When Bryan was a kid growing up just outside of New Orleans proper, his dad owned a small shrimp boat. He has lots of little-boy memories about waking up before dawn and trawling for shrimp. But the boat was gone long before Mandy and I were part of the family.
Now Bryan’s dad’s (and brother) bought another little shrimp boat. He offered to take off work the Friday before Michael’s wedding so that Mandy and I could go trawling. Mandy was excited, because she loves shrimp and crab. “Hey meat! Get in the net!” She thought all this food-catching business was a great idea.
We were up at four on Friday to drive to Myrtle Grove, an hour or so south from New Orleans. The morning light was just showing over the water as we launched the boat and headed out to the edge of Barataria Bay.
The working boats in the water were beautiful in the early morning light, and the little camps were fun to daydream about. What would it be like to live in the water, like this, even for part of the year? What would my life become, just tied to the rise and fall of the water and the sun and the shrimp and the crabs? Would I have a clock? Would I need one?
I didn’t have the first part of an idea about how trawling works, so I had to be taught every little detail. First, the trawl (south Louisiana for “big special net with chains and boards attached to it”) has to be dropped out into the water behind the boat. There’s a chain that drags the bottom, stirring up the shrimp and whatever else are down there. There are boards to hold the net open so the catch is funnelled into the net, and the net itself is long and tapered, with a knot at the bottom to hold in the catch.
Once the net’s been thrown out for the first time, there’s not much to do. I took a nap on the front of the boat in the warm first-thing-in-the-morning sunshine while Bryans brother Kevin drove the boat around in big circles in the bay. After about an hour of trawling, we pulled the net in and alongside the boat and up to the picking box.
The picking box is a long, shallow metal box sitting across the front of the boat. It looks a little like a section of rain gutter, but it’s much bigger. The contents of the net are dumped into this box to be sorted through. We were shrimping, but that’s not to say that we only caught shrimp; the truth is that we caught everything that the chains stirred up from the bottom of the bay.
And so we caught shrimp, and we also caught a lot of little fishes and some crabs and some oysters and some big clods of dirt. Yes, I ate a fresh-from-the-sea-caught-by-us-and-opened-by-Bryan oyster. No, I did not like it.
I was surprised by what we caught in the trawl. My favorites were the stingrays – we caught three, I think, including this fine fellow, who would have measured a couple of feet from tip to tail. Rays are a kind of beautiful that makes me wonder if they’re really from the same world I’m from. And really, I guess they’re not. This bay is their place, down at the bottom of the shallow water, rippling along, doing whatever rays do. I’m just a visitor here, and an unwelcome one at that. So as Bryan gingerly boosted them out of the boat and back into the water, I said a little apology, almost like a prayer.
As soon as the trawl’s pulled in and dumped into the picking box, it’s thrown back into the water. Kevin started moving the boat again as Bryan, JD, Mandy, and I picked out the catch from the last trawl. We pitched out the big stuff – the dirt clods and oysters and bigger fishes. We grabbed the bigger crabs and threw them into a corner of the boat (we’ll deal with them later). Then we settled into the more tedious dirty work of sorting out the shrimp from the little crabs and herding the crabs sideways out of the picking box and into the water. At the end, we’d wash the shrimp remaining in the box with buckets of water from the bay, and then scoop them into big white coolers and layer them with ice. When we finished, there was a little time to rest before pulling in the next trawl.
After lunch (around 9am… I told you we got up early!), we pulled in the nets and put things away and headed back to the truck. I got to see some ‘real’ shrimp boats, the kind run by a crew of three or four people for whom shrimping isn’t a fun thing to do when you visit your in-laws, but a real business that they rely on to make real money to support real families. They’re work boats but they’re also very pretty, all white and grey and blue with the nets like the roof of some far-away temple.
Our little catch of shrimp rode back mixed in with ice in the coolers. Our big crabs with their big claws were carefully moved from the floor of the boat to the picking box for the trip.
Bryan and Mandy and JD sat on the coolers while Kevin drove. And I perched on the front of the boat with a big silly grin on my face, all the way back to the truck at Myrtle Bay. A minor problem with the truck kept us at the boat ramp for a bit, and then there was the long sleepy ride back to the house to unload the boat and clean things up.
There were new things for me to learn all day. I watched while Bryan and his dad rinsed out the big long net in the front yard, being sure to get all the little pieces of shell and weed and mud out of the fabric mesh. They looked over the holes torn by the oyster beds earlier in the morning and talked about the old guy who used to fix the nets for them, an art being lost with all the other knowledge held by all the old people all over the world. They rolled up the net in a big loose bundle and laid it on the big wooden chair on the front porch. And before I even got around back, there was a big pot of water boiling on the backyard burner, ready for the crabs we’d caught just hours before.