I grew up in South Louisiana, so seafood was a staple of the family diet. Shrimp, Crabs, Fish, and Oysters were easy to come by, or at least it seemed that way as a kid because we ate seafood two or three times a week. Fried Shrimp and Oysters, Crab Stew, Shrimp Gumbo, baked Flounder or grilled Redfish, it was all good and those meals made for many a great family memory. However, as much fun as we had watching our mothers and fathers and grandparents cooking those great Cajun dinners, as kids we had infinitely more fun catching as opposed to cooking the seafood. Those lessons are just a part of this brief tip sheet, which hopefully will enable some of you and your family to enjoy fresh filets of fish roasted over a campfire when you are ready for a change from MREs and beans.
Times have certainly changed over the past 40 years. One thing that has changed greatly is the legal means of harvesting seafood. As a kid, I helped the grownups run gill nets and drag a 210-foot saltwater seine in the surf. We also set trotlines in freshwater and saltwater, used Oyster Tongs in the bays and estuaries, and set crab traps in shallow brackish water and right off the beach. The old trusty rod and reel was fun, but to make a pure meat haul nothing beat a gill net, seine, crab traps or trotlines. While gill nets and seines are now illegal in many states (with the exception of bait seines), I have still have a functional seine net stowed away in storage for the day that might come when survival trumps game laws. I realize that most people will not have the great fortune to have inherited or otherwise still own a good gill net or seine. If you do, you are extremely lucky – guard them like gold because they are expensive. If not, then you really do need to think about taking one of several possible routes to obtain this material to supplement your family’s survival chances and pleasure quotient if that terrible day ever comes when all you have left is canned beans.
As mentioned previously, a good gill net or seine is expensive. If you afford to buy a 100-foot gill net or 150-foot seine, by all means do so. You will want the net to be made of braided nylon, not monofilament. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one is longevity of the net. You will want the mesh to be at least 2 inches stretched for a pure fishing net, or much smaller for a bait seine or shrimp seine, maybe ½ to 3/4 inches stretched. A proper seine or gill net will have lead weights on the bottom rope to which the net is attached, and wooden or Styrofoam floats on the top rope, depending on when the net was made. A gill net is used by fastening both ends of the net to sturdy poles that are anchored in the water. You always want to set a gill net in water that will be near chest-deep at high tide, and always where there will be tidal movement. A great place to set gill nets is near inlets where fresh water meets salt water. A net set overnight can easily yield enough fish to feed a hungry crowd for several days. I remember one early winter morning running a gill net with my grandfather and taking 30 big Flounder out of the net.
As far as being able to really put a mess of good fish in the cooler, nothing beats a large saltwater seine (usually deployed from the beach, as opposed to lakes or bays). It takes 3 or 4 people to manage the net, depending on the surf. You will almost always need at least 2 people on the deep end and sometimes 3 will be necessary. In rough water, it could take 5 people to handle the net, especially if you hit a school of Redfish or a large shark. The way to maximize your catch with a seine is to be methodical. The people dragging the leading (or deep) end should head out from the shore at 90 degrees until the people at the shallow end are in knee-deep water. At that point, the team should begin dragging the net parallel to the shore. The team should drag the net for at least 200 yards before angling back in to the beach, unless you get hit by a school at which point all hell will break loose and you will want to get that net on the beach as fast as you can. A good team should be able to make 3 or 4 drags in about 3 hours. I can tell you that it is possible to catch enough fish in one drag to make you put the net up. I remember many times as a kid where 3 drags yielded over 100 Speckled Trout, several Redfish, and the assorted Shark or Stingray.
Enough on gill nets and fish seines. After you have cleaned your fish, you will always want to use the heads for crab bait. 2 or 3 crab traps properly baited with fish heads and placed in brackish water with moderate tidal movement can easily bring in 2 or 3 dozen crabs per night. That’s enough for a feast, especially when used in a gumbo.
Now for my one of my favorite foods – Oysters. Oysters are a great treat when prepared properly. When eaten fresh, they are hard to beat. When cooked right, they are impossible to beat. They are a great source of protein and vital nutrients. The problem is they are difficult to gather. Oyster Tongs are essential. With a pair of Oyster Tongs and a small boat, it is possible to harvest enough Oysters to feed whole family several times. However, it is difficult work akin to digging post-holes. In fact, Oyster Tongs resemble post-hole diggers. You can gather Oysters by hand, but it is much more difficult and dangerous due to the very sharp edges of the Oyster shells and the fact that some of the best Oyster months (the “R” months) are in the fall and winter when the water will be cold. Like fishing for Crabs, your best results when looking for Oysters will be in salt water that gets influenced by fresh water inflows. Shallow bays near freshwater inlets are usually fertile Oyster grounds. In a good area, you will usually be able to see the Oyster beds at low tide. Mark the spots by throwing old fishing floats with weights attached, and return at high tide when the beds are accessible by boat and load up on Oysters.
The main point to remember in your quest to prepare for being able to harvest seafood in difficult times is to think creatively. Man has been gathering seafood for as long as we have lived near oceans. Even Gerry-rigged saltwater trotlines fashioned from old nylon rope or clothesline and curtain hooks can be effective if deployed and baited properly.
Lastly, here are a few essential items to add to your stockpile to be able to effectively handle cleaning and preparing your saltwater catch without wasting valuable meat. These items will prove almost irreplaceable, so consider having more than one, especially since they are cheap.
- Filet Knife – most important knife to own
- Oyster pry-knife – you can catch all the oysters you want but without this tool, you will be limited to eating them steamed
- Crab cleaner -especially useful to obtain lump meat when you have many dozens of crabs to clean. This one item can save hours when cleaning crabs. This item can be made from 2×6 boards and flat iron and angle iron attached to heavy duty hinges. Rather than giving a long explanation of how to build one, I will describe the one my grandfather made and that we used often. When laid fully open on a table top, the two boards lay end-to-end, connected by the hinge in the middle which was bolted to the flat iron/angle iron mounted on the end section of each board. On one board, the flat iron piece was mounted to the end section. On the other board, the angle iron was mounted so that one of the 45-degree angles came flush to the flat iron when the board with the angle iron was raised upright from the table. Crabs can be par-boiled, shelled and halved, than placed so that the iron mashes out the meat when compressed.
- Steel-mesh fish cleaning gloves – a lifesaver, literally. If you happen to take a deep stab from a hardhead catfish barb when heading it for crab bait, you could die from the infection without proper antibiotics. These gloves can save your hands from incredible damage when cleaning or working with fresh seafood like Oysters and Crabs.
- Monofilament Cast Net – essential for catching small bait fish, and highly effective for catching shrimp in the right location in the fall.
If you live near saltwater or even if you don’t, consider adding these items to your arsenal of tools so you will be prepared to gather some great seafood to supplement the family diet if times get bad enough to have to rely on your stash of dried and pre-packaged foods. Your health and well-being will be greatly enhanced by being able take advantage of what God put in the oceans for us to eat.