Thanks to Tina Toomer of Bluffton for sharing a story she wrote last Monday about a treasured Lowcountry tradition.
The Toomer family has been in the commercial seafood business in Beaufort County for more than 100 years. Today, Larry and Tina Toomer operate the Bluffton Oyster Co. on the May River, and a seafood restaurant in Bluffton.
THE BIG DAY
By Tina Toomer
Shrimp season opens today in the Lowcountry.
I can remember 20 years ago the excitement when we received the notice in the mail from the state Department of Natural Resources. Shrimpers would call other shrimpers to make sure they received the notice, and docks would come alive again. Shrimpers would start mending nets, cleaning decks, rounding up crew and making plans for the "big day."
Twenty years ago, there was a lot of action on the docks. Unfortunately, today there are fewer and fewer boats still shrimping our waters. But the excitement is the same.
When we received word a few weeks back that shrimp season would open today, preparation began on our boat. My husband, Larry, had already been shrimping in the provisional waters but it is not the same as the "big day."
Years ago when it was just Larry and me on the boat, he would be working the nets and getting the boat prepared while I was cleaning the galley and preparing the inside of the boat. We would stock up on groceries, pack our bags and head out to sea. We would always go out the night before and anchor up with the other boats, mostly in Calibogue Sound, to make sure we were "on time" the next morning when the season officially opened.
We would eat a good meal, watch "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" and hit the bunks. We would awake about 4 a.m. Larry would start the engine, and I would start the coffee and head to the back to pull the anchor. (It was a huge anchor.) We would head to the "fishing spot" and wait for the clock. You could not drop your nets until official starting time.
The fishing grounds 20 years ago were packed with boats. I can remember Larry putting me on the wheel so he could hit the back deck to drop the nets. All I could see in front of me were big, huge shrimp boats. I was scared to death and could not wait for my husband to get back on the wheel.
The fishing spot was determined by the captain weeks before, and he (Larry) would change his mind 20 million times before he decided where to go. It is always a gamble and you just hope you have chosen the right location. Our motto was "we get what the good Lord gives you and be grateful." I always said the deck was empty when we left the dock so whatever we get is whatever we get.
The excitement was the same as Larry prepared to hit the waters today for shrimp season, other than I could not go. Someone had to stay home and run the oyster factory. We went to the grocery store last night to get his and the crew's food for the day and I could not help but have some jealousy in there but, oh well ...
He left this morning at 3:30 (he does not want to go and stay out overnight because we have family now and we are not as young as we used to be). I wished him luck, told him to be careful and went back to sleep. I had to get up an hour later to go pick up Ms. Hattie from Hilton Head Island because the ladies are shucking oysters today.
I called Larry as I was heading toward the bridges and he said, "Look out when you go over the second bridge and you can see me." So as I was headed over the second bridge with the "super moon" shining over the waters, our shrimp boat "Daddy's Girls" was going under the bridge. If someone could have taken a picture, the outriggers on the boat would have been touching my car on the bridge. I called my husband and said, "Honey, we are touching!" He said that sounds like a love story. I got a knot in my throat and I prayed for him and his crew's safety and thanked the good Lord for whatever he would put on our deck that day.
A lot has changed in 20 years in the shrimping industry. There are fewer and fewer boats hitting the water. Imports, fuel costs and the economy have put a lot of fishermen out of business. The ones who are still going work hard. Very hard.
The next time you see a shrimp boat working, wave to the crew. They might see you, they might not. The next time you order shrimp in a restaurant or buy from a grocer ask, "Is it local?"
Please support our industry when you can -- otherwise, the boats will keep getting fewer and fewer. Help us keep the "love story" going.