Brayden Callahan likes his South Carolina shrimp steamed with a swoosh of garlic butter. And now that he has learned how the tasty crustaceans find their way to his plate, he has a whole new appreciation for his favorite seafood.
"It was the first time I had seen a live shrimp," Callahan said. "They're much slimier than the ones you buy at the grocery store."
Vagabond offers the shrimp trawler tours during South Carolina's shrimp season, which typically runs from late May through February. The excursions offer Hilton Head Island visitors the opportunity to experience a Lowcountry tradition struggling to survive.
In the last 20 years, the number of South Carolina permits issued for commercial trawling has declined more than 50 percent from 887 to just 406.
Docked at The Sea Pines Resort's Harbour Town marina, the Tammy Jane trawls the waters of Calibogue Sound along Grenadier Shoal, a sandbar off the edge of Daufuskie Island. In the summer, the target catch is brown shrimp; in the fall and winter, it's white shrimp. Both are similar in size and taste delicious.
The average catch weighs in at 7 to 8 pounds, but it can vary from just a handful of medium-size shrimp to 50 pounds of the delectable seafood. Whatever is caught is distributed to the passengers.
"That's the part I like best - taking the shrimp home and eating them," said Callahan's buddy, Nick Germain, whose family first started taking the tours some five years ago during their annual fall vacation to Hilton Head Island.
At the helm of the trawler is Captain Spike Ivory, a salty dog with 20 years of experience in the wheelhouse. "I'm the only shrimp boat captain who has to go out and buy his own shrimp," he quipped.
Joining Ivory on the shrimp-trawling cruises are a first mate and an interpretive guide who describes the process and equipment used to catch the shrimp. In the summer, Coastal Ecology students from the University of South Carolina-Beaufort serve as the narrators.
Once near the shoal, the crew drops two large wooden doors, which are used to open the mouth of the 52-foot-long net and keep it on the bottom. The net was hand-sewn by Daufuskie Gullah, descendants of African slaves who worked on the island's rice plantations.
In front of the net are tickler chains that drag through the sand, causing the shrimp to jump and get drawn into the mouth of the net.
A turtle excluder device or TED fitted into the neck of the shrimp trawl, keeps sea turtles and large fish from being captured in the net. Smaller fish, including sea trout, croakers, Florida pompano and ribbon fish are unable to escape. Other bycatch can include baby sharks, squid, ghost crabs, manta rays, skates and jellyfish.
Traveling at about 2 knots, the Tammy Jane spends approximately 45 minutes trawling along the shoal. To pull in the net, the crew uses a lazy line and a hydraulic winch. The contents are dumped on a sorting table at the stern of the boat.
After a short demonstration on how to pinch off the heads of the shrimp, passengers are invited to help with the task.
"We'll eat well tonight," said Nick's mom, Meredith Germain, surveying the 20 pounds of shrimp piled on the table. "Fresh shrimp are so delicious."