In a state known for its bountiful saltwater seafood, there is a lesser-known freshwater shrimp that generations of River Parish residents catch in the mighty Mississippi River. And a few families still trap these tasty river shrimp the old fashioned way.
Teenage brothers Jake and Ross Folse carry on their family tradition. They are at least the sixth generation to build “shrimp boxes” out of old cypress boards. These boxes are used to catch freshwater river shrimp as they migrate more than 1,000 miles downriver to spawn each Spring. The design for the crude boxes was passed down from their great-great-great grandfather.
spring migration of mississippi river shrimp
The Folse family works their shrimp boxes in the late spring, placing them among the trees near the shoreline when water levels rise in the Mississippi River. The wooden traps stay submerged, chained to nearby tree trunks. The small freshwater shrimp are attracted to bait inside the boxes. “That’s just leftover squash, zucchini, meat scraps,” explains their father Jay Folse, who adds, “shrimp love watermelon rind.” The shrimp are caught as they near the southern-most point of their more than one-thousand mile journey. Folse tells me, “The life-cycle of the shrimp starts in the upper Mississippi River and adults migrate down. It’s about a thousand mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. At the first sign of salinity they spawn and then die off.”
Jay Folse learned about catching the freshwater shrimp from his dad, Jerry Folse. The family lives near the river in St. James and Ascension Parishes. “And most of the people where I grew up had shrimp boxes,” Jerry explains. “We would catch during the months of May, June and part of July,” He recalls catching, “a five gallon bucket a day.” Jerry remembers shrimping with his great-grandfather, who he called Old Papere. Jerry recalls how he enjoyed shrimping, “because we got to swim in the river.” Today, his teenaged grandsons do the same thing, swimming in the chest deep river water between the willow trees.
declining shrimp catches
The small river shrimp are called Macrobrachium ohione, and they grow up to four-inches long, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But changes in the river may eventually bring this family shrimping tradition to an end. Upriver dams interfere with the freshwater shrimp’s migration. And levees have sped up the water. “The heavy current and velocity of water flow make it harder for the shrimp to migrate upriver,” Jay explains. “So it’s kind of an interruption to the life cycle of the shrimp”. Instead of a five gallon bucket filled with shrimp, today’s catch is much smaller. “My grandpa back in the 50’s would catch as many as 15-20 pounds of shrimp per box,” Jay tells me. “Nowadays, you’re lucky to catch one pound per trap.” But it’s enough for a shrimp boil on the stove in the family kitchen only a mile away from the river.
Within 30 minutes of being scooped from the wooden traps in the river, the freshwater shrimp are in a pot of spicy boiling water. Jay describes their flavor as tasting, “more like a crawfish than a shrimp. A unique taste.” I agree. And his sons Jake and Ross waste no time peeling and eating a plate full of fresh boiled shrimp. They are now part of a long and tasty family tradition.