by Wilson J. Gaidry, III
In my lifetime, shrimp and the shrimp fishery defined the Cajun people in Louisiana coastal communities more than any other factor.
It was the ambition of every young boy to own and operate a shrimp boat. There was an air of adventure, of challenge and honor to participate in the fishery, pride in the ownership of their boat and the self-reliance of a personal business. To give someone some fresh shrimp to cook or a young man bringing some fresh shrimp to his parents was about like bringing them gold.
Shrimp was the most sought after and valued resource in the fishing communities and more people participated in the harvest of shrimp than any other commercial fishery. Shrimp were a staple part of the people’s diet, not a luxury. A young boy’s first boat was a put-put, a cypress wood skiff 14 to 16 ft long, about 3 to 4 ft wide and had a one cylinder, 6 to 9 horse power Brigs and Stratton gasoline engine that made a sound like put, put, put.
Usually a 16 otter trawl was pulled by the boat to harvest shrimp. Sometimes boys as young as 12 years old were operating a put-put catching shrimp in the shallow bays near their homes during the summer months when the shrimp were plentiful in the shallow inland bays. Several decades after World War II was a wonderful, golden time in the Louisiana Shrimp fishery, as one old timer phrased it, when shrimp fishing was fun. It was a time of self regulations that the fishermen imposed on themselves through the legislature and enforced by the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries.
Shrimp were harvested by most fishermen from early spring until the fall by small boats in the inshore and near offshore waters. There were few full time shrimp fishermen. The people lived off the land and harvested the shrimp when they were most abundant in the inshore waters.
Beginning in March after the trapping season and sugar cane harvest fishermen began preparing their boats for the coming shrimp season; the Bayous were steaming with activity.
Wooden cypress boats were on ways being carked, planking changed, boats at the wharfs in front of people houses being painted; people sitting under live oak trees sewing nets, new cypress boats were being built in the front yards of the homes, the sweet smell of the fresh cut cypress wood. Anyone who had the ambition to buy some cypress lumber and build a boat could realize the joy and pride of owning and operating their own business.
Shrimp and the shrimp fishery is a vital part of the fabric of life for south Louisiana people, the culture, the food, livelihood; the old saga of men going to sea to feed the people of their communities and the women left behind to worry until they return. Most of the people in the bayou communities were of French or Indian descendants and Cajun French was the only language spoken. The very remote, lower parts of the bayous people had little communication with the outside world, most couldn’t read or write and few had radios.
On the first voyage of the season when the boat left the mouth of the bayou into the open Lakes, the old heavy wooden boat beginning to move under your feet and the smell and feel of salt air on your face was a feeling that exuberated all fishermen, the first shrimp caught went straight into the old black iron pot, we didn’t have refrigeration as now and fresh shrimp could only be had during the trawling seasons; I can still feel and taste the experiences so dear to me as plain now as it was 70 years ago.