The Mississippi River holds intrigue and fortune, but for the Folse family of St. James, it’s all about family, Louisiana tradition and a little-known crustacean, river shrimp. The Mississippi River shrimp is a link to the Folse’s past, ties them together, and puts food in their pot. While the shrimp are abundant, they’re largely neglected today by recreational shrimpers, which is a shame because they’re so accessible and tasty.
Jay Folse grew up on the banks of the Mississippi around Donaldsonville fishing, playing and working. Today he still works on the river as a pipeline terminal scheduler for NuStar Energy. When he’s not at the plant, he spends his free time with his family in a variety of outdoor pursuits. He’s an accomplished hunter and takes his three children afield with him whenever possible. However, the outdoor pursuit he’s most passionate about is shrimping on the Mississippi’s flooded banks.
“Catching these shrimp is part of my heritage; it’s what my grandparents did and my wife’s grandparents did,” he said. “I want to pass it down to my kids. Plus, it keeps them off the TV and video games and if I can entertain them with good, clean fun, that’s just one more thing going right.”
When he goes shrimping, Folse isn’t without any combination of his children, Ali, Jake and Ross. The way he does it hasn’t changed since the early 1900s. A box, some mesh wire and old vegetables are all it takes to fill a pot with these tasty crustaceans.
What are they?
The vast majority of the shrimp Folse catches are females that are migrating downriver to spawn. Most all of them have hundreds of eggs clinging to their bellies as they head to the Gulf to hatch their brood. Once there, the fry head back upriver, where they will spend most of their life until its time to spawn. Before the numerous lock-and-dam structures along the river, these shrimp used to range as far north as Illinois and Missouri. Now the majority of them are in the southernmost reaches of the river, where there’s a healthy population.
How do you catch ‘em?
Folse’s boxes are made from cypress, mostly barn doors and slats from old homes. In general, he maintains a “clean” side and a “dirty” side in his boxes. The dirty side houses the bait and is where the shrimp enter through a pair of wire-mesh funnels on the bottom and a single one on the side. They then travel to the “clean” side that has more bait. This is where they are collected. Also in the box are varying amount of weights, from old railroad spikes to iron plates. A well-made cypress box can last up to 30 years. Placement in the river is key to shrimping success.
“You want the box to float about 12 inches off of the bottom, tied to a tree, with the top flush with the water’s surface; they like to come in through the bottom funnels,” Folse said. “If it’s sitting on the bottom, you won’t have much luck. They’ll usually be sufficiently waterlogged to float without any added weight within 10 days of being submerged.”
Setting your boxes is easy when the flooded river is maintaining its level, but is made challenging when the water is fluctuating. You need to gauge how fast the river is rising or falling so your box will be at the appropriate depth when you check it two or three days after you plant it. Throughout 70-plus years shrimping, the Folse family has learned that a combination of watermelon rinds, cucumbers and beef bones is the ticket for bait. Folse will generally change the bait each time he checks the boxes depending on their state of decay. Also, if you can find it, cotton seed meal cake is excellent bait and a throwback to the old days of shrimping in this manner. On a banner day with good bait, you can expect 2-3 pounds of shrimp per box.
Key to success
”What’s funny, is that sometimes a box will have 3 pounds of shrimp in it and the next time you check it there’s hardy any,” he said. “The thing about it is the bait. The bait has to be right; you don’t want that brand-new smell, and you don’t want old rotten stuff, either. The bait is more important than the spot.”
Making a box to Folse’s standards takes roughly six hours. See the images to get an idea of what you’re shooting for. Other designs will work fine, just keep the principle the same; a bait section, a trap section and several ports of entry for the shrimp in the bait section. Like Jay Folse, you’ll get the most enjoyment our of this simple past time if it’s enjoyed with family and friends.
Whether or not you use river shrimp, give these time-tested recipes a try. You won't regret it.
Corn and Shrimp Soup
(Makes 15 servings)
Growing up on the Mississippi River in St. James Parish was a blessing when it came to having the best ingredients and the best recipes. This is one recipe Memere Zeringue (my maternal grandmother) made each summer when river shrimp were running. My Pepere (grandfather) had shrimp boxes in the river. He would bait with cottonseed meal, which he bought at a nearby country store, and squash and potatoes from his garden. Each day in June and part of July, he would catch anywhere from one to five gallons of river shrimp. Memere made the best corn and shrimp soup, which I have tried to recreate in the recipe below. Each day Memere, Nanan (Cajun name for Godmother), my brothers & sisters and I would sit around her big cypress kitchen table peeling river shrimp. We would also shuck corn, freshly picked from Pepere’s garden. Memere would remove the kernels from the cobs, and then she would boil the corncobs with the shrimp shells in a large pot, seasoned with yellow onions, celery, garlic and black & cayenne pepper. Do I remember that smell! I still boil shrimp shells to make a stock. However I have started using canned whole kernel and cream style corn for my corn, shrimp, and crab soup.
