why everyone thinks we’re crazy for not using a machine.
Sachi, of course, is our head shrimper and I’m the navigator and alternate puller. She baits the pots, removes the prawns from the trap and de-heads them on the way home.
If the prawns die with their head on, they release an enzyme that softens the meat. Once we’re home, she prepares them for the BBQ or a boil. I supervise, as I’ve learned my lesson with raw shrimp. No one wants my face to explode again.