Posted by: oldsalt1942 | May 20, 2009

My Shantyboat

Back in the mid 1980s I bought a shantyboat that was tied up to a tree on a river on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Essentially it was little more than a shack on pontoons. The pontoons had been made out of oil well casing and were about 35 feet overall and the boat had a 12 foot beam. An old 25 hp Johnson outboard pushed it along at a sedate pace. I only moved it three times. Once from where I found it down to the Gulf Outlet Marina on Bayou Bienvenue in Chalmette, and once too and from the boat yard I worked at to do some repairs when the starboard pontoon developed a leak. I lived on the boat for almost two and a half years but after losing my fifth job in three years (in 1986 the official unemployment rate in the New Orleans area was 18%!) I put a For Sale sign on it and left three weeks later.

I enjoyed that boat. Actually, owning that boat kept me in Louisiana for a couple of years longer than I should have stayed there.

Houseboat trimmed

In 1985 when I got laid off at the boat yard I was only eligible for $55 a week in unemployment. When I found that out my next stop was to the Food Stamp Office. (Hey! For all of you who would say you’d never stoop so low…well, you’ve never been there. And when the official unemployment rate is 18% the real rate is closer to 25% so there are no jobs around and you sort of get accustomed to eating on a regular basis.) I received $80 a month in food stamps. My dock rent was $97 a month and I paid the minimum amount demanded to have electrical hookup which was $7 a month so my first two weeks of unemployment left me with $6 in my pocket. You can do the rest of the math and see that I was supposed to survive on less than $30 a week. When your income is restricted to less than $30 a week and you have no savings, you aren’t able to pick up and move away to somewhere where your prospects might be better.

So, how was I able to survive? Well, I lived on a houseboat on the water. At the first of each month when I received my food stamps I’d go to Schwegmann’s Supermarket and buy my staples, rice, beans, ground beef, etc. Next I’d pass by Little Red’s Fish Market. They sold heads-on, unsorted shrimp for $1 a pound and they accepted food stamps. I’d buy five pounds of shrimp each month. (Now, I only did this for a little more than three months and then the yard got busy again and I went back to work.)

Out of that five pounds of shrimp there’d be enough big sized shrimp to make up one decent meal. On my birthday that July of 1985 I literally didn’t have a dollar bill to my name, but I had shrimp newburg for supper which is pretty good for a broke guy. Anyway, what I would do after I’d picked out the big shrimp was to divide the remaining shrimp into four piles and freeze them. Now, since I wasn’t working and there was no work to be had, I’d take one of those piles of shrimp and sit out on the back of my shantyboat and fish. I’d catch croakers, speckled sea trout and the occasional red fish. I’d fillet them up and pop them in the freezer. I’d then put the heads, guts and filleted bodies into the six commercial crab traps I’d bought well before I’d been laid off. I’d string the traps along the dock and let them soak overnight. The next day they’d be filled with delicious blue crabs and I’d spend the day cooking and picking crabs. My refrigerator rarely had less than a couple of pounds of picked crab meat.

When you hauled up the traps there were sometimes a pair of crabs “doubled up.” A male and a female getting ready to do the big nasty. The only time a female crab is able to mate is when she molts, comes out of her shell, and the male crab is holding on to her ready to get his jollys as well as protecting her until her new shell starts to harden. You knock him off her and plop her in a five gallon bucket of seawater and wait for her to come out of her shell. When she does, you take her out of the water and pop her in the fridge where she’ll stay, nice and soft for several days until you’re ready to cook her up and eat her.

It’s against the law to take egg-bearing female crabs (lobsters, too) but since she hadn’t mated there were no eggs and she was legal. However, if all you take are females you eventually hurt the breeding population. But how do you know when a male crab is ready to molt? Crabbers know how to read the signs on the rear swimming legs of a crab and can tell. There’s an excellent description of how this is done in the book Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William W. Warner and available on Amazon.com and other book sellers.

I never was able to figure out this esoteric art of discovering when male crabs were going to molt, but an old Cajun I got to know when I was working out on Breton Island in the Kerr-McGee oil field told me how to do it. You see, the female has nothing to worry about because the male crab is going to protect her when she’s in that vulnerable “soft” state. But the male crab has to hide somewhere to protect himself.

What you do is to gather a bunch of willow branches. And they have to be willow branches. Others won’t work. You take three or four branches and bundle them together and lay them along the edge of the bayou. The ready to molt males seek out these branches to hide in, so you “run” them a couple of times a day like lobstermen and crab fishermen do with their traps. I’d hop in my dinghy and row down Bayou Bienvenue, pick up the bundles and shake them into the bottom of the boat. The crabs that fell out were invariably males and I’d go back to my shanty and pop each one into an individual five gallon bucket of water and wait for the inevitable to happen.

So, in addition to a freezer full of fresh fish fillets and a pound or two of picked lump crab meat I’d often have a half dozen or so soft shell crabs in my fridge as well. When you’re eating as good as I did it dulls your incentive to move.

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