- 2 pounds small (50-60 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 3 cans (15 oz.) Whole Kernel Corn
- 3 cans (15 oz.) Cream Style Corn
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 ½ cups plain or all purpose flour
- 2 cups diced onion
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1 cup diced green bell pepper
- ¼ cup minced garlic
- 2 cans (15 oz.) Tomato Sauce
- 1 can (10 oz.) Rotel
- 2 quarts shrimp stock
- Creole Seasoning, to taste
- Black and cayenne pepper, to taste.
- ¼ cup minced parsley and ½ cup chopped green onions
Directions: First you make a roux by heating oil over medium heat in a large, heavy bottom saucepot. Once oil is hot, add flour and stir constantly with spatula or wire whisk until roux is reddish brown in color. While preparing roux, make stock by boiling shrimp shells with seasoning, as described in introductory paragraph. Once roux is done, add onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic and sauté until onions are transparent, about 5 minutes. Add corn, a hand full of raw shrimp, all canned ingredients, and stock. Season to taste, bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cook for approximately 45 minutes. Add remaining shrimp, crabmeat, parsley and green onions and continue cooking for about 15 minutes. Add additional seasoning or stock if necessary. Note # 1: Chicken stock can be used if shrimp is not available or undesired. Note # 2: Leftovers can be frozen for up to one year.
SHRIMP AND OKRA GUMBO
My earliest memory of gumbo as a child was a shrimp and okra gumbo at my grandmother, Memere Zeringue’s house. My grandpa (we called him Papere) and his father, Old Papere, built shrimp boxes and caught shrimp in the Mississippi River, right in front of Old Papere’s house on Cabanocey Plantation. I can remember raising shrimp boxes with both Papere and Old Papere. Old Papere must have been raising shrimp boxes in his late 80’s because he passed away at the age of 93. At the time, I was only in the sixth grade. Papere had a large garden where all of the vegetables and herbs used for family meals were grown. He would cut fresh okra, onions, green onions and parsley from the garden and clean the shrimp caught his shrimp boxes. He would scald the shrimp and we would all sit around the table peeling them. Mamere would put it all together to make one of my very favorite Cajun dishes, shrimp and okra gumbo. Here is how she did it:
½ cup chopped yellow onions 1 tablespoon black pepper
½ bell pepper, choppedshrimp shells
2 ribs of celery2 tablespoons Creole Seasonings
4 cloves garlic, crushed5 quarts water
10 stems of parsley
1 cup vegetable oil4 quarts shrimp stock
1 ¼ cup flour1 gallon diced okra
1 cup chopped onions2 cups diced tomatoes
½ cup chopped bell pepper1 cup chopped green onions
1 ½ tablespoons minced garlic½ cup finely chopped parsley
3 pounds peeled shrimp Salt and pepper to taste
3 bay leaves
Prepare stock by combining ingredients listed for stock in a 10 to 12 quart stockpot. Bring to a boil, then lower fire and simmer for about 45 minutes. Remove from fire, strain out vegetables and shells, and then set aside.
Heat ¼ cup of vegetable oil in a heavy bottom, 8 to 10 quart pot. Pot should be the thickness of magnalite pot, but don’t use black cast iron pot because okra will get too dark. Pour in okra, one cup of chopped onions and the diced tomatoes. I use Rotel tomatoes. Sauté over medium heat for about 45 minutes or until okra falls apart. Stir often to avoid scorching.
Shrimp Okra Gumbo
DIRECTIONS FOR THE GUMBO
Guess what? First you make a roux. Heat one cup of oil in heavy iron skillet, (black iron is best for the roux). Stir constantly with metal spatula or wire whisk until roux turns a reddish brown. Next add one cup of chopped onions, the bell pepper, and minced garlic. Cook in the roux for about 10 minutes.
In the magnalite or heavy aluminum pot, add the roux, the shrimp stock, ¼ cup of parsley, remaining garlic and the 3 bay leaves. Simmer on medium low heat for about 30 minutes. Add smothered okra, ¾ cup of green onions and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes. Next add the shrimp, the remaining parsley and green onions and cook on low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. Shrimp should not be over cooked. Salt and pepper should be added a little at a time during the entire process until the desired taste is achieved.