A Day in the Life of a Calabash Shrimp Boat Captain

June 2019
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Paul Grimshaw

Board the Hurricane Shrimper to ply the Grand Strand waters

(Clockwise from top left) 9:50 a.m. - Captain Lee empties the starboard net and surveys the haul; Captain Lee Hickey and first mate Daniel “Lieutenant Dan” Thomas Mahone; 2:58 p.m. - As a treat for Dolphin Watch customers, we rendezvous with the Hurricane II and transfer interesting sea life to their onboard naturalist.

It’s a sad truth that as much as 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is not harvested from coastal U.S. waters. However, one item in particular for Grand Stranders—shrimp—should always be local, as our area waters are loaded with these tasty decapod crustaceans. Some 300 million pounds of shrimp are harvested annually around the coastal U.S., however each year an additional 1.5 billion pounds of shrimp are imported. At least two Grand Strand shrimpers would like to see that deficit reduced, even if just a little.

Those who harvest wild shrimp regionally work hard every day the weather permits to haul these tasty, fresh and healthy-to-eat beauties to market. Having recently spent the day with two tireless shrimpers aboard a 48-foot trawler, the Hurricane Shrimper, I learned both just how abundant the shrimp are and just how tricky and dangerous it is to get them into the boat and on to the plate.

7:30 a.m.

With the sun just barely up, I arrive at the Calabash, N.C., waterfront, still groggy even after two cups of coffee. I was to meet Captain Lee Hickey, 48, an experienced shrimper of some 15 years who’s fished the waters from Georgetown to Calabash and around his hometown near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Captain Lee pilots the shrimp trawler owned by the Hurricane Fleet group. His first mate, Daniel “Lieutenant Dan” Thomas Mahone, 63, a retired farmer and postman from Connecticut, had been Captain Lee’s first mate and assistant for just a month. Both men are U.S. military veterans and are friendly, talkative, suntanned and weathered from a lifetime of work outdoors. Captain Lee, with his short-cropped white hair and beard, is only missing a pipe to complete his look. Lieutenant Dan sports a long red ponytail and matching beard, making his Irish heritage unmistakable. The boat, built in 1987 in Supply, N.C., also shows her age and the beating she’s taken, but is solid as a rock (if not a little wobbly).

“It was originally supposed to be a fishing charter boat,” explains Captain Lee, “but midway through building they tuned it into a shrimp boat. It’s not as wide as most shrimp boats, so it rolls a good bit when the weather is bad. It’s a good boat though, you’ve just gotta understand her, and you gotta be a MacGyver on any shrimp boat.” Fortunately for all of us, the boat was running well and the weather was perfect with calm seas, not a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the 50s and climbing.

Leaving the dock before any of the other boats that day, we slowly chug out into the Little River Inlet, the V-8 diesel engine running as smoothly as the glassy waters of the Calabash River. We cross the invisible N.C./S.C. state line, which will become an important distinction. “North Carolina doesn’t have any shrimp ‘season’—it’s open year round, “ says Captain Lee. “South Carolina’s season hasn’t opened yet, so we have to make sure we stay north of the line before we drop our nets.” Picking up speed, and extremely top heavy, we lower the “wings,” which are the heavy steel outriggers used to drag the nets. “With the [wings] up, the wake from a big boat could tip us over,” explains Captain Lee matter-of-factly. I grip the side of the boat a little more tightly.

(Left) The Hurricane Shrimper at sunrise in Calabash, N.C.; (right) after the catch, shrimp are immediately layered in ice.

8 a.m.

The gulls follow along, perching on various parts of the boat, constantly sniping at each other in anticipation of the buffet to come. With their cries as the soundtrack to the morning, the salt air in my face and the sun slowly warming the small pilothouse, I feel the unmistakable romance of the sea and catch myself whistling the Old Spice deodorant theme song. The views passing Mink Island, Goat Island, Waties Island and Bird Island leading out to the rock jetties of Little River Inlet are beautiful to behold and little has changed over millennia. The wrecks of more than a few boats can be seen beached amongst the tall grasses, a lesson of the unforgiving toughness of life on the water. I am reminded of the nautical history of Inlet, where pirates once sought refuge and Civil War naval skirmishes filled the air with cannonballs.

