At the start of football season, two ‘bonus opportunities’ for seafood harvesting have long drawn families to the water.
Out of certain ports on Florida’s west coast, scallops are the draw. Near the east coast, the top target for seafood collectors is the St. John’s River shrimp.
The St. John’s shrimp run usually commences at Jacksonville and spreads upriver (southward) through August, September, and October. But it’s a run that can be interrupted — or ended — prematurely.
Most often it’s excessive rainfall that causes the precious crustaceans to head back toward the ocean as fast as they can swim. But now and then, on ideal weather years, we have seen them remain within the riverbanks past Thanksgiving.
For shrimping enthusiasts, these are the epic years since, of course, the longer they stay, the larger they grow.
These epic shrimping years don’t come around very often, but so far, so good for this one. Hurricane Idalia shook things up mightily on the gulf side, but the St. John’s side and the fall shrimp were unaffected.
There hasn’t been a top-notch, wide-open St. John’s shrimp run for a few years. That might be why they seem a bit forgotten this season. While scalloping has boomed through recent years, shrimping excitement seems to have faded.
Twenty-five years ago, the annual run of saltwater shrimp up the St. John’s commanded as much attention as a seafood-gathering pastime as scalloping did. These days, while the shallow gulf flats are packed with snorkeling vacationers, the mighty river on the other side of the state might, by comparison, look deserted.
But it looks to me like folks are missing out. Right now, the shrimp are definitely present.
A customer early last week claimed to have “caught my 5-gallon limit in 10 throws of the net” near Palatka.
That sounded too good to be true, but it was good to know that heavy waves of shrimp were evidently traveling through our closest stretch of the big river.
I had a chance to fish out of Palatka with top young bass angler, Carson Kamien on Sept. 15. While we cast for bass near the boat ramp through the early hours, I looked around for boats out in mid-river and flying cast nets. There were only a couple.
I wondered how to interpret this. Could it be that the good reports were exaggerated? Or is it another social anomaly such as younger people simply no longer excited about participating in this kind of messy, hot outdoor fun?
While pondering this, I kept fishing and watching.
Occasionally, a shrimp did kick up into the air, likely spooked by a fish below. But it wasn’t until we made a couple-mile run upriver that I saw evidence of a truly heavy shrimp presence.
When we shut down, Carson said, “They’ve (the bass) been schooling on this stretch.”
And, sure enough, within a few minutes the surface erupted with bass chasing shrimp that were squirting into the air to escape. Over the next hour or so, scores of bass broke the surface in a shrimp-eating frenzy. We found soft plastic lures that mimicked the prey closely enough to fool the fish, and we caught several ranging from 1 to 3 pounds.
I had seen St. John’s bass schooling on fall-run shrimp, but never this many or spread out over such a large area.
Unlike in past years, it wasn’t so much the reports from net-throwing shrimpers that gave away their abundant presence, but instead for us, it was an impressive visual display.
The fishing that morning was fun for sure, but the seafood lover in me sure wished we’d had a cast net on board.