Charleston, SC

Learn about Seafood and Shrimping on Shem Creek

Rene Cizio

Mount Pleasant Shem Creek is known for its shrimp boats and seafood restaurants, so that is where I went just east of Charleston on the central coast to learn about Charleston’s shrimping history and try my hand catching a few myself.

I booked a tour with a local who promised to walk a group of us through the evolution of the shrimping industry in Shem Creek. To do that, we had to back a few hundred years.

WHERE TO FIND MOUNT PLEASANT SHEM CREEK

While Charleston is known for its excellent fresh seafood, it’s not caught in Charleston proper. Much fishing, crabbing and shrimping are done on the city’s outskirts. Shem Creek is about 15-minutes east of downtown Charleston on South Carolina’s central coast. This picturesque town was founded in 1680 and had an incredible naval and maritime history – starting with being the first to see the British ships coming into the harbor in the 1780s.

FARMLAND AND SEAFOOD HISTORY

Our guide is tall, thin and wears khaki pants with a white button-down shirt. He says we can call him "captain," but the only thing that distinguished him from us landlubbers was his big straw hat and the way he said, “ya’ll.” But I think that was more southern, that sea captain.

We began our shrimping lesson by walking around the spectacular Old Village, a historic residential area. Like Charleston, just across the water – he points to it each time he says this – the big old wood houses were pastel colors with big porches, historical details, and lovely gardens. These were even better because they had big yards, too – definitely a place I’d choose to live if I were a millionaire.

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He told us before the British came, farming was the primary industry in Mount Pleasant. Farmers populated the area growing cash crops like indigo and tobacco. At the time of the Revolution, Charleston was a fortified city, but the farmland wasn’t, which meant they took brutal blows first and lost their crops. The farmers were resilient and later planted cotton and other crops and reestablished themselves just before the Civil War. After losing their crops and contracts again, they had to rebuild. This time they looked to Shem Creek and established a seafood industry.

SHRIMPING ON SHEM CREEK

When I visited, it was the offseason for shrimping on Shem Creek in Charleston. Being from the Midwest, I didn’t know there was a season for shrimping. In Charleston, South Carolina, there are two shrimp seasons. May through August is when brown shrimp are harvested, and September through December is when you can get white shrimp. There are provisions between state and federal waters, but that’s the gist. I was there in the offseason, which means most of the shrimp was probably frozen and likely, according to our guide, and the South Carolina DNR, some of it was also from somewhere else, like Mexico. (Oyster season is September through April – otherwise, frozen.)

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I’d always assumed if you’re next to an ocean and eating shrimp or oysters, that’s where it came from. It turns out that is what some restaurants hope you’ll think. Our guide some big tourist seafood restaurants on the docks often serve frozen seafood because it’s cheaper to buy it from Mexico.

“Tourists generally don’t know any different and don’t ask where it’s from,” he said.

If you want the good stuff, ask a local.

WALKING ON SHEM CREEK BOARDWALKS

Long wooded docks trail far into the water amid the tall golden reed grass. We saw pelicans, cranes, and long-legged wrens swooped smartly around the boats and shacks that lined the edges of the creek. We knew we were in the right place.

There are 2,200 feet of 10-foot-wide boardwalks connecting far out into the marsh. They start near the street, and a path to the harbor and docks allow you to get right next to the shrimp and crab boats.

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When they started commercial shrimping in Shem Creek, they sent out eight shrimp boats a day that brought back hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of shrimp daily. There were creek-side restaurants and storefronts where anyone could get fresh shrimp and oysters pulled right out of the water that morning. It was cheap, easy, and there for the taking. But that was before regulations for preservation or the realization that the supply might run out, and eventually, it did.

Soon, eight shrimp boats became four, and most shops and shacks closed up. Now, shrimping and oyster harvesting are seasonal businesses, and preservation and propagation are more serious business.

SHRIMP BOATS ON MOUNT PLEASANT SHEM CREEK

Since I was there in the off-season, the big shrimp boats were docked, which meant we got an up-close look at them.

