Shrimp

My good friend Zap is on the phone, telling me the monkeys are gonna whistle tonight. Naturally I believe him. I take inventory: A T-shirt, two sweatshirts, a sleeveless exercise jacket with hood, a London Fog with hood. Bandanna, hat, two pairs of socks, sneakers. Plenty of smokes. A Thermos of piping cafe con leche, a pair of binoculars. Zap and his partner, Willie Mato, have the rest: a boat, nets, fully charged car batteries, the proper licenses, some skill and knowledge. The only other ingredient, Biscayne Bay and its population of shrimp, is sitting out there waiting for us, just like it always is. That there are shrimp in the bay is fact. That they'll end up in your net is far less certain. As Willie Mato says, "You have to go out every night, because no one ever knows when The Run will come."

As Mato's '79 Chevy truck rumbles east across the MacArthur Causeway, pulling the 24-foot wooden boat on its trailer, I see the bridge shrimpers claiming their territory and positioning their nets, and prawn pangs rise to the surface. I'm already craving a pile of fresh, fat ones. Like hundreds of other South Floridians, I'm out to eliminate the middle man: I want the shrimp to go directly from the bay to my mouth, with only a brief stop in boiling water in between.

The six or seven days before and after the full moon are considered best for shrimping. A change in weather, especially a sudden plunge in temperature, is also good. Shrimpers will tell you that the cold makes it difficult for the shellfish to grip the seaweed near bottom. A strong current helps, too. All of this is occurring as we rope the Saco de Palo ("bag of sticks") off its trailer at Watson Island and into the green water. We're expecting a haul. To me, that promises a munchfest.

To Carlos "Zap" Gonzalez and Willie Mato, it promises money. After a good night's work, Zap can set up on Coral Way with three coolers full of iced-down shrimp and a plasterboard sign that says "Fresh Shrimp" in two languages. No price mentioned, but it's usually three dollars per pound. A scale inside the open hatchback of his car is used to weigh out purchases. Likewise, Willie Mato has turned his house on SW 87th Avenue into an open-air seafood joint, complete with coolers, cutting boards, and a freezer.

Though they've known each other only a few months, Mato and Zap have entered into an informal and sometimes tenuous partnership. Both enjoy fishing and can earn some money at it, but this winter they're counting on shrimp as their main source of income, so they pitched in on the boat and they're splitting the expenses.

"You need a boat and nets, which means you need access to old nets or you have to build your own," Mato says. "You need your monofilament for the nets, which runs you about 130 bucks for each side. You have to get stainless steel wires and cleats. Then you need a retail license and a Saltwater Product License to sell the shrimp. The vessel has to be registered commercially." Add to that about $25 per excursion for fuel. All told, a start-up food-shrimp operation requires an investment of at least a few thousand dollars.

Mato and Zap can get as much as three dollars per pound for their catch, so a mere ten pounds pays the expenses for an entire trip. But sometimes they don't even net that much. When they do, everyone else is loaded up, too, so the price is likely to drop. And the boats themselves tend to suffer occasional distress, mostly the costly kind.

Still, the duo figured it wouldn't take too long to recoup their investment and begin turning a profit, but a month's worth of night trips indicated they might have been wrong. So far The Run hasn't materialized. "They're gonna come up," Zap insists, "and once they come up and the current takes 'em, that's it, bro, we clean up."

Like most of the veterans out here, my friends have rigged their craft with wing nets: two four-foot square frames with long, cone-shape mesh seines, which swivel out on either side of the boat so that the top of the net rides about a foot below the surface of the water. Apart from the live-bait-shrimp trawlers with their electric-powered nets - which are larger and drag the bay bottom, picking up sedentary as well as swimming shrimp - boats using the wing-net method seem most productive. Other shrimpers attach a single frame net to the stern, and dilettantes use dip nets, hunting and plucking.

The nets stay out of the water until someone yells, "Camarones!" But so far that sweet cry hasn't rung out from the decks of the Saco de Palo. We did see a school of sardines that exploded between the boat and the Dodge Island sea wall, and a long, cylindrical thing swimming on the surface that Zap swore was a sea snake - he's seen 'em here before. The monkeys, he added, pointing, are in those trees over there on the flat part of I-395. I looked, but I didn't see anything.

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