The Price of Free Bait: the virtues of grass shrimp

Grass Shrimp

Grass Shrimp

The top three baits guaranteed to catch fish in the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries are bloodworms, soft crab, and grass shrimp.  Ironically, the best quality, freshest bloodworms and soft crabs are not always found in bait and tackle stores.
As you enter St. Mary’s County, the best bloodworms and freshest coffee is found at the 7-11 store across from the Charlotte Hall Farmers Market.  Every weekend, dozens of vanloads of visitors stock up at this location early in the morning to provision up for the hour long drive to Point Lookout Park.  The high volume of turnover insures that you get a good cup of coffee for you and a new cup of bloodworms for the fish.  The cold cup goes in the cooler.
A little further south, there are two seafood dealers who carry live soft crabs.  They also will pack your crabs in ice to keep them fresh for the day’s fishing.  Copsey’s Seafood is on the right just past the speed zone in New Market.  Thompson’s Seafood is also on the right a couple miles further south on Rt. 5.  Both places carry recently shed local soft crabs that are good enough to eat if you fail to catch fish.
Bloodworms are expensive as they have to be shipped from Maine and Nova Scotia.  Soft crabs are also fairly expensive due to limited access.  Fresh grass shrimp, however, are free for the dipping.
There is a catch.  You have to catch them.  You can buy refrigerated grass shrimp that are packed in sawdust but the fresh caught buggers are better bait.
There are plenty of fine mesh nets available that will screen out grass shrimp but many do not have a stiff enough frame to last any length of time.  The best grass shrimp roller net that I have purchased came from the Tackle Box in Lexington Park.  The aluminum frame bolted to a solid thick wooden handle will last many years.
Catching grass shrimp is as simple as pushing the roller net through shore grass at high to medium tide.  The grass rolls down under the wooden roller beneath the net.  The shrimp hop up in the water.  The net scoops them up.  During low tide, the shrimp can be found around the edges of boat ramps or pilings.
Though you can wear hip boots to stay dry, I prefer to push the net through the grass in a pair of shorts wearing old sneakers or a pair of crocs for foot protection.  A large plastic butter or Cool Whip tub with a snap on lid makes a fine container for the dozens of little shrimp you will catch.
Adult grass shrimp are about an inch long.  This time of year, the larger ones will be loaded with eggs.  These big mamas also make the best bait.  Fortunately, there are trillions of these critters along the shore.
Armed with a butter tub of fresh grass shrimp and seaweed, you can catch most any fish that swims in the Bay and tidal tributaries.  The standard double hook bottom rig works fine in open water, but I drop down to a single snelled hook about five inches above a small sinker when fishing brushy small creeks because of the snag potential.  Remember, to keep the container cool with no water for the shrimp to swim in or they will suffocate since the small amount of water will not hold enough air.  A little seaweed will provide sufficient moisture.
Small #4 hooks are about the right size to impale a single grass shrimp from the tail to head.  Later on in late July, August, and September, it may take a couple of the smaller shrimp that are more plentiful to cover the hook.  I prefer spinner hooks though the plain ones work fine.
Mostly, I target fat white perch with these tasty morsels.  In the early Spring, grass shrimp are the very best bait for yellow perch.  This time of year, almost every fish that swims will snatch a fat grass shrimp.  Years ago, the grass beds were so plentiful that fishermen chummed for striped bass using gallons of grass shrimp for chum.  Now, a live spot is equally effective for catching rockfish, thus reducing the mortality rate on grass shrimp by fishermen.
Not many fishermen use grass shrimp in their arsenal of bait due to the high cost of a roller net.  With tax, you can expect to spend forty bucks on a roller net that will last a lifetime.  This grants you the ability to wade through the shore grass in pursuit of these super bait shrimp.  That may sound like a lot of clams till you consider that bloodworms are ten dollars a dozen.
You do the math.