In Search of Spot Shrimp

Hit the water with just the right mix of timing, skill and tools
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This is the time of year when I take inventory of my friends with boats—and start buttering them up with gifts from the pantry or freezer. Here’s a side of smoked salmon just for you…no really, take this pint of pickled fiddleheads.… If I’m lucky, I might earn myself a crew position for one of the few days in May we can fish for spot shrimp in Puget Sound.

Spotties were once something of a local secret, but now the word is out. These days, with an increase in the commercial catch, recreational openings are brief, just four hours to soak a shrimp pot on a handful of mornings each spring. Hood Canal is a popular destination, as is the boat launch in Everett, so get there early. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW; wdfw.wa.gov) announces dates on its website and sells shellfish licenses, which are required.

The spot shrimp, Pandalus platyceros, is the largest shrimp in Puget Sound, often exceeding 9 inches in length, and has a legitimate claim as one of the Pacific Northwest’s top-tier delicacies. Like so many good things to eat from the wild, its population must be carefully monitored by WDFW, lest we overharvest them. For their part, the shrimp don’t make this monitoring easy; they’re hermaphrodites. Typically, they begin life as males and then switch teams after two years.

You can buy a shrimp pot at local marine and outdoors stores. About the size of a car tire (they can be round or square), with a bait box full of smelly, oozing stuff in the center, the pot entices shrimp to enter through tunnel-like openings to feed, trapping them inside. Everyone has their own secret recipe for bait, right down to what brand of cat food they use (and cat food has long been a preferred ingredient). The pots are weighted so they don’t “walk” along the bottom, and most people use electric winches to hoist them up, since hauling up a 20-pound cage hand over hand from a depth of 300 feet is not everyone’s idea of fun.

I have a ritual for the first shrimp pot of the season—and pretty much each one after that. After pulling the pot into the boat and giving thanks for this miraculous feast, I make myself a sashimi repast on the spot, so to speak, and reach for a little soy and prepared wasabi. At the end of the four-hour opening, full limits (hopefully) of shrimp (80 per person) are divvied up and then headed. It’s important to remove the head as soon as possible because it contains an enzyme that will spoil the meat once the shrimp is dead. I save the heads for stock.

Spot shrimp are sweet and flavorful, almost like miniature lobsters. Eat one and you’ll never look as fondly upon any other species again. One of my favorite ways to eat them is all fancy with a knife and fork: Butterfly the tail in the shell and give it a quick pan fry in butter, just long enough so that the outside is slightly crisp and the inside has barely lost its translucence. Plate it and serve with silverware. Oh, and the stock I mentioned? It makes the best seafood gumbo you can imagine.

Follow Langdon Cook's adventures at his fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com. Find his recipe for crab and shrimp gumbo here.