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Seasons of the shrimp: in times of plenty, and days of "ain't got none," how to serve shrimp to Florida gamefish.

You walk into a bait shop pre-sunrise with the intent of buying a couple of dozen shrimp. You are met with the day-crushing nod toward your yellow bait bucket and the answer to the question before you even ask.

"Ain't got none."

Those words can trigger even the most contemplative angler's frustration.

And, of course, the bait shop attendant will add to the frustration, saying the shrimp truck should be there by ten.

In the inevitable conversation that emerges in the fog of disappointment, you ask your buddy in the same tone you asked him about his divorce, "Well, what do you want to do now?"

"Dunno," comes the response; your buddy's voice hefting defeat. "We could try frozen. I've got some artificials. Or we could wait four hours, maybe miss the morning bite."

This conversation often unfolds at bait shops in the summer, when shrimp are difficult to come by. But "ain't got none" is also a common refrain in the winter, when demand for bait shrimp skyrockets. Understanding shrimp life cycles and coordinating your fishing strategies around anticipated shrimp availability can decrease the frustration associated with the "ain't got none" times.

Getting to Know Shrimp

Shrimp earn their reputation as top-tier bait because they are a primary or secondary forage food for nearly all inshore and nearshore species. There are approximately 3,000 species of shrimp throughout global oceans, and they inhabit sea floors, estuaries and other coastal regions in nearly all parts of the world, including tropical and polar regions. Interestingly, only about 20 species of shrimp are commercially harvested for human consumption. Because of their abundance and appeal, shrimp are one of the most ideal saltwater baits available, and one of the most often imitated baits in the realm of artificial baits.

To simplify, shrimp can be separated into two categories: decapods (literally "ten-footed") and non-decapods. But that really is an oversimplification as scientists consider the word shrimp to apply to a large range of kinds of animals. Shrimp are distinguished from other crustaceans like crabs or lobster by their pleopods or "swimmerets" which make shrimp more adroit at swimming than walking, as crabs and lobsters are.

Generally speaking, the shrimp's body is divided into two segments: the cephalothorax, which is comprised of the head and the thorax, and the abdomen. The protective shell of the cephalothorax--the carapace--is usually thicker and harder than the other parts of the shell. A shrimp's gills are protected under the carapace. The shrimp's "beak" (rostrum) extends from the front of the carapace and is used as a weapon in both defense and aggression. Anyone who has reached into a bucket of live shrimp knows what the prick of a shrimp's rostrum feels like. The rostrum also contributes to the shrimp's ability to stabilize its body when swimming backwards.

The shrimp's eyes are attached to stalks that extend from the carapace on either side of the rostrum. Shrimp have compound eyes which provide panoramic vision.

Shrimp generally have four antennae, two long and two short, which are used as sensory receptors for touch, smell, and taste. Some research shows that the long antennae are used primarily for orientation within the shrimp's immediate surroundings. The short antennae are used to gauge the viability of food.

The abdominal portion of the shrimp's body is segmented and muscular. Six segments of the abdomen are protected by six independent shell sections that overlap one another. The forward five segments of the abdomen each have a pair of appendages on the shrimp's underside. The shrimp primarily uses these 10 appendages (hence, decapod)--known as pleopods or swimmerets--for forward locomotion. Behind the sixth abdominal segment, the telson is the posterior-most segment of the shrimp's body. Uropods flank the telson and are used for reverse propulsion and steering while forward swimming. We tend to think of the telson, uropods, and sixth segment together as the shrimp's tail.

In Florida, the most common shrimp are penaeidae, warm water shrimp. Penaeidae shrimp are most common in nearshore waters, thus easier to get to and also a more-familiar forage for inshore species. In all, there are 25 species of penaeidae shrimp. In Florida, we harvest three of these species: pink shrimp (Farfantepenaeus duorarum), white shrimp [Litopenaeus setiferus), and brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus). We also harvest two others--royal red shrimp and rock shrimp--but these are deepwater shrimps, less familiar to inshore species as a food target. White and brown shrimps are the primary bait shrimp.

Brown shrimp are most often found in waters less than 180 feet in depth, and they require higher salinity levels than white shrimp. Browns spawn throughout the year, but most actively spawn between May through July, tapering off through September.

White shrimp require shallower water with less salinity than brown shrimp. They are found primarily along Florida's Atlantic coast, particularly north of New Smyrna, and their peak spawning times occur between September and December.

Pink shrimp are most abundant in southern Florida waters, with major landings in the Gulf of Mexico by fleets based in Key West and Fort Myers. Adult pinks spawn in winter and spring, and their nocturnal movements through the Florida Keys island chain, and in and around South Florida's Intracoastal Waterway, prompt major feeding frenzies by predatory fish such as snook, tarpon, king mackerel and snappers. Many local anglers also enjoy catching pink shrimp by scooping them out of lighted waters with a long-handled dipnet; it's a big tradition in the Miami area which may be observed on a cold February night.

Though most familiar as residents of shallow, nearshore water, adult penaeidae shrimp lay eggs in deeper water. Shrimp eggs are tiny, almost invisible to the naked eye. They are also heavy and many sink to the bottom or drift low in the water column. Shrimp eggs mature rather quickly. Depending upon temperatures, white shrimp usually spawn two or three times from late spring until fall. Brown shrimp, too, spawn multiple times, often throughout the entire year. The late summer overlap of white and brown spawning, though, affects availability in bait shops, with the months of July, August, and September often the most frustrating for anglers looking for live shrimp for bait.