8:30 a.m.

Having passed through the narrow channel between the Army Corps of Engineers’ rock jetties and the final navigational buoy, we are no longer in the Little River Inlet. We turn north and are officially in the Atlantic Ocean.

We cruise at 8 knots (9 mph), top speed, for another five minutes, almost parallel with Sunset Beach, heading to Captain Lee’s favorite spot. “You never know for sure where they’ll be,” he says. “They can move with the tide and be close to shore or further out, but there’s a mud strip here along the bottom that they seem to like.”

8:40 a.m.

Captain Lee takes the 32-year-old wooden trawler out of gear and we idle, but the engine is about the only thing idling. Both the captain and Lieutenant Dan begin a dance of organized chaos, handling a dizzying array of ropes, cables, blocks and powerful winches, all designed to spread the massive nets along the ocean floor. In a matter of minutes, the nets are set and the captain reengages his engines to do what we’ve come do.

“We’re shrimping now!” exclaims Lieutenant Dan, a wide smile showing on his ruddy face. “I think we’re going to have a good day.”

9 a.m.

The drag of the nets is immediately apparent in the way the engine moans and the boat rocks as one side or the other digs into the mud and sand some 25 feet below us. With the work of the moment complete, we have 30 minutes to discuss the shrimping life and what got each man to this place.

“I’ve shrimped just about everywhere,” says Captain Lee. “I owned my own shrimp boat for a while, but I’m much happier this way.” The men will share in the profits of the day’s haul. The first 45 pounds of shrimp caught cover fuel costs, and after that a split between Captain Lee, Lieutenant Dan and the boat’s owner settles the rest. These freshest of shrimp will sell for around $6 per pound on the docks to anyone who wants to buy them wholesale. The resellers at fish markets will sell the same shrimp for a little more, and a handful of grocery stores that care about local seafood might get $15 per pound.

“We can haul 400 pounds or more on a good day in the summer,” says Captain Lee. Lieutenant Dan has yet to see a catch that large. The early season days can be dismal, with a lot of time and energy expended for little or no pay. Bigger boats with sleeping quarters, galleys and iceboxes may stay out for several days at a time and go into deeper waters. Fresh shrimp straight out of the water and put on ice will stay good for up to four days, but because the Hurricane Shrimper doesn’t do overnights, the shrimp sold is rarely older than a day or so, possibly even just hours old if purchased when the boat comes in.

With all the hard work, no pay on bad weather days and low pay on bad shrimping days, why do it? “I love it out here,” says Captain Lee, who lives in Socastee with his wife and two teenage daughters. “The troubles of life melt away and it’s just you and the boat, the water and the shrimp.”

Lieutenant Dan agrees, but says his girlfriend gets mad sometimes about the long hours he spends shrimping. “I’ve lived in the area off and on for 10 years,” he says. “I used to come out to the docks to buy shrimp. I asked if I could go out a couple of times. I did, and they hired me on.”

9:40 a.m.

Captain Lee checks his watch and announces it’s time. More organized chaos ensues and I scramble to stay out of the way. A giant gear box threatens to chew up limbs and fingers and anything else that gets near it, so I try to give it a wide berth as it strains to haul the nets on board. When the nets reach the surface, Lieutenant Dan throttles up; a move designed to wash the shrimp of any remaining mud before hauling the catch on board. He idles back down while Captain Lee works the hydraulics. They communicate to one another through a series of yells and grunts that only they understand. First, one side’s haul is accumulated in a pouch, called the “cod-end,” at the bottom of the net as it comes out of the water. It’s full and heavy, and after it’s positioned over the center of the boat we lean sharply in the opposite direction. “I see shrimp,” says Captain Lee peeking through the net to get a closer look. He rips open the slipknot and the first haul of the day spills out across the deck.

The shrimp are abundant and massive and we all light up. They repeat the process and, with both port and starboard nets emptied, it’s clearly evident we’ve had a good first haul, 40 pounds or so. Before they can begin sorting, the nets are back in the water and we trawl in the opposite direction. “Sometimes one way will be good and the other bad,” says Captain Lee. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Lieutenant Dan has put on his yellow rain gear and kneels among the catch. There is more sea life flopping around than I’ve ever seen in one place. Among the string rays, squid, puffer fish, horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, cannonball jellies and silver fish, are the brown beauties we’re after. And they’re huge, the largest measuring almost seven inches from head to tail.