The typical shrimp boat with the giant cone-shaped net and otter trawl didn’t come into widespread usage until the late 1920s with motorized boats. That’s when the industry started booming. We saw too the tickle chains that drag ahead of the trawl to lift the shrimp off the harbor floor so they can quickly scoop them into the net – otherwise, it would coast right over them. While I still struggle with folding boxes, I can’t imagine the ingenuity to device these things.

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“Trawling” is dragging or pulling a trawl (fishing net) behind the boat along the bottom of the water. In South Carolina, most shrimp trawlers are between 17 to 85 feet long and trawl within three or four miles of the shore, so they’re easy to spot.

LEARNING TO HAND-CAST A SHRIMP NET

We walked out onto a far section of the docks and Captain Bryan demonstrated the old-fashioned process of casting a shrimp net by hand. Shrimp are quick, and there’s a technique to catch them.

After he showed how it was done, he asked if anyone wanted to try.

Captain Bryan demonstrates how to cast a shrimp net.

“I will,” I said before any thought had the chance to enter my head.   

The net is a big flat circle with metal weights around it, so when you throw it in the water, it quickly sinks to the bottom and catches whatever it lands on. Shrimp are bottom crawlers, so if they’re down there, you could catch some, but they’re also quick, so you have to be too. As soon as the net falls, you must pull it closed.

HOW I DID AT SHRIMPING

I tied a rope securing the net to my wrist and gathered it in a smooth bundle. To ensure the net opened and formed the “pancake” shape I was going for, I had to hold the far side of it in between my teeth. The trick here was 1: to enjoy the taste of salty water, 2: not to lose a tooth.

Bryan: When we do this part, we say, “Oh, briny.”

Me with the net between my teeth: “Bhrithy.”

A crowd of about 20 watching: “hahahahah.”

The first time I cast my net, I flung it out over the water perfectly, but I forgot to unclench my teeth.

The crowd, seeing the net still in my teeth, laughed again.

Bryan: “You forgot to open your mouth.”

Me: “I forgot it was even in my mouth.”

Michael Scott: “That’s what she said.” (I’m not going to explain this joke. If you don’t get it, we can’t be friends).

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The second time I cast the net, it sailed over the water like a leaping stingray, and after I finished applauding for myself, I pulled on the rope and pulled up about five microscopic baby shrimp. Remember I said you have to be quick – my self-congratulations likely cost me my shrimp.

There wasn’t much to see once I hauled my net up and opened it. The shrimp I caught were real shrimpy – barely as big as my pinky finger. Still, I’m officially a shrimper, and everyone on the dock applauded my total lack of humility in providing the entertainment.

SEAFOOD SHACKS ON SHEM CREEK

We stopped at Geechee Seafood, a dockside shack that pulls shrimp, crab and clams from Shem Creek, though it too will be frozen in the off-season. By its looks and location, it’s not the kind of place a tourist would visit on their own, but it’s an excellent place to support.

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They, and other shrimpers in the area, do their part to keep the population of shrimp, oysters and other seafood healthy in the creek. They’re careful in their harvesting and environmental habits and practice ethical sourcing and shucking. What’s ethical shucking, you ask? It’s saving the oyster and clamshells so baby littleneck clams can have a place to attach to and grow more rapidly than if left on their own. Like houses in today’s market, shells aren’t easy to come by.

Today, according to the New York Times, the large market for imported shrimp is also hurting the local shrimp market. It’s estimated that only one of 10 plates of shrimp eaten in the United States is local. Most of its imported from outside of the U.S. It's important to find and support local businesses doing ethical fishing and support them.

More reasons Mount Pleasant Shem Creek is worth visiting

  • Waterfront bars and restaurants (get a local's recommendation)
  • Views of the marsh, Charleston harbor and Fort Sumpter
  • Near Boone Hall Plantation and Sullivan’s Island
  • 2,200 feet of 10-foot-wide boardwalks
  • See the shrimping, fishing and crabbing boats
  • American and maritime history

Does fresh local seafood matter to you? Or does anything go?

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