Once fertilized, the shrimp eggs float up the water column where they hatch into larvae, growing and molting through larval stages. During these stages, shrimp have no control over their own movement, and drift through the water. The shrimp's first larval stage is the nauplius stage during which the larvae starts to display appendage growth. Next, the shrimp mature to protozoea stage during which time they develop antennal locomotion and begin free swimming.

Shrimp then mature into mysis. There are three stages of mysis development during which shrimp grow from about 1/8 of an inch to 1/5 of an inch. During this growth phase, penaeid shrimp move from the deeper waters to the protection of shallower estuarine waters. During this stage, the shrimp larvae become larger and, thus, more visible to predators. Mysids begin to develop antennae and legs, but they have not yet fully developed their swimming appendages, so their movement is still limited. Many fly tiers find mysis shrimp patterns to be effective flies.

During the migration from ocean to estuary, the mysis larvae shrimp mature to a postlarvae stage. Over a 4- to 6-week period, the postlarvae shrimp grows to look like what we recognize as shrimp and grows large enough to become more visible to predators. It is during this stage that the postlarval shrimp take refuge in estuaries where shallow water, grass cover, and soft sands provide ample cover for the shrimp to hide from predators. As they grow, the juveniles will forage deeper into the estuary; white shrimp tend to move farther into estuaries than do brown juveniles.

When the juveniles mature into subadults, they will leave the protection of the estuary and return to the open water. Their growth from juvenile to subadult is stimulated not just by age, but by water conditions such as salinity and temperature. As the subadult grows, more predators take advantage of the shrimp as a primary food source. This is also the first phase in the shrimp's life when humans harvest the shrimp for food and bait.

Shrimp that survive predation and harvest will return to the open water to spawn. The adult shrimp continues to grow even once it has returned to the open water. At this stage of its life, the adult shrimp may inhabit water depths from 60 to 500 feet.

Going Artificial

What triggers the dreaded "ain't got none" condition at the bait shop? Sometimes it's a result of excessive demand. On a recent trip out of Madeira Beach, on the west coast of Florida, Florida Sportsman Publisher Blair Wickstrom was astonished to find a bait shop had sold out of shrimp after two-dozen buyers flooded the shop. They were all looking for live shrimp before going offshore to chase hogfish.

Seasonal abundance can also affect supply. In late summer months, when the shrimp have migrated from the estuaries to deeper waters to reproduce, availability decreases.

Weather, too, might limit the work of small trawl vessels that catch bait-supply shrimp in estuaries such as Pine Island Sound and southern Biscayne Bay.

Experienced anglers can always get past the frustrations of not having live shrimp with a backup plan that includes an array of artificial shrimp and an understanding of which artificials work best as shrimp mimics throughout the year.

Given the proficiency of the shrimp as bait, lure manufacturers have long worked to produce the ideal imitation. Of the many variations available, nearly all can be used successfully, but, of course, some are better than others, and all are most effective when used in the particular context most suited for the shrimp they imitate. As is the case with other artificial bait, anglers who match-the-hatch are likely to increase their success.

In cooler months, after shrimp have returned to inshore waters, it's a good idea to stick to the smaller, 3-inch and shorter sizes in artificials. It won't be until the early summer when most shrimp grow from juvenile to subadult that you'll want to move to the larger-sized lures. One noteworthy exception is the region from roughly Fort Lauderdale south into the Florida Keys, on Florida's lower Atlantic coast. Here, adult pink shrimp of 4 to 6 inches are a prime forage item for gamefish.

When shrimp start to disappear from bait shops, look for artificials that mimic subadult and adult shrimp. Some good imitators include the D.O.A. Shrimp (particularly the larger 4-inch and 6-inch sizes), Savage Gear's TPE Manic Shrimp (look for the 4-inch and 5-inch sizes), Unfair Lures' Paul's Dinkum Shrimp (the PDS110 model), Live Target's Shrimp and their Hybrid Shrimp (the Hybrid comes in 3 1/2-inch and 4-inch models; the regular shrimp is available in 3 and 4-inch models), Gulp Alive Shrimp (the 4-inch version), and Yo-Zuri's Crystal 3D Shrimp (the 3 1/2 inch model).

Toward the end of the summer months, when shrimp may be hard to come by, fish anticipate the return of the young post larval and juvenile shrimp to inshore and estuarine waters. This is a good time to go to smaller artificials that better mimic juvenile shrimp. Lures like Tsunami's Holographic Shrimp (these come in a 3-inch size), Egret Baits' Vudu Shrimp, and Creme's Tru Lur Shrimp all do well as juvenile imitators, as do the smaller models of the D.O.A., Savage Gear, Gulp Alive, and Yo-Zuri models addressed above.

Remember, too, that fish react to more than just visual stimulus. Lures that mimic shrimp clicking and popping sounds, like the Yo-Zuri Crystal 3D Shrimp or the Paul's Dinkum Shrimp, can increase the attractiveness of the lure. Scent, too, can make a difference; the Berkley Gulp Alive Shrimp, D.O.A. Shrimp, and Tsunami Holographic Shrimp come to mind. Adding a small piece of frozen shrimp or a shrimp-flavored Fishbites to the lure's hook can also create the added enticement of scent and flavor.

Keep in mind, too, that when you can't find shrimp in the bait shops, chances are that inshore fish species are likely having a hard time finding them, as well. Thus, it is likely that many fish have adjusted their diets to account for the lack of shrimp, turning their focus toward other forage foods like bait fish or other crustaceans. When shrimp aren't available, you may find that your productivity increases if you switch to live finfish such as pilchards, menhaden, greenbacks, or mullet. Likewise, you may want to switch up your artificial arsenal, as well, working more baitfish imitators than shrimp imitators.
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Author:Dobrin, Sid
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Feb 1, 2016
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