Quintessentially Lowcountry: Shrimp baiting -- a food fest going back generations

At first, Mike Linker and his fishing buddy didn't know what to make of the poles that stretched hundreds of yards along the shoreline as they cruised the Beaufort River one night 20 years ago.

But they started to catch on after they slowed to watch the other boaters throw their cast nets toward the markers and haul the river's bounty to their decks.

Then -- in a breach of law and etiquette -- Linker decided to toss his net, too, and he pulled in with a single throw more shrimp than he would expect to catch in an entire afternoon.

Just like that, Linker was hooked on shrimp-baiting.

"It's a lot like fishing," said Linker, a Shell Point resident who worked in carpentry and construction back then and is a fishing guide these days. "You learn as you go along, the more you do it."

What he learned that first night -- in addition to the fact that balls of mud and fish meal had been placed near those poles to attract the shrimp -- is that you shouldn't cast near someone else's poles and that you're not supposed to cast near your own either, unless someone in your party has a license from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

"The fella whose poles we were throwing to was nice about it and said, 'If you help us make bait, you can fish on our poles,' " said Linker, who has mixed his own bait and secured his own license in each of the 19 seasons since.

The state's 2009 shrimp-baiting season opened Sept. 11 and will close at noon Nov. 10.

Though license sales have declined each year since a peak of 17,497 in 1998 -- 8,346 licenses were sold last season -- shrimp-baiting remains a popular pastime along the South Carolina coast, particularly in the Lowcountry.

Linker said he usually shrimp-baits once a week during the season and will haul in about 200 pounds in all. Nonetheless, he thinks it's a money-losing venture.

"Once you figure in the cost of fuel, the wear and tear on your boat, the bait ... heck, you're probably better off just going to Gay Seafood with a 100-dollar bill," Linker said.

Still, "it's a fun thing to do and go out and drink a few beers," he said. "If I wasn't doing that, I'd be home watching TV, anyway."

Linker tapped his two decades of shrimp-baiting experience to pass along tips to Beaufort Gazette readers new to the experience.

The basic technique: Although you can bait from land or a private dock, most prefer to shrimp-bait from a boat. Once on the water, the shrimper uses long poles -- state law limits each party to 10 poles, each of which must have an official tag from DNR affixed to its end -- to mark the location of the bait. The poles are set in a single row, about 20 to 30 feet apart, and bait balls are tossed into the water about six to 10 feet from each pole.

After waiting for the bait to settle and attract shrimp -- usually about a half-hour -- the boat is maneuvered from pole to pole, with a throw of the cast net over the bait at each approach. The technique works best with two people in the boat -- one driving, one throwing the net.

Helpful hint: Teamwork helps. Try to establish a rhythm so the driver is repositioning the boat while the thrower is emptying the net, arriving at the next pole just in time for the next throw.

Preparing the bait: Bait can be made of just about anything a shrimp will eat, including chicken feed and dog food. When Linker started shrimp-baiting, many fishermen used a mixture of pluff mud and fish meal. These days, a bag of powdered clay replaces the mud. Bags of clay and fishmeal can be bought at many feed-and-seed and bait-and-tackle stores.

First, Linker mixes the dry ingredients in a big drum -- about five gallons of clay with five gallons of fishmeal. Water is added to make a doughy substance that isrolled into grapefruit-sized balls. Linker said he usually makes three balls for each pole.

Helpful hint: Wear gloves and hold your nose. Wet fishmeal smells awful.

Helpful hint II: Before tossing the bait balls into the water, flatten them into a hamburger shape. This will prevent them from rolling away from your poles if you're marking a sloped area or baiting in heavy current.

Best time to shrimp bait: You can shrimp bait any time, but most say nighttime is more productive. A rising tide usually is most productive, Linker said.

Helpful hint: Linker likes to go when the tide is on the rise around sundown. That allows him to scout the area and place his bait while the sun is still out.

Best places to shrimp-bait: Seek shallow water, particularly near grass lines and place your bait balls five to 10 feet from the poles, so that you don't have to knock them down to get your cast net over the baited area.

Helpful hint: Linker usually makes a few "free casts" before placing his poles and bait. If he catches a few shrimp that way, he knows he'll probably have a productive night. If not, he moves to another location.

Equipment you'll need: A cast net, a bucket to hold your bait, a cooler to hold your shrimp and a light if you're out at night.

Helpful hint: Use the largest cast net you can throw effectively. (Linker usually uses an 8-foot net.) If you cannot throw one, drive the boat. The dark deck of a moving vessel is no place to learn.

To download a shrimp-baiting license application: Go to www.dnr.sc.gov/regs/pdf/shrimpbaitinglic.pdf