July: Grass Shrimp Don't Have Many Friends

Chesapeake Almanac Podcast Episode and Transcript

Episode 18
Copyright © John Page Williams Jr. All rights reserved.

This is John Page Williams with another reading from Chesapeake Almanac. The month is July and this chapter is entitled "Grass Shrimp Don't Have Many Friends."

It was a case of two boys, a skiff, a tidal creek, and a summer day. John Ochsner was probably 12 years old and I was 10. My parents and aunt were visiting his mother. John and I gravitated to the dock behind his house, on Hoskins Creek in Tappahannock, the classic river town on Rappahannock. He had a nice little skiff and a shiny green Johnson 5-horse. The motor was a year and newer than mine, I remember, so it had a neutral clutch, a big innovation. We took two fishing rods with bobbers and hooks, and he grabbed what looked like a crab net, except that it had very fine mesh. "What's that for?" I asked. "Shrimp," he replied. My experience on the Bay was limited at that point to the Yeocomico, a big tributary near the mouth of the Potomac. Over there we used peelers for bait. I'd never heard of shrimp, except the frozen kind we got from the market.

John dipped his net a couple of times around the dock pilings, and it came up squirming with handfuls of tiny (half-inch to one-and-a-half-inch long) transparent grass shrimp. I was fascinated. He showed me how to thread a couple on a hook headfirst, and we caught a bunch of fish, mostly ring perch (that's Virginia for yellow perch) and bream (that's Virginia for sunfish).

It turned out that there are plenty of shrimp in the Yeocomico too, though we still didn't use them for bait there. In fact, grass shrimp are distributed all over the Bay in its tidal tributaries, and their slightly larger cousins, the sand shrimp, occur throughout the lower Bay. Their value to the Bay's food web is immense but they have no commercial market except as bait. Every predator over four inches long eats them with relish, even bluefish.

The anglers who catch their own probably know as much about shrimp as anyone in the Bay country. Let's look through their eyes, bolstered with a little information from the scientific community.

First, grass shrimp are "opportunistic omnivores," which means they eat a wide variety of foods, switching from one to another depending on availability. On their first two pairs of legs, they have tiny pincers which they use to pick up their food. It can be algae growing on a dock piling or the surface of a mud flat, or could be scraps of decayed grass with its associated bacteria at the edge of a marsh, or tiny pieces of a dead shrimp. The food can be alive or dead.

Bearing in mind the kinds of food shrimp favor, look for them in beds of submerged Bay grasses, at the edge of marshes, and around wood. The submerged grasses offer them not only food but good hiding from predators. Marsh grasses do the same, especially at high tide. Wood cover like fallen trees also offers protection.

Mud flats, dock pilings and bulkheads, launch ramps, especially old ones, don't offer much hiding space, but apparently they offer so much food that shrimp use them anyway. Think of the fouling community--barnacles, worms, anemones, algae, and the like--on an old piling, and then think what it means to an opportunistic omnivore. It's no accident that John Ochsner could find bait right under his dock. Dick Houghland, a very fine charter captain who used to run his boat Mary Lou out of the Rod 'n Reel dock in Chesapeake Beach, used to catch enough shrimp from the bulkheads at the marina for a day's fishing. Grass shrimp spend much of the year in such areas. In the spring, dark-bottomed mud flats with southern exposure warm up quickly, and the shrimp come to them once the water temperature reaches 50 degrees or so. From then on, right around till Christmas, they can be had in shallow water, although late in the fall it may take some looking to find them, especially the big ones. Not much is known about where they go in really cold weather.

In mid-summer, though, the shrimp are abundant. Any good catch will include a number of gravid (or egg-bearing) females. Some will be shedding their shells, growing larger the same way crabs do. Yet the mature shells are naturally so soft it's hard to pick out those that have just molted. One thing that is noticeable is a parasite which causes a bulge in the carapace (the front body segment) on a few individuals. The parasite is an isopod (actually a relative of the shrimp), and while it must cause the shrimp some discomfort, the host always appears to be otherwise healthy. Fish certainly don't seem to mind the taste.

So how do you catch grass and sand shrimp? The easiest is for two people to pull a 15- to 30-foot fine mesh minnow seine (available at many fishing tackle shops) around the edge of a marsh. If you can find a submerged grass bed, so much the better. You may find more shrimp than you can use. Fortunately, they're easy to release alive.

Around tight spots like pier pilings and fallen trees, a 12-inch wide fine-mesh dip net like John Ochsner's does good work. The only problem is that its small size doesn't cover much ground, so unless the shrimp are plentiful, it takes a long time to catch a big mess for bait.

The rig that serious shrimp devotees use is a roller net. It has a rectangular frame, usually aluminum, with a wooden roller bolted onto brackets on its front edge, then a long handle in the back, and a deep bag made of fine-mesh netting. The frame (and the roller) may be 15- to 30-inches wide. Push the net with the roller working along the bottom. This is the best tool of all for working mud-bottomed coves, and it's big enough to work bulkheads or marsh edges at flood tide. Finding good concentrations of shrimp may take some exploring. My friend Bill Pike, who used to fish with shrimp from March through December, liked to work hard-bottomed marsh edges in tidal ponds and coves along the Severn River above Annapolis. He did so even into his early 80s, though he said walking through deep mud is too much work. He caught all he needed, but a younger friend who works for a local charter captain swears by mud bottoms. Try both and decide for yourself.

What do you do with shrimp? Around Annapolis, fish them on a simple two-hook bottom rig for white perch. Use fine wire hooks and thread three or more shrimp onto each. Some people like to thread a couple onto a shad dart and cast it around docks and fallen trees. On tidal fresh sections of rivers like the Choptank and the Rappahannock, the same rig will catch crappie, largemouth bass, and channel catfish.

Perhaps the most elegant use is to chum them around oyster bars and bridge pilings. That term means tossing out a thin but steady stream of shrimp to drift back with the tide from an anchored boat. Then drift shrimp-baited hooks in the chum line with spinning tackle. Traditionally, this is a very effective way to catch rockfish, when they're in season. Chumming shrimp also works on other species, like perch, speckled trout, and even flounder.

Keeping shrimp healthy in hot weather can be tricky. Direct contact with ice will kill them. Long-time shrimpers build small, stackable wooden boxes with screened bottoms. Stack the boxes in a cooler with ice on either side and keep the shrimp on the screens out of the water. Take out only a few at a time and keep a rag moistened with Bay or river water over them to keep them from drying out if they're on deck. One last thing: If you don't care to fish with your shrimp, eat them yourself. Start with fresh, live shrimp. Steam them and pinch off their heads. Eat the tails whole. The shells are soft enough to crunch up easily. The shrimp turn pink on cooking and taste like, well, shrimp. It's hard to make a meal of them, but they make great appetizers.

It's been a lot of years since that day on Hoskins Creek. The skiff I fish from now is more sophisticated than anything John Ochsner and I would ever have imagined, but there's a bracket on it that holds a shrimp net. It's difficult to imagine getting through a fishing season without grass shrimp.

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