The Mississippi River offers intrigue and a tantalizing bounty
By David Hunter JonesThe Mississippi River holds intrigue and fortune, but for the Folse family of St. James, it’s all about family, Louisiana tradition and a little known crustacean, river shrimp.
The Mississippi River shrimp is a link to the Folses’ past, ties them together and puts food in their pot. While the shrimp are abundant, they’re largely neglected today by recreational shrimpers, which is a shame because they’re so accessible and tasty.
Jay Folse grew up on the banks of the Mississippi around Donaldsonville, fishing, playing and working. Today he still works on the river as a pipeline terminal scheduler for NuStar Energy. When he’s not at the plant, he spends his free time with his family in a variety of outdoor pursuits. He’s an accomplished hunter and takes his three children afield with him whenever possible. However, the outdoor pursuit he’s most passionate about is shrimping on the Mississippi’s flooded banks.
“Catching these shrimp is part of my heritage; it’s what my grandparents did and my wife’s grandparents did,” he said. “I want to pass it down to my kids. Plus, it keeps them off the TV and video games and if I can entertain with good, clean fun … that’s just one more thing going right.”
When he goes shrimping, Folse isn’t without any combination of his children – Ali, Jake and Ross. The way he does it hasn’t changed since the early 1900s. A box, some mesh wire and old vegetables are all it takes to fill a pot with these tasty crustaceans.
What are they?
The vast majority of the shrimp Folse catches are females that are migrating down river to spawn. Most all of them have hundreds of eggs clinging to their bellies as they head to the Gulf to hatch their brood. Once there, the fry head back upriver, where they will spend most of their life until it’s time to spawn. Before the numerous lock-and-dam structures along the river, these shrimp used to range as far north as Illinois and Missouri.
Now the majority of them are in the southernmost reaches of the river, where there’s a healthy population.
How do you catch ‘em?
Folse’s boxes are made from cypress, mostly barn doors and slats from old homes. In general, he maintains a “clean” side and a “dirty” side in his boxes.
The dirty side houses the bait and is where the shrimp enter through a pair of wire-mesh funnels on the bottom and a single on the side. They then travel to the “clean” side that has more bait. This is where they are collected. Also in the box are varying amounts of weights, from old railroad spikes to iron plates. A well-made cypress box can last up to 30 years.
Placement in the river is key to shrimping success.
“You want the box to float about 12 inches off of the bottom, tied to a tree, with the top flush with the water’s surface. They like to come in through the bottom funnels,” Folse said. “If it’s sitting on the bottom, you won’t have much luck. They’ll usually be sufficiently waterlogged to float without any added weight within 10 days of being submerged.”
Setting your boxes is easy when the flooded river is maintaining its level, but is made challenging when the water is fluctuating. You need to gauge how fast the river is rising or falling so your box will be at the appropriate depth when you check it two or three days after you plant it. Throughout 70-plus years shrimping, the Folse family has learned that a combination of watermelon rinds, cucumbers and beef bones is the ticket for bait.
Folse will generally change the bait each time he checks the boxes depending on their state of decay. Also, if you can find it, cotton seed meal cake is excellent bait and a throwback to the old days of shrimping in this manner. On a banner day with good bait, you can expect 2 to 3 pounds of shrimp per box.
Key to success
“What’s funny, is that sometimes a box will have three pounds of shrimp in it and the next time you check it there’s hardy any,” he said. “The thing about it is the bait. The bait has to be right; you don’t want that brand-new smell, and you don’t want old rotten stuff, either. The bait is more important than the spot.”
Making a box to Folse’s standards takes roughly six hours.
Other designs will work fine, just keep the principle the same – a bait section, a trap section and several ports of entry for the shrimp in the bait section.
Like Jay Folse, the river fishermen get the most enjoyment out of this simple pasttime if it’s enjoyed with family and friends.