Scanning the depth finder, our captain turned his boat toward the U.S.S. Alabama illuminated by rays from a rising sun at its mooring on the west bank of Mobile Bay.
“Those shrimp are on the bottom in about 18 to 20 feet of water,” advised Droop-y Williams, who shrimped these waters for nearly 45 years.
“We normally catch shrimp in three main places — the ship channel, the Tensaw River and the Blakely River. Shrimp move around quite a bit and we have to stay with them to find the best places to shrimp at certain times. Let’s see what’s here today.”
Working for Autrey’s Fish Camp only a few hundred yards away on the other side of Highway 98, Captain Williams put the motor in neutral and deployed his trawl about 100 to 150 feet behind his boat. Two
aluminum boards help spread the net. A chain dragging along the bottom in front of the net spooks hiding shrimp, causing them to jump up into the net.
“What I do is not that much different than what big commercial shrimp boats do,” Williams said. “They just use larger nets and drag longer because they don’t care if shrimp die. We have to keep our bait
shrimp alive. Th e state sets aside certain areas just for live bait shrimpers with permits. In some places, we can shrimp 365 days a year. In other places, we can only catch bait at certain times.”
Live bait boats can only drag a trawl no more than 16 feet long for a maximum of 20 minutes so shrimp don’t die in the net. After about eight minutes, Williams winched in his net and dumped the catch
into an aerated sorting tank. Th en, he and my son, Daniel, picked through the catch. Droop-y and Daniel dropped shrimp destined for live bait into another aerated tank and tossed everything else over
the side – to the delight of an assembled armada of pelicans looking for breakfast.
“We keep the premium shrimp for bait,” explained Ludger Lapeyrouse with Autrey’s Fish Camp. “We throw the smaller shrimp back so they can continue growing. Fishermen want medium to large shrimp. They don’t want to buy small shrimp for bait.” After picking through the catch, Williams headed for the bait shop. There, Lapeyrouse met the boat with a basket to transfer the shrimp to shop tanks while
Williams headed back out into the bay to make another haul. Depending upon how much he catches with each drag, Williams may pull his trawl two or three times a day. On Fridays, he frequently drags more to keep the shop supplied with enough bait for the weekend.
Sometimes, Droopy catches more than shrimp, fish and crabs in his trawl. After more than 300 years of ships entering the bay, several battles for dominance of the port and
uncountable hurricanes scattering debris over the centuries, who knows what lies on the muddy bottom.
“Once, I caught a 12-foot alligator in the net,” Droopy recalled. “One of the strangest things I ever caught was a doll that looked just like a human baby. I thought I caught a dead baby in the net.
Sometimes, we’ll pull up a rubber glove that fills with water. It sticks out of the net and looks like a person waving. I caught the top of a chimney once. I’ve caught rods and reels before. One was a good Ambassadeur reel. Once we cleaned it up, it was in really good shape.”
Autrey’s Fish Camp catches all of its own live shrimp. The store also sells live bull minnows, frozen squid, fresh and frozen shrimp, crickets and worms.