Gulf Coast anglers rely on this bait, but how do bait shops get live shrimp?
We don’t have to go too far along the Alabama coast to find a bait-and-tackle shop that caters to the various needs of anglers. In every shop there will be racks of rods and reels, rows of hooks, line and sinkers, plus row after row of artificial lures.
In most of the bait-and-tackle shops, somewhere toward the back, bubbling water and the quiet hum of a circulating water pump can be heard. This is where the real fish-catching baits are found.
Live shrimp are sold by the thousands on most fishing days in Alabama, and most shops are careful to carry a good supply of these lively, sharp-horned crustaceans. One of these reliable bait-and-tackle shops is located on the western shore of Mobile Bay on the road leading to Dauphin Island.
Jemison’s Bait and Tackle offers live shrimp for anglers to purchase, and has done so for many years. Jemison’s live shrimp are all wild shrimp that are captured and brought to the shop for sale by the owner, Harry Jemison.
For 27 years, Jemison has gone aboard his shrimp boat—he’s had four different boats in that 27-year span—and gone shrimping to catch live shrimp for sale in his shop.
How the Shrimp are Caught
Jemison uses a 35-foot LaFitte Skiff built in Harvey, Louisiana, when he goes live shrimping. This boat pulls either 16 or 25-foot nets. The size depends on the season.
A big difference between commercial shrimping for human consumption and the live bait trade is in the length of the individual pulls when the shrimp are actually netted. Live bait must be removed from the nets quite often. If not, the live bait is not alive for very long. This puts demands on the shrimper, and it is more work. Boats used to catch live shrimp must also have very good holding tanks to ensure that the maximum number of shrimp make it to shops alive.
“Each year it’s seasonal,” Jemison says. “It depends on the weather. We sell the most live shrimp during tourist season. A lot of things affect the number of shrimp we catch. The moon, salinity of the water, and fishing pressure influence the shrimp fishing. They’ll spook from too many boats working them.”
The majority of shrimp used for live bait fishing in Alabama are the native brown shrimp. “White shrimp are harder to find at certain times,” he says. “Brown shrimp are more certain and reliable.” As far as the location where the shrimp are caught, Jemison says that both Mobile Bay and Portersville Bay are places he often pulls nets when he’s after live shrimp.
Jemison gives this advice to folks who are thinking about going into the live shrimping business. “You need to like hard work and know something about shrimp and where they should be.” Also, folks going into the live shrimping business need to be prepared for hard work every day. “During the main fishing season,” says Jemison, “I run a shrimping trip every day—no exceptions. It’s a busy time.”
The advantages of catching your own shrimp for the live sales market are primarily about quality shrimp that can be offered to anglers. “The biggest advantage is I can get quality shrimp when I catch it and sell it myself,” Jemison adds. “If I buy it from others, I don’t know what it will be. It may not be the quality I want to sell.”
Each year is different as far as when the shrimp will be large enough to be caught for bait use. But most years, by the second or third week of May, the brown shrimp have grown large enough to profitably be netted and sold.
Problems with Live Shrimp Fishing
When asked the biggest problems involved with the bait shrimp-catching business, Harry Jemison says, “The price of fuel and the amount of shrimp we can catch can be big problems.”
“We can only catch and keep seventy pounds of live shrimp at a time,” he adds. “We can take a seventy-pound load home, and then return and pick up another seventy-pound load of live shrimp. This is different from commercial shrimping for human consumption. They have basically unlimited catch quotas.”
Of course, weather and temperature can present problems for live shrimp catchers. The number and size of live shrimp vary from season to season, and it can be very hard to find catchable shrimp in winter and early spring. Also, upstream freshwater surges from heavy rains and floods can make live shrimp catching very difficult.
“When the shrimp are small and scarce,” Jemison says, “it’s hard to justify loading a shrimp boat and taking it out to pull for shrimp.”
Many live shrimp never make it to shops and into anglers’ live wells because of high water temperatures. Hot weather and hot water are very hard on live shrimp, and live-shrimp boats must have very good aeration systems on board to keep the shrimp in good shape until they reach the shops.
Economics of the Live-Shrimp Market
Live-bait shrimping presents anglers and shrimpers alike with economic restrictions. It all comes down to supply and demand. The demand is always going to be present from anglers. As Alabama guides tell us, live shrimp are simply the most reliable bait for inshore fishing.
“In Mobile Bay, the shrimp migration is key to fishing,” Captain Keith Powell says. “I’m going fishing in a few minutes, and I’ve just bought live shrimp. When they won’t eat anything else, they’ll eat live shrimp.”
Captain David Rice agrees. “Live shrimp is vital to the fishery,” he says. “It’s the go-to bait for big trout. Also, live shrimp is the best bait for inexperienced anglers.”
So why do live shrimp cost considerably more at some times of the year, but some years they are less expensive?
It comes down to how much it costs the shrimpers to catch and get the shrimp to the shops. Fuel and quantity of shrimp largely determine the cost paid by anglers. “If there are lots of shrimp and gas is low, prices of live shrimp will be low, too,” says Harry Jemison.
When asked to predict this year’s potential for shrimp availability, Harry laughs and says, “It’s hard to predict what will happen. I’m just guessing, but it looks pretty good. But if a lot of freshwater comes down the system, it could delay the time of catchable shrimp. They may be okay, or freshwater may hurt them.”
This article first appeared in the June 2011 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.
Important contact Information:
Jemison’s Bait and Tackle
16871 Dauphin Island Parkway
Captain David Rice
Captain Keith Powell