The sorting has to go quickly and I pitch in, grabbing the slimy jumping shrimp and throwing them into a plastic clothes basket before they’re weighed and placed in awaiting coolers on ice. The bycatch, anything that isn’t a shrimp or a squid, is shoveled through ports in the side of the boat. The squid are saved and sold to local fisherman as bait. “Local fish love local bait,” says Captain Lee. The rays, puffer fish, jellies, starfish, crabs and some of the fish will live to see another day. The rest of the fish become a banquet for the gluttonous birds, and my do they feast.

Pelicans are beloved for their comical stance, their great flapping jowls and their aeronautical symmetry when gliding over the water. These pelicans, however, are crazed, gangly feeding machines, fighting for position by the side of the boat and occasionally perching on anything solid. At one point I count nearly 100 of the massive birds. Then there are the seagulls. My untrained eye spots at least three different species. These birds, too, fight for scraps and perch on the rigging anywhere they can find footing. I’m warned to watch out for the pooping, though there’s no real way to avoid it. I’m pleased to say no one was shat upon, at least on that day.

Hundreds of pelicans follow the boat for a free and easy meal

10:45 a.m.

The next haul is poor; maybe five or six pounds. Disappointed, Captain Lee takes a new tack, heading closer to shore.

This time we drag for an hour, something Captain Lee doesn’t really like to do. “Some of these guys drag for three hours before they pull up,” he says, “but I don’t like that. It bruises the shrimp and they’re not in as good of shape when you pull them in. Dragging them in a net for three hours can even kill them. Plus, you don’t know if the shrimping is any good. Maybe you’ve wasted the last couple of hours.”

12:05 p.m.

After dragging relatively close to shore, from Bird Island to Sunset Beach, but not so close to get the nets literally stuck in the mud, we pull up a massive load and the boat rocks and tips as the weight distribution changes significantly. The load emptied on the deck is three times the size of the first load. Captain Lee and Lieutenant Dan are ankle-deep in fish and shrimp, and are again all smiles. I help sort for a while until my back threatens to mutiny. I locate my convenience store sandwich and soft drink and have lunch. “Don’t you eat lunch?” I ask Captain Lee. “Nope. I eat once a day. I’ll have something at home tonight.” I already know what I’ll be eating.

2 p.m.

While sorting, we are also again dragging and preparing to meet the Hurricane Fleet Adventure Cruise & Tour. The Hurricane II has had passengers out for a half-day in hopes of seeing dolphins and will eventually meet up with us to see a working shrimp boat in action. We’ve been saving a bag full interesting sea life from among the bycatch that we will throw to a mate on the other ship. An onboard naturalist will describe the critters to the passengers. We pull up our final haul for the day, another good one, and sort shrimp, all the while moving closer to our planned rendezvous.

3:30 p.m.

After meeting with the Hurricane II, Captain Lee and Lieutenant Dan begin the final, critical dance of the day—stowing the nets, and as we get closer to the Calabash dock, they’ll begin raising the outriggers.

An early day, we’re back at the dock, job well done with 140 pounds of shrimp.

4 p.m.

We tie up, right where we started, though now we have 140 pounds of shrimp to show for our efforts. Lieutenant Dan kindly snaps the heads off a dozen shrimp and wraps the plump bodies in a plastic bag for me. Captain and mate will deliver the shrimp to the office, where waiting customers are ready to buy what they know are the freshest shrimp anywhere on the Grand Strand.

“Will you go out again tomorrow?” I ask CaptainLee. He answers, “yes,” with a look on his face that makes it seem this answer should be obvious. “We go out every day the weather allows and the boat is working. Might be 15 or 20 days in a row. Can’t make any money tied up to the dock.”

This is the business. It takes hard work, a bit of luck and a lot of knowhow. We say our goodbyes and I thank the men for letting me experience the shrimping life, if even only for a day.


Use fresh shrimp from Captain Lee and Lieutenant Dan in this Shrimp Scampi recipe