Shrimping in the Hood

Spot shrimping in Hood Canal isn’t glamorous, but there’s nothing like trapping your own dinner.

By Maria Dolan January 3, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Jim Nelson

BILL BUSCH CAME TO Hoodsport as a twentysomething in the 1960s, when shrimp season stretched all summer. Vacationers would soak their shrimp pots all day and feed a family reunion each night on the haul. By the 1970s the waters had been overfished—“Back then, this place was shrimped out,” says Busch—and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife imposed strict limits on the catch.

Thanks to those restrictions, the shrimp have come back and so have crustacean-seekers, but with restrictions: A licensed trapper on Hood Canal can catch 80 shrimp a day during a season that this year will last for only five hours on just a handful of days in May.

Busch still goes shrimping, along with his wife Melinda, commanding a 19-foot motorboat loaded with gear: four traps, shrimp bait, a mechanized trap puller, buckets of coiled line, and two coolers, all guarded by a rescued Pomeranian named Yogi. Last May, during the brief season, I joined Bill as he fired up the outboard, patted Yogi on the head, and putted slowly into the canal from a boat launch north of Hoodsport in search of our daily limit.

Ten minutes from shore, the depth finder located a good pot-dropping spot in 260 feet of water—within Bill’s preferred trapping depth of 250 to 270 feet. He baited four regulation-size traps, or “pots”: big, square, 30-inch cubes weighing a hefty 20 pounds apiece. “When it comes to bait,” Bill says, “everyone has their own secret ingredient.” I discovered his recipe in a cooler stuffed with freezer bags of salmon scraps, oysters, and horse clams. Bill grabbed handfuls of bait and crammed them into the bait cylinders. He drizzled a stinky oil labeled “Crab Pot’s Choice” on top like lighter fluid on a pile of charcoal.

Busch still goes shrimping, commanding a 19-foot motorboat loaded with gear and two coolers, all guarded by a rescued Pomeranian named Yogi.

A last ingredient emerged just as the smell of a shrimp’s breakfast began to fade—a can of Friskies ocean whitefish and tuna, rumored to be the best shrimp-catching kitty food since the legendary Puss N’ Boots brand fell off the market. Cat food, as it turns out, is classic spot-shrimp bait. Luckily, Bill was experimenting with baiting methods and left the smelly cat food out of my shrimp pot, which included a buoy bearing my name and address.

We began the routine of setting our four pots and then hauling them back in. I assumed we’d leave them at the bottom until 10 minutes before closing time while kicking back with a bag of chips, but only Yogi curled up for a nap. After Bill set the first few pots, I took over, throwing a trap overboard with a splash, then letting the line pay out over my gloved hand until the pot settled on the bottom. I clipped on a buoy marker, weighted the line, and then we shuttled to our next spot. Once we’d set all four traps, we motored back to see how the first pot had fared.

“Once you start pulling it in, you don’t want to stop. You want shrimp plastered to the bottom of the pot so they don’t escape,” Bill says as the noisy mechanical pot puller hauled in our first catch.

While he supervised, I focused positive vibes on the emerging bounty. But once the trap surfaced, my spirits sank like a well-weighted shrimp pot filled with Friskies. Just 20 spotted shrimp, the size of miniature lobsters, bounced and slid in the huge pot like teens at Wild Waves. As we scooted them into a bucket, tails clacking, the mini fauna revealed their charismatic side. Their copper eyes sparkled on stalks, and red and white stripes spiraled down their graceful antennae like barber poles. Four eponymous spots freckled each back.

That made the next job, shrimp head removal, even harder than expected. Melinda, coolly efficient, demonstrated the proper technique, plunging her thumb beneath the shell of the carapace (the shrimp’s head) and, with two hands, twisting it off like she was wringing out a soggy washcloth.

Twenty shrimp was a measly catch to these two veterans, but it represented one of our day’s better hauls. Nevertheless, we maintained a rhythm—Bill scanned for new places to drop a trap and steered the boat around collecting our buoys while I stood by, tossing, pulling, and pleading with Neptune. Melinda kept up the shrimp processing and called out “Pitiful!” and “Horrible!” according to whether we had caught 10 shrimp or, at a low point, one.

After all the hard work, we’d scored only two of our three 80-shrimp limits by the end of the day. Worse was arriving at the launch to find that most of the other shrimpers had caught their limits. Several people reported catching at shallower depths than usual, and there was speculation that the canal’s recent problems with low dissolved oxygen might be at issue.

Still, I drove home with 55 shrimp in my cooler, and among Seattle’s urbanites, that meant success. My friends and I grilled them with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt and ate them greedily. They were as sweet as everyone said they’d be—as long as I didn’t think about those cute barber-pole antennae.

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